Rajmohan Gandhi talks to Gowri Ramnarayan about what inspired his latest book and how he managed to strike a balance between scrutiny and passion

Rajmohan Gandhi's new book A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War (Penguin) contains a series of gripping stories from both sides of the Atlantic. The style parallels Indian narratives in boxing endless happenings into a single grid without losing track of any wayward coil. Every page is littered with names and events, but each retains a distinct identity.

The writer's passion and idealism are as obvious as the scholar's need to arrive at truths, pleasant and unpleasant. A wealth of detail from architecture to cuisine, layer and nuance the tale, concretising the abstract, personalising the past.

After drawing readers through a landscape of wars and agitations, and inscapes of iconoclastic, opinion-making thinkers and writers, the book leaves them free to find their own insights.

During his visit to Chennai, Rajmohan Gandhi, who teaches political science and history (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) shared his experiences in recording the two riveting, back-to-back events.

With so many locations and characters were you afraid of overstretching, getting lost in the labyrinth?

No. Things kept getting connected, one leading to the other. The same British Prime Minister, Mr. Palmerston, was in office during both revolts. Journalist William Howard Russell became a central link, as he was in India, America, and Crimea. Sadly, I had to depend on British accounts because Indian diaries and letters are so few; our ballads and songs don't tell us enough.

Were you conscious of adopting an arm-over-the-shoulder, “See, what I found” style, rather than an analytical tone?

It is a tale. I was indulging in my own curiosity, revisiting these magnetic events and telling the stories I found. Not to make any thesis statement.

What methods did you craft to navigate through shifts in time, action, location and character?

I had two broad parameters — connecting India then with America then, connecting India then with India now. I arbitrarily selected five characters, with whom I wanted to come towards modern times — Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jotiba Phule, Allan Octavian Hume, Bankimchandra Chatterji and Sayyid Ahmed Khan. Hume, a loyal servant of the British Empire, suppresses a revolt, then helps create the Indian National Congress. Bankimchandra Chatterji writes about European philosophers but not a word about slavery or the American Civil War. Striking!

Do you think women did not have as much influence on the times? Savitri Phule was so daring…

(Breaking in) I agree I haven't portrayed my women sufficiently because I didn't know enough, but Rani Lakshmibai, Savitribai, Hazrat Mahal and Harriet Beecher Stowe are there. I've quoted Russell's observation that Indian women were stronger than Indian men.

As always, none from the South?

I concede it is a gap. I considered Tyagaraja. But he didn't belong to this period and I couldn't have asked what he thought of the 1857 Revolt and the American Civil War. Can you think of anyone?

(This interviewer remembered composer Gopalakrishna Bharati (1811-1896), and his ‘Nandanar Charitram', identified with nationalist and Dalit aspirations, but too late.)

Exciting discoveries in the process of research…

Oh yes! Firoz Shah, a descendant of the Mughals, had realised the folly of killing women and children, believing it to be a reason for failure. Not without class superiority, but he talks about economic and social factors unlike others who rebelled because they were personally denied this or that. It was fantastic to learn about those people in Bombay who sent money to Lincoln for a field hospital. Also, some people of Indian origin had enlisted in the American Civil War and received medals from Abraham Lincoln.

We also see Karl Marx and Leo Tolstoy filing reports…

When Russell covers the Crimean war, I run into Tolstoy writing from the Russian side. I'm aware also of Tolstoy's admiration for Lincoln and his battle against slavery. Karl Marx writing from London for the New York Tribune provides the only counter to mainstream American opinion, which regards the Indian revolt as an eruption of oriental barbarism. Writers provided contrasts as well as links. I found Sayyid Ahmed Khan looking at events from their impact on the relationship of the Muslims in India with the British rulers, while Bankim looked at the relationships of the bhadralok and the Hindus with the British.

How did you balance the eye and the heart, scrutiny and the passion?

Others will judge if I did. I was sympathetic to all my characters, even when I differed from their point of view, or found it injurious.

What conclusion (if any) did you arrive at after writing this book, which is not without an uncompromising moral stance of its own?

The American Civil War was the result of one central wrong — slavery. The Indian revolt harboured two — an arrogant British racial attitude towards Indians, and the superiority nursed by the Indian elite towards ordinary people. The last was also the reason why the Indian revolt failed.