Not Another Biography – The New Indian Express

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Express press service

Jawaharlal Nehru, once a beloved hero who ruled over hundreds of millions of hearts, has now become an arch-villain. The former Prime Minister is ritually pilloried by those who wish to cast the country into a very different mold from what he envisioned. Nehru died in 1964. India has changed almost beyond recognition since then. His book The Discovery of India was published in 1946; it was written
a few years before Nehru was interned in the fort of Ahmed Nagar.

It was a work of reflection and self-discovery, not a historical investigation. What Nehru and the Spirit of India succeeds in doing is pushing us to reflect on the relationship between biography and history, politics and culture, present and past. What we are witnessing now is not just the “rejection” of the past, but its ruthless erasure. Everything that bears witness to a shared syncretic heritage is destroyed. Fables and sectarian fantasies are inserted into history textbooks in the name of revision. How then to reconnect with the past to appreciate to what extent India has been enriched by the meeting of cultures?

It’s easy to be misled by the title. It wouldn’t be entirely correct to treat this as another portrayal of Nehru, drawn both critically and sympathetically. It is, in fact, a brilliantly summarized history of the ideas that shaped the intellectual sensibility of modern India.

The author of Nehru and the Spirit of India wears many hats. A writer, political theorist and poet, he taught lyric poetry and literary journalism at Ambedkar University. It is not surprising that this work blurs the boundaries between different literary genres.

The book under consideration is exquisitely crafted and exceptionally stimulating. It makes for captivating reading and resonates with haunting echoes of the past which, like lightning, suddenly illuminate painful fragments of the present hidden in a dark place.

It is also a competent condensation – distilled essence – of Nehru’s inspiring work, The Discovery of India. The book is so subtly nuanced and multi-layered that it’s easy to get lost in the magical woods.
The book is divided into four chapters in addition to an introduction: “The man who discovered India: colonialism and the garb of modernity”, “The citizen and the secular state enterprise”, ” Culture and the Desire for Synthesis”, and “History and the Roots of the Present’. Each chapter can be pleasantly read as an independent essay.

The introduction opens on a moving autobiographical note, but soon takes on dizzying momentum and gravity. It provides an excess of wealth that has its own problems. In fortunately rare places, even the most lucidly written paragraph becomes unnecessarily dense with academic asides and digressions. The iceberg of essays that spawned the book lurks just below the surface. While the academic reader will appreciate the cross-references, the general reader is more likely to be slowed down considerably before the mind gets richer.

Nehru’s political thought is presented to the reader without sacrificing his poetics. There are rich nuggets of information and ideas scattered throughout the pages – from Max Weber’s commentaries on Indian society to Octavio Paz’s personal insights into the spirit of Nehru. Nor do historian Partha Chatterjee’s binaries escape the author’s scrutiny.

This book is to be savored slowly, and reread, often revisiting sections in different chapters. For example, this quote from Nehru: “True culture draws its inspiration from all corners of the world, but it is indigenous and must be based on the great mass of the people… The day of a narrow culture confined to a small tedious group is passed.

Ironically, Nehru’s relentless demonization has rekindled interest in the man and his thoughts.
It is only recently that another book reviewing Nehru’s legacy, Kaun Hai Bharat Mata, written in Hindi by Purushottam Aggrawal has sold over 10,000 copies and seen numerous reprints. It has been translated into English and other Indian languages. Nehru and the Spirit of India make a perfect companion volume. It should be translated and made accessible to pan-Indian readership as soon as possible.

Jawaharlal Nehru, once a beloved hero who ruled over hundreds of millions of hearts, has now become an arch-villain. The former Prime Minister is ritually pilloried by those who wish to cast the country into a very different mold from what he envisioned. Nehru died in 1964. India has changed almost beyond recognition since then. His book The Discovery of India was published in 1946; it was written a few years before Nehru was interned in the fort of Ahmed Nagar. It was a work of reflection and self-discovery, not a historical investigation. What Nehru and the Spirit of India succeeds in doing is pushing us to reflect on the relationship between biography and history, politics and culture, present and past. What we are witnessing now is not just the “rejection” of the past, but its ruthless erasure. Everything that bears witness to a shared syncretic heritage is destroyed. Fables and sectarian fantasies are inserted into history textbooks in the name of revision. How then to reconnect with the past to appreciate to what extent India has been enriched by the meeting of cultures? It’s easy to be misled by the title. It wouldn’t be entirely correct to treat this as another portrayal of Nehru, drawn both critically and sympathetically. It is, in fact, a brilliantly summarized history of the ideas that shaped the intellectual sensibility of modern India. The author of Nehru and the Spirit of India wears many hats. A writer, political theorist and poet, he taught lyric poetry and literary journalism at Ambedkar University. It is not surprising that this work blurs the boundaries between different literary genres. The book under consideration is exquisitely crafted and exceptionally stimulating. It makes for captivating reading and resonates with haunting echoes of the past which, like lightning, suddenly illuminate painful fragments of the present hidden in a dark place. It is also a competent condensation – distilled essence – of Nehru’s inspiring work, The Discovery of India. The book is so subtly nuanced and multi-layered that it’s easy to get lost in the magical woods. The book is divided into four chapters in addition to an introduction: “The man who discovered India: colonialism and the garb of modernity”, “The citizen and the secular state enterprise”, ” Culture and the Desire for Synthesis”, and “History and the Roots of the Present’. Each chapter can be pleasantly read as an independent essay. The introduction opens on a moving autobiographical note, but soon takes on dizzying momentum and gravity. It provides an excess of wealth that has its own problems. In fortunately rare places, even the most lucidly written paragraph becomes unnecessarily dense with academic asides and digressions. The iceberg of essays that spawned the book lurks just below the surface. While the academic reader will appreciate the cross-references, the general reader is more likely to be slowed down considerably before the mind gets richer. Nehru’s political thought is presented to the reader without sacrificing his poetics. There are rich nuggets of information and ideas scattered throughout the pages – from Max Weber’s commentaries on Indian society to Octavio Paz’s personal insights into the spirit of Nehru. Nor do historian Partha Chatterjee’s binaries escape the author’s scrutiny. This book is to be savored slowly, and reread, often revisiting sections in different chapters. For example, this quote from Nehru: “True culture draws its inspiration from all corners of the world, but is cultivated locally and must be based on the great mass of the people… The day of a narrow culture confined to a small tedious group is passed. Ironically, Nehru’s relentless demonization has rekindled interest in the man and his thoughts. It is only recently that another book reviewing Nehru’s legacy, Kaun Hai Bharat Mata, written in Hindi by Purushottam Aggrawal has sold over 10,000 copies and seen numerous reprints. It has been translated into English and other Indian languages. Nehru and the Spirit of India make a perfect companion volume. It should be translated and made accessible to pan-Indian readership as soon as possible.


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