Remembering a prince

Rajmohan Gandhi

Rajmohan Gandhi

With the passage of time, one of Gujarat’s most progressive and revolutionary names has been all but forgotten, and we find that the incredible journey of Darbar (prince) Gopaldas Desai, from the royal court to the freedom movement, is fading from memory. So when Rajmohan Gandhi recounts the extraordinary story of Darbar in his new book, “The Prince of Gujarat” (Aleph), he brings back the memory of a man well ahead of his times, and sheds light on a life that is, even today, exemplary.

Excerpts from the interview:

A little about discovering Darbar Gopaldas Desai?

He was always in the back of my mind, and then meeting his son in America brought him to the forefront. I discovered that there is so much more about him, especially his social revolutionary aspect, his attitude to women, attitude to his praja . It wasn’t very surprising that I ran into his son. It so happens that many of the descendants of freedom fighters have found themselves in America. I was teaching at the University of Illinois, and Darbar’s son is a retired doctor. There are occasions when we have run into each other, and we became good friends. He gave me such incredible papers and documents, that I felt it necessary to work on this book. I have been visiting Gujarat for sometime, as a visiting scholar, and I felt like the people there needed to know more about this incredible man.

He was, as you’ve written in the book, both a progressive Prince as well as a committed freedom fighter…

He is utterly unique, both in his princely and his freedom fighter phase. But he’s also part of a very large category of those who threw themselves into the struggle for freedom. Of course not all of them had this kind of background, but they were all unique in their own way. So, in addition to being a study of this man, this book was also a study of the freedom movement itself. Not just the movement, but what it meant to be an activist in the movement, and how the lives of the participants and their families were affected.

Since his life has been largely un-documented, how was the search for information?

Although there was disruption, it was fortunately not complete destruction. Some documents did survive, some letters, some certificates, period photographs, which are technically horrible photographs. These I found with one of his nieces. And the youngest generation of the family are all very curious about the princely period. Because this isn’t something they have any direct memory of. So even when they discovered the haveli , and some of them discovered it when they were in their late teens, they were very awed and impressed.

The biographies on him that do exist are only up to a certain period. The most important biography, Kalyanji Mehta’s book, is only up to 1921, when Gopaldas worked lived till 1951.

How long did the book take?

The whole process took 18 months. I visited several different parts of Gujarat. I met people who remembered him in his last phase. I’ve written about a man in the book who remembered giving Gopaldas his last sip of water. Even today in a place now called Gopalgram, the warmth with which the people talk about him is quite something. The older generation knows him extremely well, and they will be very pleased that the younger generation will be able to hear his story now.

With sparse information, does conjecture and guesswork become necessary to complete the picture?

The biggest surmise, or conjecture, has to do with two things — why he had this special attitude to women, and secondly, what brought about this almost socialistic attitude in him. These are the two great mysteries, and there is very little documentation to understand the reasons. He read a lot, but what did he read, which books? Yes, we know about Aurobindo Ghosh and Lokmanya Tilak, and later on Gandhiji, but neither Ghosh in his early period nor Tilak were actively working for social justice. They were strongly working for India’s independence. Gopaldas is inspired by them also, but where did he get this idea of equality? The fact that he was a social revolutionary with very few parallels in his time, is what captured my attention. There is information, but then there is no corroborative information, nothing to challenge the facts. Since I can’t provide counter arguments, I have taken care to say that this is what is said by x y and z. I want the reader to also make his or her own surmise. Once or twice I’ve said that we don’t have all sides of the story.

What makes Gopaldas and his story relevant today?

Even to know that one hundred years ago, a man with such progressive ideas existed, flourished, and that people loved him for that, is a great thing. He was known as a kind of modern day Harishchandra. I think his story restores our belief in India’s potential, especially today, when there is a lot of cynicism. Nobody says he was perfect, but nonetheless there was so much to him that was so genuine. I think to recognise that fact, should, if not totally banish our cynicism, do good deal to weaken it.

You have been actively revisiting forgotten personalities from the freedom struggle…

That curiosity of mine has to do with the sheer richness of human nature. I have done many biographies, and every person’s story is unique. We are often not aware of the texture of their lives. I want the descendants of other freedom fighters to do justice to their ancestors’ lives. I want people to produce and put down what they know and remember.

India’s freedom movement was certainly not a perfect movement but it was an amazing movement. It had so much richness, suspense, tragedy to it. And on balance, it was a very positive movement. Unlike many other movements in the world, which on balance leave pain, this one left hope satisfaction, even pride. I want every descendent who was connected to that movement to gather as many facts as possible, because each story is unique, and worth remembering. My greatest satisfaction would be if as a result of this book, more people do some solid research and bring other people to life.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2022 12:47:38 am |