"The name Gandhi has opened doors and closed potholes"... A freewheeling chat with Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal, who will unveil the plaque of The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 in Chennai on November 1.

It is a bit of a shock when a request for an interview meets with a “Why me? I am an uninterviewable person” response. All the more so since the person at the other end was Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal. As IAS officer, he served as Secretary to President K.R. Narayanan and as High Commissioner to South Africa and Sri Lanka. And there is the matter of his family; he is the grandson of both Mahatma Gandhi and C.R. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji).

He has also written extensively: one novel (Saranam now republished as Refuge) and a play in verse “Dara Shukoh”; Gandhi and South Africa, Gandhi Is Gone: Who Will Guide Us Now?, and a translation of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (Koi Acchha Sa Ladka) among others. Being nervous about meeting him doesn't help either. But, as it turned out, the man in person is unassuming, self-effacing and thoughtful, exuding gentleness and warmth.

Major influence

He must be tired of being asked about his famous grandfathers but it doesn't show. “Their influence has been a major factor in my life. The impact of Gandhi has been more in the realm of thought since the voltage of ideas was very high. Of course there was no pressure – much less from within the family – to follow any rigid ‘Gandhian' code. CR (Rajaji) was almost more impactful, in my case. Of course he was around till 1972 and he took a close interest in all his grandchildren: their schooling, reading; even how and what they wrote.”

He recalls visiting a travelling exhibition of Gandhi photographs in his centenary year (1969). When the exhibition arrived in Chennai, he accompanied Rajaji. “I used his walking stick to draw his attention to one picture but used the ground end. He took it back and said ‘always use the hand end'. I think it said a lot about his attitude to humans, even to the figure in the picture.”

The name Gandhi has, he says, “opened doors and closed potholes. But it has also been a continuing test, which can be difficult.”

Strands of violence

Speak of Gandhi, and you can't help think of ahimsa. Yet India today is caught in the grip of violence across the country. How does he reconcile the two?

He speaks of a tragedy in three acts. “Injustice – in which violence is inherent – through the centuries has had spokespersons who did not believe in non-violence. Society, systems and the state have reacted to those spokespersons through counter violence. Gandhi tackled all three strands simultaneously. He was like a teacher in a science class: he spoke of theory and practicals. When he spoke of ahimsa, it meant nothing unless he could apply it to an existing situation. The trouble is to find sensitive listeners in all three sections. That is why I think the work of the interlocutors in Kashmir is of extraordinary importance. They do not represent any of these three sections.”

As a former administrator (a word he prefers to bureaucrat), how does he feel when the bureaucracy is collectively dubbed corrupt? He is silent for a while; then speaks carefully. “The phenomenon of corruption is larger than the morphology of bureaucracy. Corruption has permeated every facet of life but is particularly odious in the bureaucracy. But one can't tackle corruption in the bureaucracy without tackling it in politics or in the multifarious transactions of life. Sadly the system of internal checks has ceased to be effective.”

Silver lining

He offsets this gloomy picture with an “enormous silver lining”: the Right to Information Act. “As someone proud to call myself an administrator – as opposed to bureaucrat – I celebrate the appearance of the RTI Act. Remember, it was the brainchild of a former administrator, Aruna Roy; no politician thought of it.” And another positive note: “Also I think the number of plain speaking, straight dealing, honest administrators is, in my rough reckoning, larger than those who are otherwise.”

To move away from serious topics, I ask about his novel Saranam — now reissued by Penguin as Refuge — set in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. He is hesitant to call it fiction; “There's not a shred of narrative, not a character, that did not happen,” he says emphatically. Ask if he's working on another novel and he rejects the idea almost instantly. “We live in times when reality is stranger than fiction.”

I remember an article he wrote a few years ago about Rajaji's song kurai onrum illai (I have no regrets) and ask if he has any regrets. He laughs gently, “A person without regrets would be impossibly smug. How can one live without regrets? Basically my regret is not having used my time better in terms of linking my thoughts with my life.”

As a parting note, he says rather plaintively, “I wish you would keep the family bit to the minimum. I don't want people to think all I do is talk about my grandfathers. After all I haven't been nor am a full-time grandson of Gandhi.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012