Yes, through the yearning for freedom when Britain ruled the waves, finds Rajmohan Gandhi, well-known historian and grandson of two great sons of India, Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji, in his latest path-breaking comparative historical study, ‘A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War’.
Despite occurring at ‘opposite ends’ of the globe, the entry point for his inter-continental tale, as he puts it, was an Irishman, William Howard Russell, reporter of ‘The Times’ of London, perhaps the modern world’s first war correspondent, who covered both those conflicts. In that huge space-time theatre, Gandhi’s spectrum amazingly rediscovers a host of other great personalities, from the Indian Renaissance figures like Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Ishwarachandra Vidyasagar, to Tolstoy and Karl Marx, who then critiqued the social developments and influenced people later too after their lifetime. Rajmohan Gandhi, former Rajya Sabha MP and currently teaching at the University of Illinois, USA, who was in Chennai recently to interact on his latest book, dedicated to his late philosopher-brother Ramchandra Gandhi. He spoke to M R Venkatesh of Deccan Herald.
Your book deals with two seemingly unrelated but very profound developments in two far-away continents in the history of colonial struggles. What really made you take this plunge?
The biggest prod was my own curiosity or desire to retell both stories and marry the two events. Bringing the two to one stage was certainly a gamble but my keenness overrode anxiety. I am hugely relieved that readers have found the two-in-one interesting. I was lucky too to find a live link between the two events in the person of William Howard Russell and to run into unforgettable characters like Abraham Lincoln, Marx, Tolstoy, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Vidyasagar, Jotiba Phule, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Allan Octavian Hume, Lakshmi of Jhansi, Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow and Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With characters like the above, it was difficult to go wrong.
People hardly sensed that two endearing metaphors symbolised by Mangal Pandey, the first Indian Sepoy mutineer in 1857, and the other, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ that shaped anti-slavery sentiments in the USA in the 1850s, can be bridged.What is the fulcrum that linked them? The Britisher rulers?
Yes, the British were deeply involved with both dramas. Palmerston was the British prime minister during both the revolts. Though he was on the wrong side of history by wanting to raze Jama Masjid in India and by wishing for southern successes in the American Civil War (in favour of continuing with the slave labour system), Palmerston was at the time, and in his country, a much-admired symbol of ‘top-dog’ Britain, the world’s leading imperial power. His friends would have never imagined that in time Lincoln would so totally eclipse him.
While Huntington’s famous thesis is often quoted to back a ‘clash of civilisations’ theory, your retelling of the two revolts from one grand stage, seems to give a chance for peace and greater understanding between peoples...
I found in my research and retelling that with all their flaws and serious blunders, the rival sides in the two clashes were at bottom the human beings. Though many yielded at times to cruelty (often out of alarm) and many were unwilling to yield their power to dominate, now and then they also disclosed simple human wishes and longings. While in America, Lincoln tried to tap into the common wellsprings of humanity on both sides, India in the 1850s and 1860s lacked a figure, whether Indian or British, making a similar attempt. But those wellsprings did exist.
In your long distinguished career as a writer, editor, biographer and historian, would you say your latest book fits into an evolutionary pattern that takes forward elements from all the above?
I have no idea. I merely followed my intuitions. If that interested some readers and helped me evolve, I would count myself lucky.