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Mahatma for sale


SOMETIMES, various unconnected events all seem to make you focus unexpectedly on one subject. Over the last few days, stray occurrences made me think about a topic which is normally rather far from my mind: Gandhi. I'm not in the least bit Gandhian, people who're voracious and magpie-minded and unfocussed and unpolitical and far from noble usually aren't, and I'm one of those. Still, I managed to focus on all that is the opposite of me, namely Gandhi, because of these coincidences.

First, a German woman academic emailed me to say she'd like to drop in and discuss Gandhi. I was frozen with terror at the idea. Why pick on me? Why not L.K. Advani? Or Medha Patkar, or Ashis Nandy, or Mayawati, who have definite views on the fellow? In any case, shouldn't a German academic be wanting to discuss something sensibly close to home, like Beethoven? But no, she was quite definite it was Gandhi she had in mind. She wanted to compile a book of essays on Gandhi by living Gandhians and thinkers on Gandhi, and she'd thought of me as its possible publisher.

In fact the meeting turned out very pleasant: Dr. Gita Dharampal-Frick, Head of South Asian History at Heidelberg University, wasn't in the least a walking version of the Max Mueller Bhawan, the formidable frau I'd imagined on account of her portentously Indo-Germanic name. I discovered through friends that her father had been a devotee of Mirabehn and she, following somewhat in his footsteps, was now scouting India for people who might have original and interesting thoughts on Gandhi.

Would I be interested in such a book if she managed to pull it together, she asked? Yes, I said, I would, quite definitely. That's because I have my shrewd publisher's eye always out for the Gandhi market. Gandhi may be dead — he has been made redundant in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh and gone from being Father of the Indian Nation to Father of a Notion in India — but I'd advise everyone to buy stocks and shares in the Gandhi book market: he has a high book value. For, while being hypocritically retained on his old pedestal by a "sanskritising" Indian State which finds it awkward to dump him openly while trashing him routinely and elevating the heirs of those who killed him, Gandhi remains alive and kicking on paper: he remains a prophet honoured outside his own country, via books by him and about him. By this I mean, naturally, that he gets bought (that's what "honouring" someone means these days). Turn his ideas into a good book and he'll bring you home a nice nest egg.

A good book on Gandhi will now sell much better abroad than in India, specially, and ironically, in the U.S. I was surprised, just before Dr. Dharampal-Frick called, by the fervour with which publishers abroad had responded to two book proposals on Gandhi, both by reputed Western historians of India. The first of these was by David Hardiman, the undiasporised "Subaltern" historian whose heart is truly Gandhian; the other was by Claude Markovits, the French historian married to an Indian whose history-writing has been devoted to India's traders and merchants — people such as myself. In both scripts, a fair bit of the focus was on Gandhi's legacy and impact outside India, in France via Romain Rolland, in Germany via Petra Kelly, in the U.S. via Martin Luther King, in South Africa via Nelson Mandela. I'd cut myself some fine deals on this recent Gandhiana, so, yes, I said to Dr. Dharampal-Frick, just bring in the meat.

Then, browsing in a bookshop some days later, Pico Iyer's new book, Abandon, hove into view. When I see that name, "Iyer", I know at once it must be the uncle, the aunty, the older brother and the grandfather of every Tam-Bram in South India. But the name also reminds me of Pico Iyer's father, a renowned Oxford scholar of Gandhi between the 1960s and 1980s whom I'd met in connection with the Indian editions of his Gandhi books. I'd warmed to him instantaneously, all those years ago, just like I'd warmed to Dr. Dharampal-Frick now. It never takes me time warming to people who provide me with saleable goods, such as Gandhiana.

That apart, I'd liked Raghavan Iyer and respected his work; and now he seemed to me like an Iyer in danger of being forgotten, a Gandhi scholar whom I, a mere casteless Sindhi, could help rescue from oblivion before some Tam-Bram like Ram Guha did it. The obvious solution was to get the dope on Raghavan Iyer, and who better to ask than the Guha himself? A quick email to him, and one to Pico Iyer, confirmed my worst suspicions: Raghavan Iyer was Ram Guha's mother's cousin, which obviously makes Pico Iyer and Ram Guha pure Tam-Bram blood brothers accidentally separated at birth. Well, never mind, let me also tell you the less significant sundry details I gleaned about Raghavan Iyer from these writerly descendants of his.

As far as intellectual achievement goes, Raghavan Iyer could in some ways be thought of as the successor to Radhakrishnan. He was born in 1930 and studied at Elphinstone College, Bombay, where he took a First in Politics and Economics. Then he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he again got a First, in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). Being a brilliant speaker, in 1954 he became President of the Oxford Union (only the second Indian, after D.F. Karaka). The story goes that while he was presiding over a Union meeting an undergraduate rushed in and said, "Mr. President, I demand that this meeting be adjourned for 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds." Iyer, being bookish, didn't get the allusion: Roger Bannister had just broken the four-minute barrier for the mile next door.

Iyer went on to take his doctorate at Oxford and taught at the universities of Oslo, Accra and Chicago. From there he went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he remained 20 years. The books for which he is remembered to this day are all connected with Gandhi: The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi appeared in the mid-1960s; with Pico Iyer's help an Indian reprint edition appeared soon after his father died in June 1995. During Raghavan Iyer's lifetime, I recall negotiating the sort of publishing deal that all publishers dream of because it was for a book continuously in demand and endlessly alive: Gandhi's Essential Writings, edited by Iyer. I also remember that Iyer, who could have taken a share of the royalties, asked that his portion go to the Navajivan Trust, which keeps Gandhi alive via print.

Raghavan Iyer wrote the sorts of books that help Gandhi to live on forever, which of course is a very good thing, given the kind of India we now inhabit. More importantly, however, he created the kinds of books that enable the shrewdly investing publisher to live forever off Gandhi which, I must assure you, is an even better thing.

Rukun Advani lives mostly in Ranikhet and runs a publishing house, Permanent Black.

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