Our doll’s house of memory

Fruitful ties: The aesthetics of Nehru blended with Gandhian ethics   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

There is an innocence about times past that I envy. I sense a life, a vitality to the dreams of earlier generations. Biography and history became part of the same act of storytelling and people talked of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, C. Rajagopalachari or Maulana Azad as if they were extensions of the family. I remember my parents and my uncles discussing them as if they were cousins or members of their favourite cricket team. For each, the national movement was precious and each treasured the few moments when they met a national leader. Nehru and Gandhi were favourites, and I remember my father recite the “Tryst with Destiny” speech. For him, it was a moment of history, a moment of poetry forged into a ritual of inauguration. Independence had that sacramental quality.

An epic vision

I think we have lost the magic. Pummelled by dull textbooks, we have lost the magic of the word, lost both the power of the paradigm and the potent drama of the exemplar. When people talked of Nehru or Tagore or Gandhi, there was a pride there, an old-fashioned pride, a pride not of possession as if it was property, but of a legacy, of an epic vision. First was always Gandhi. People were proud that there was such a man, whose everydayness was a miracle. I remember my teachers used to quote from Arnold J. Toynbee or from Albert Einstein, and then play off the surliness of Winston Churchill as a contrast. Churchill could never be a figure at the same level. He behaved like a street boy who encounters a saint; Gandhi was very special.

For the scientists he was experimental, for others ethical in an extraordinary way. Everyone had his Gandhi story, though as a troublesome kid I sometimes wondered how a guy who could not spell kettle went so far. I guess when you are in class 2, spelling creates more life crises than ethics.

Then there was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The Frontier leader was a special variant of Gandhi, an argument that masculinity and peace went integrally together. For my father, Ghaffar Khan’s loyalty and courage meant more than all the tank battles of World War II. The grandeur of Rommel, Montgomery, the Soviet Generals faded before this man. The ethics of protest was more potent than tank warfare.

Then came Nehru. It was almost as if they were all part of a Gandhian Camelot. There was an aesthetics to Nehru which blended with Gandhian ethics. It was not the aristocratic Nehru of Allahabad and Harrow that people talked about. This aesthetics was more than dress or style. It was conduct, and conduct was more than behaviour or table manners. Conduct was judgment, choice, a life style, and Nehru was a perfect complement to Gandhi in a day when difference and complementarity were welcome.

The national movement gave you two great aesthetic styles, Tagore and Nehru. Next to them the Stafford Crippses, the Curzons, the Mountbattens sound jaded. They provided an aesthetics of nationalism as language, culture, style, two kinds of cosmopolitanism, which was difficult to match. Style, not fashion, but cultural style evoked and created a nationalist confidence about colour, memory or craft.

People do not understand this today. They think reductively, reducing Nehru to his jacket or Gurudev to a costume persona. You cannot reduce them to brands. Tagore and Nehru defined style, and they defined the aesthetics of nationalism. It was to be plural, playful, an unending project. A nation state was an artificial stoppage of a nationalism project because if one stopped with the majority group, one challenged the fate of other ethnicities. Nationalism was not mere liberation. It evoked hospitality. Which other liberation movement allowed so many English men and women to participate in the struggle from A.O. Hume and C.F. Andrews to Annie Besant and Madeleine Slade?

If one thinks of Gandhi’s deputy, one thinks of an array of people, Jayaprakash Narayan, Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, but to a southern mind one man outranked them, C. Rajagopalachari. Rajaji and Gandhi were a special pair. They were two entirely different kinds of people who immortalised their difference by blessing the marriage of their children. Gandhi was a Gujarati as they came, Rajaji an intellectual Brahmin, ready to differ with Gandhi but always deferring to him. Their legend of differences added to their charisma. They were not rivals. They did not compete. It was as if they refracted different spectrums of light. Even the marriage was a stroke of genius. One of the children of that marriage was Ramu Gandhi. Ramu was an impossible character, brilliant, original, the best philosopher of the decade, cantankerous, argumentative, he represented the best of an intellectual tradition, creating an interesting hermeneutics around every word the nation state tossed up.

Women in the lead

When I look at this doll’s house of memory we call the national movement, the second thing that strikes me is the number of iconic women in it. I am not talking of those two great footnotes, Kasturba Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. I am hinting that nationalism and the battle of gender went together. Firstly, there was the Theosophist movement. Many of the early members of the national movement were theosophists. Theosophy was an attempt to rethink the body, childhood and gender, and it added a tremendous creativity to the national movement. Another more feminist struggle was the child widow remarriage movement which led to the Sarda Act. Its leader, Sister R.S. Subbalakshmi, again was an extraordinary woman. That generation had so many women who make the current feminist movement look pale in comparison. Women were so much a part of nationalism. One senses that the nation state which is more like a giant patriarchy inspires less enthusiasm.

Science too added to the colours of nationalism making Indian science both nationalist and cosmopolitan. There were J.C Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan, C.V. Raman and K.S. Krishnan, P.C. Ray and Meghnad Saha, S.N. Bose and D.M. Bose, all of whom added to the nationalist imagination. The sadness in India is we tend to separate the history of science and the history of nationalism and the way they pollinated each other as imaginations. The conversation of science and nationalism had a cantankerous, open-ended quality one misses today. Science added to the plurality of nationalism, enriching its vision. Today it is a mere extension counter of the nation state, with the academics as statist minions. A Raman or a Saha would stand up to a Nehru. It is an act of dissent one hardly imagines today as security as an idea has colonised patriotism. One can hardly think of a journal like Science and Culture today, which was as classic and relevant to the national movement as National Review, The Modern Review or The Theosophist.

Floating through their archives one sense the innumerable utopianisms that science and nationalism dreamt of. It is almost as if science and nationalism as forms of plural dreaming have succumbed to the aridity of the nation state. For them and for the older generation, nationalism was a metaphorical house-warming, a homecoming. Today in a literal sense, the nation state invokes the refugee and the fact of displacement and homelessness. But there was something more.

When I look at the nationalist icons of the past, they survive intact, despite all the criticisms. Both dream and dreamer have an integrity that lasts. They also created something which mattered. They left behind a legacy which still sustains us. Think of Gandhi and you wish his ashrams would come alive with new experiments with truth. Decades after, whether it is Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution, the source of inspiration is Gandhi. Nehru stands immaculate as a vision of a nation. The sour grapes come when later upstarts try to imitate him. Rajaji is still reassuring and as one reads his Mahabharata, one almost senses a community between generations.

One misses the great eccentrics of nationalism. One wishes there were new extracts from the archives reliving these stories beginning with, once there was a Gandhi, a Nehru, a Besant, a Badshah Khan, a Raman and a Visvesvaraya. One longs for that world where character building and national building went together as one settles down to watch the violence of today’s majoritarianism and the much touted project called development.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 2:12:17 PM |

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