It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a country in which many languages are spoken needs at least some of its most prominent citizens and public servants to be multilingual. Gopalkrishna Gandhi has spent his life as a diplomat, writer, administrator and scholar cultivating the extraordinary capacity to be at home in every part of India: north, south, east and west. He speaks, reads and writes in Hindi and Tamil, Bengali and Gujarati, English and Urdu.
He has translated Tiruvalluvar into English and Vikram Seth into Hindi. He has edited, translated and made available to a wider readership the writings of his paternal grandfather Mahatma Gandhi and his maternal grandfather C. Rajagopalachari. (A more eminent political lineage is hard to imagine, though his wife, brothers, children, nieces and nephew also do the family proud in different ways).
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Nowadays it is fashionable to admire and praise politicians for the kind of oratory and rhetoric that can canvass votes, win elections, make big promises, and instill in ordinary people that most elusive emotion, faith, vishwas . But the way in which its most prominent contemporary exponents will use political messaging is to create a rasping din of demagoguery, spin, hate speech and, increasingly, outright lying. It is rarely that one comes across a figure like Gopal Gandhi with such an acute ear for nuance, such a complex grasp of meaning, such command over different registers and genres of discourse (apart from a knowledge of many languages).
To hear Gopal Gandhi speak is to be reminded that a civilised society thrives on truth and not untruth, on the diversity of views and the multiplicity of interpretations, on the ability not just to harangue and hector, but also to listen and to commiserate.
Plurality and empathy are the lifeblood of democracy. In this era of what Vandana Shiva called ‘monocultures of the mind’, when dissent is criminalised and argument is discouraged, people like Gopal Gandhi, erudite and articulate, who both recognise and embody the spirit of pluralism, are becoming harder to find in public life. Our republic, which began its flight on the wings of Tagore’s lyrical anthem, was energised by Gandhi’s quest for swaraj , satya and ahimsa , and driven forward as much by Nehru’s capacious vision as by Ambedkar’s passion for social justice, seems to have lost its way. India’s unique experiment with inclusion and tolerance has ended up with the narrowest possible definition of nationalism, exclusionary and intolerant.
Symbol of conscience
The Fourth Lion , a phrase which refers to the invisible lion at the back of our national emblem, taken from Ashoka’s Sarnath lion capital, is to be understood here as a symbol of the state’s conscience, the necessary check on its panoptic power and all encompassing ambition. For colleagues, admirers, students and followers of Gopal Gandhi, the constancy of his preoccupation with the ethical underpinnings of political sovereignty – Zameer-e-Hind – are perfectly represented in the fourth lion. This concern is a legacy of the Mahatma.
But as a diplomat in places like Sri Lanka and South Africa, a cultural ambassador at the Nehru Centre in London (of which he was the founding director), a governor in the State of West Bengal, and a writer with interests in history, biography, international relations, fiction, philosophy, memoir, music and the environment, Gopal Gandhi also needed to have a view of the country and of the world in the round. His is an oeuvre facing outwards in every direction, gazing upon the variety of life while remaining open to the myriad influences and imaginations that have flowed continuously into India over its recorded history.
This bouquet of essays penned by women and men, historians and artists, economists and novelists, friends both Indian and foreign, acolytes both young and old, is presented to Gopal Gandhi as a gift for his 75th birthday (in April 2020).
They reflect as much his polymathic interests as the many talents of the contributors themselves. I have had occasion to interact with Gopal Bhai in numerous contexts, and he has never acted in any way that was not courteous and kind, self-effacing and affectionate. But one gesture of his I treasure especially. The day after my mother died, he sent me mantra 17 from the Isopanisad , which says:
The mortal body will be reduced
The immortal spirit will merge
into fire and air.
O My mind! Recall what has
arisen and vanished,
Recall all that is over and done.
The terms in this verse for ‘deeds’, ‘mind’ and ‘memory’ are timelessly resonant. They remind us of our finitude against a backdrop of eternity; of the continuity of our decaying bodies with the undying elements; of the connection between mind and matter which is premised on the relationship between thought and action. Like his very presence in the common life of our country, Gopal Bhai’s words were a balm to one in distress, and a precious reminder of a greater, if hidden, wisdom available to us, that may not be in our face, but definitely has our back.
The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna Gandhi ; Edited by Venu Madhav Govindu & Srinath Raghavan, Aleph Book Company, ₹699.
The reviewer is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.