Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Jyoti Basu were defined by the epoch they lived in and they, in turn, defined it. Their legacies are part of our lore, not yet of our understanding. Of a Certain Age celebrates twenty such individuals with charming biographical stretches. Gopalkrishna Gandhi illuminates key moments in their lives with personal knowledge, conversations and correspondence. He offers us little known facts, conversations and correspondence. He offers little-known facts, vivid portrayals of their vulnerabilities and strengths and touches upon the qualities that made them the stuff of legend. In sketches that are sympathetic and frank, intimate and objective, Gopalkrishna Gandhi analyses the public and political trajectories of these figures and explores the events that connect them to the broader horizon of history.
Witten in elegant and fluid prose, of a certain Age provides valuable insights to understanding these remarkable men and womem who shaped events in the twentieth century and had a considerable impact on the subcontinent we know today.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was born in 1945 and did BA (Hons) and MA in english literature from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. He joined the Indian Administrative service in 1968 and served in Tamil Nadu. He was secretary to the Governor of Tamil Nadu and to the Governor of Tamil Nadu and to the vice-president of India After taking voluntary retirement in 1992, Gandhi saw diplomatic service in London and was head of India’s diplomatic missions in South Africa, Lesotho, Sri Lanka, Norway and Iceland. He was secretary to president K.R. Narayanan from 1997 to 2000 and was Governor of West Bengal From December 2004 to December 2009.
Gandhi is written a novel, Refuge, on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka that first appeared in 1987 and a play in verse, Dara Shukoh. He has compiled The Essential Gandhi and contributed to newspaper columns. For over two decades now, he has been that familiar oxymoron a regular writer of occasional pieces.
From the day India won her independence, the other nineteen had gone or been taken to Baliaghata in Calcutta to see Gandhi at Hydari manzil in that city’s disturbed Muslim quarter, the ‘Father of the Nation’ would have been glad to see those of them he knew. And curious to get to know those he did not, because of what they certainly had spark.
There was of course no say in which all the nineteen could have made it to that imaginary gathering. For at least six of them, including the three children, there would have been little motivation to do so.
Jyotidranath Dixit, as the eleven year old son of ‘Munshi Paramu Pillai the reputed Malayalam writer and Retnamayi Devi, had grown up in a Gandhi suffused home. After his mother remarried and his stepfather, the nationalist Sitaram Dixit, took charge of his upbringing, jyotinadranath had spent time at Wardha and seen Gandhi through the bewildered eyes of one who had not yet entered his teens. But unless bundled along by the Dixits to Calcutta on Independence Day, there is no way this child would have gone to so dreary a destination as Gandhi’s post Partition camp. And yet, this precocious child was being shaped by unsuspended genes and unknown circumstances to become a key player in the diplomatic moves and countermoves of an India that would intone Gandhi’s universalist name and invoke Nehru’s international spirit.
In the case of Twelve Year old Tenzin Gyatso, then living with his family, which was engaged in trading horses and farming, in the small hamlet of Taktser in the eastern border of the former Tibetan region of Amdo already incorporated into the Chinese province of Qinghai India in 1947 was a distant blur, if that. Recognized through the agency of omens and mysterious pointers as the one to succeed the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tanzin had not yet been installed in that exalted office. For this pre-teen Tibetan, already surrounded by the silks, scents and signposts of Prospective Lamahood, the concept of India, its subjugation and then independence from British Rule and the name of Gandhi could have meant but little. He did not know then he could not have that he was intended to spend the greater part of his life in that country and to receive something called the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1989, when he would cite Gandhi as an inspiration.
To fourteen year old Sanjivi Guhan, then a student at PS High School in Mylapore, Madras, India’s freedom must have been the pleasing prospect of a holiday, though the day’s historic magnetism would, thanks to his father’s elder brother, have been more than apparent. Professor K. Swaminathan, then teaching English literature at Presidency College, had by then taken famously to wearing khadi, albeit in his case in the shape of a Khadi suit set off by Khadi tie. Guhan was dividing growing-up time between home, class and playground. He did not know then that he was intended to top the list of those entering something called the Indian Administrative Service in 1955, with the governance of India and its emergence from poverty becoming both a career and a passion.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was no child then or ever but at thirty- one, she was very young daughter of the Kandyan aristocracy, very fresh to life in Colombo, when India won its independence. To the home bound wife of the young politician and MP in Ceylon’s first elected House of Representatives Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, India’s triumphs and agonies where not unknown. SWRD had returned but recently from the Asin Relations conference in Delhi that had been addressed memorably by Gandhi. And yet for that full time mother of two little girls, political rumblings from India would have sounded like remote thunder. And in any case, not something she needed to lose sleep over. She had no means of knowing, she had no reason to imagine, she could not have dreamt, that a little over a decade later she would succeed her husband slain by a fanatic from his own faith to become prime minster of Ceylon and would be dealing with India, not as a Bhuddhist pilgrim but as head of a sovereign government.
Thirty five year old Madhavaiah Krishnan too would have been a very unlikely member of any group gathering at Hydari Manzil. Occupying a key office in the princely state of Sandur (Now merged in Karnataka) and already noted for his nature photography, Krishnan was singularly un-enamoured of politics, nationalist or otherwise. His mind and his camera were fastened on the wilderness. If he had happened to be in Calcutta on the day the city celebrated India’s independence, it would not have been to savor the historic magnetisms of that day. As an instinctive photographer, he would have taken some unusual pictures of street scenes and covered Gandhi as well while going round the city’s main thoroughfares. But his priority, even in those politically charged times, would have been ecological, not political. It would have centered on a visit to the Botanical Gardens and a trip to the Sunderbans, looking for the royal Bengal Tiger. Krishnan could not have realized that with all his being on another wavelength, he did share in common with Gandhi a certain perspective. He too was unimpressed by the display of India’s first jet aircraft, declaring them, in Krishnan’s inimitable words, mechanical, chemical and inhuman, and was impressed more by the living muscular speed of animals.
Would the raja of birds have been drawn to Gandhi? Unlikely, one would think. But then the world, even that of one who gazes routinely at the infinity of the sky, is a small place. Salim Ali’sand no one need have been surprised if uncle had taken new phew along to Hydari Manzil, Calcutta, on Independence Day. Well, he did no. indeed he could not have, for Salim Ali was deeply absorbed at the time doing a survey of the birds of Gujrat. If Gandhi had spied the fifty one year old bearded Sulaimani Bohra he could well have asked him if he was any body of Abbas Tyabji, and seeing a pair of binoculars slung over his chest, queried him about the gadget. Gandhi might have also told Salim Ali about his little known episode with binoculars when, during a long passage by sea from cape Town to London in 1914, he had argued with his friend Hermann Kallenbach on the virtue of non-possession and then, with Kallenbach’s passive concurrence, flung the German’s prized pair of binoculars into the sea. Salim Ali might have responded with dismay and disapproval at that not very violent assertion of non-possession.
As for the rest, all thirteen of them could, during that climactic phase of India’s evolution, have very credibly gathered round Gandhi. For they recognized the age they were in and related to it, pre-eminently as the age of Gandhi and Nehru, of Sardar Patel, Rajagopalchari, Prasad and Maulana Azad. They were of the age when the nation’s future seemed inextricably linked to one’s own and that future seemed to be one of great promise and of greater problems. Not all of them saw the problems identically. Indeed some of them saw these very differently from how Gandhi did. For that matter, Nehru himself saw India’s past, present and future rather differently from how Gandhi did. In fact, he was a recalcitrant heir and successor to Gandhi. Jyoti basu, the young London educated communist, certainly had a different India view and world view, as did the remarkably gifted artist somnath Hore and the eloquent Marxist, Hiren Mukharjee.
So, does salience, or the lack of it, to the Mahatma lie behind this grouping?
The pieces were written on different occasions over a thirty year period between 1981 and 2011, Gandhi was not necessarily in my thoughts as I wrote them, nor was Jawaharlal Nehru. And yet, for me, all of them in one way or another, different celestials and asterisms that they were orbited the Gandhi Nehru skies. They were not all bound to those two, either by the pull of gravity of the propulsion of their individual velocities. But they were, in an definable way help contextualize them in the way I saw them, or they may not. But that does not matter. Each of the persons described was very strong and independent, choosing a path according to her or his light and, in the case of Harilal Gandhi in the complete and tragic absence of any light.
As a stray and profoundly redundant product of that very age, I can only offer if indeed any setting is to be offered one in terms of h ambient influence those two Indians had on the times these nineteen lived.
On Harilal of course, Gandhi’s impact was immediate, intense. And Harilal rebuffed the impact with the contempt of a seaside rock turning a passionate wave back. Until the very end when its own structural integrity breaking down, the rock crumbled and on final wave passed over its remains like a coverlet stretched over an abandoned hospital bed. Harilal’s is a story of all time poignancy. The eldest son of Mohandas and Kasturba was only nineteen year younger the parents. A difference in age that can lead, predictably to a bonding with the mother and a distancing from the father, especially if he is a person with marked personality traits. I bemoan the fact that no paper trails have been found (nor any satisfactory explanations for their absence) of the father’s concern for his infant son and wife, under twenty at the time, whom he left behind in the Gandhi family home in Rajkot when he went to study in London.
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