Remembering Sarvepalli Gopal


Sarvepalli Gopal

Sarvepalli Gopal  

AT this time last year, I was having dinner with two friends at a Lebanese restaurant in London. Summer had come early, and we were in our shirtsleeves, sitting at a table outside. We began our meal by drinking to the memory of the historian and biographer Sarvepalli Gopal, who had passed away the previous week in Madras. All of us had known Gopal, and all admired his scholarship. Each had been deeply impressed by a particular work of his. One friend, Sunil Khilnani, thought Gopal's three-volume biography of Nehru to be his best work. The other friend, David Gilmour, disagreed: while he liked the Nehru he felt that the finest of Gopal's books was his British Policy in India, 1858-1905. I dissented from both. My own favourite, I said, was the biography of his father, the philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

I think the late historian would have been pleased that we had each singled out a work of his nearest to our own area of interest. Khilani, who is writing on the same subject, chose Gopal's Nehru. Gilmour, who is a historian of the Victorian era and of empire, chose his study of the imperial mind. I, who had written a biography of Verrier Elwin, chose his book on Radhakrishnan, another intellectual with a colourful personal life and a lifelong engagement with public affairs.

In several respects, Sarvepalli Gopal stood out among the historians of his generation. First, in his industry. With only the rare exception, professors of history in our universities — even the most influential ones, the kind who become Presidents of the Indian History Congress — do not publish more than one or two serious books over the course of their professional career. Gopal published as many as seven; three volumes on Nehru, one on his father, a book on British imperial policy, and separate books on the viceroyalties of Ripon and Irwin. All were based on solid research into primary materials. Aside from the books that he wrote, Gopal also edited the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, a multi-volume series that is indispensable for an understanding of 20th Century India. He also edited a book of essays on the Ayodhya controversy.

Most Indian academics write a wooden prose. But Gopal was a fine stylist, and had a sense of humour besides. His works are elegantly crafted as well as substantial. Recently, a bright young Englishman went around the country promoting a book he described as the "first work of Indian history to be readable". He had evidently not heard of, or read, Sarvepalli Gopal.

Third, Gopal chose to write mostly about individuals, whereas other historians prefer to focus on themes and processes. Biography is a genre Indian writers by and large avoid. One reason is that it is very hard work. Another is that the story of a life is just that, a story. Gopal relished spending long hours among old manuscripts in the archives, and he could write with flair: both traits essential for the biographer.

Fourth, Gopal showed a willingness to learn from his own errors that is altogether rare among scholars of any nationality. His Nehru trilogy, majestic as it is, had two flaws. It was deeply unfair to Nehru's colleagues and opponents (most especially C. Rajagopalachari), and it was excessively discreet about his personal life. Edwina Mountbatten got, as I recall, all of one sentence, and Padmaja Naidu not even that. However, when he came to write the life of his father, Gopal was completely candid about his extra-marital affairs. As he put it, "I have shirked nothing". Perhaps more importantly, the son was fair to Radhakrishnan's intellectual adversaries, who included a Bengali who accused him of plagiarism, and an English writer who dismissed him as an empty windbag.

Gopal's writing career began early. As a college student in Madras he wrote, in collaboration with his friend V. Abdullah, a satirical play on the Bengal famine of 1943. I don't know if copies of the play still exist, but some enterprising student could do worse than put together, in one volume, some of his other essays. Among these are a 1984 lecture on the "Legacy of Nehru" which, in gentle and undogmatic fashion, reiterates what Gopal saw as his hero's continuing relevance. Here he stressed Nehru's commitment to the emancipation of women and untouchables, to communal harmony and the maintenance of a united and plural India, and to the fostering of a socialist economics. All remain relevant still, except perhaps the last. Gopal's mother tongue was Telugu. He also spoke Tamil fairly well — as well as an Oxford-educated Brahmin will. He wrote, however, in English, a language he used with care and whose place in free India he never doubted.

In 1988 he delivered the Nehru lecture in Cambridge on "The English Language in India since Independence, and its Future Role". This argued that English had become the pan-Indian language of the elite and the Establishment, assuming the part previously played by Sanskrit and Persian. Gopal predicted that despite the protests of the chauvinists, the demand for English would increase. Indians needed English to participate in the modern economy and to undertake advanced research. Again, in contrast to Hindi, it allowed an uncontroversial means of communication between the different parts of India. Gopal wrote that this foreign language would also "serve as a vehicle for transcultural understanding and as a catalytic literature for other Indian literatures" — as indeed, with the publishing boom of the 1990s, it has since done.

Gopal was much admired by his students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, whom he would tease by assigning essay topics such as: "Is Marxism the Opiate of the Intellectuals?" Unfortunately, I was never taught by him, and got to know him only in the evening of his life. By this time he had moved to Madras, to stay in the family home, "Girija", on a road once named for an obscure Englishman but now appropriately called Radhakrishnan Salai. It was here that I went to see him when I was myself in Madras. We talked about history, politics, and, not least, cricket. He appreciated my writing about C.K. Nayudu, but thought I had not given sufficient attention to his boyhood hero Syed Mushtaq Ali. Notably, it was when Radhakrishnan was President of India that that these Holkar men both got their Padma awards — at the son's recommendation, a case of how nepotism can sometimes promote justice and fairness.

On my last visit to "Girija", Gopal was taking a walk up and down the driveway. He commanded me to join him. As we walked I told him about an anthology I was planning, which would contain commissioned essays on the greatest Indians of the 20th Century — whether politicians, scientists, scholars, sportsmen or musicians. He stopped in his tracks and fixed me with a steely glare: "Who will write on my father?" he asked. I had to confess that I had not thought of an appropriate person. As it happens, that particular project has since been abandoned. I don't know if this is a loss to anyone; certainly not to readers interested in Radhakrishnan. For who could have added anything to Gopal's own book on his father?

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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