Powerful profiles

In his gubernatorial capacity, people have seen Gopalkrishna Gandhi preside over one of the most tumultuous phases in West Bengal. The massacres at Singur and genocides and gang rapes at Nandigram in 2007 forced the then governor to describe the killing of 14
unarmed villagers at Nandigram on March as “cold horror”. For public memory, people who were aware of the intellectual and historical legacy of this Gandhi being the ‘grandson of the nation’, this anguish seemed to well out of a deeply sensitive soul — from the descendant of a person who walked in South Africa, in Champaran, in Noakhali, Bihar, and to Dandi, in an effort to understand and alleviate the suffering of people.

The author, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, profiles 20 personalities — almost all of whom, directly or indirectly, span around the zeitgeist of the Gandhi-Nehru circle of influence. These life sketches had been written in a span of over 30 years. They come out as refreshingly original, partly due to the fact that Gopalkrishna has been privy to the Gandhi lore by bonds of kinship. He has also had access to a range of persons and sources by dint of his secretarial, ambassadorial, diplomatic, gubernatorial and authorial roles.  Belonging to a Kiplingesque world where everybody knows everybody has given him a coin of vantage.

He is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and son of Devadas Gandhi (the fourth and youngest son of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) — who, as an acolyte of his illustrious father, was quite active in his father’s movement and later became the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. His maternal grandfather was C Rajagopalachari, the last governor general of India. It is an enviable lineage, even if one stops short of mentioning other
Gandhi siblings. It is for this reason, Gopalkrishna’s description of his uncle Harilal — the subversive Gandhi — finds resonance.

Therefore, we find an eclectic and personal choice at play, not only in the description of Harilal, but also in the profiles of the Mahatma, Acharya Kripalani, the frontier Gandhi, Pyarelal, Jayaprakash Narayan, the Dalai Lama and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the former prime minister of Sri Lanka, and the world’s first female head of government.

Self-absorbed

‘eccentrics’ and recluses, like nature photographer M Krishnan, ornithologist
Salim Ali, legendary artist Somnath Hore also find pride of place in this historical register.

The strength of the book lies not in the biographical details but in discovering hitherto unknown facets of the persons explored. At times, Gopalkrishna appears far too abstract and elliptical, like in his description of M S Subbulakshmi — the legendary Carnatic vocalist and the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.

Gopalkrishna profiles and contrasts

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar as looking “north and south”, in rich metaphors: “If Kamaladevi was a Sakuntala in Kanva’s wild, growing tapovana, Pupul was a Roshanara — a designer of cultural ‘gardens’, with musical fountains and topiary.”

In his life sketch of Gandhi, Gopalkrishna recounts how Gandhi once threw a pair of field-glasses of his closest friend in South Africa, Hermann Kallenbach, in the Atlantic in 1914, all because Gandhi thought Kallenbach’s “moral progress” was being hindered by the possession of a costly, material thing. This, Gopalkrishna terms as being “overbearing, even bullying”. No, one cannot find any hint with regard to the ‘complex’ relationship between Kallenbach and Gandhi, despite the ‘revelation’ that was made in Joseph Lelyveld’s book.

Gopalkrishna also recounts how Gandhi almost turned out Kasturba during his stay in Durban, just because she refused to clean the chamber-pot of a new guest, a harijan.

Gandhi was himself shocked at his own imperiousness. Sadly, Gopalkrishna does not venture on to say what price Kasturba had to pay for being a wife to the Father of the Nation — drawing that dichotomous grey line between the public and private. About Jyoti Basu, Gopalkrishna is duly respectful. He gives full credit to him for preventing the 1984 riots in West Bengal, for being a “beacon” of secular politics, and for being, wonder of all wonders, a “quintessential intellectual”. Gopalkrishna, however, is not obliged to align with the widely received notion that under Jyoti Basu’s reign as chief minister, West Bengal saw an institutionalised culture of sloth, mired by militant trade-unionism and the consequent flight of capital and industry from the state.

The book contains rich anecdotes — be it Harilal, Gandhi’s son, who had come to the editorial office of National Standard in Bombay on the night of the assassination with a sheet of paper on which he had written a tribute to his father, only to be turned away by Sharada Prasad, the eminent public servant and columnist, or K R Narayanan flinging an irreverent hypothesis of the redoubtable Karl Popper or of Gandhi. One suspects that his life sketches are too fleeting to be able to capture the enormity of the lives covered. In capturing 20 lives, Gopalkrishna treats his ‘subjects’ with sensitivity, and with his blessed luminosity of insight.

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