WHAT I HAVE BEEN READING LATELY
Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World by Ramachandra Guha, Random House, $52. Time dilutes everything. On August 15, 1947, the day India gained independence from the British, it would have been unthinkable to even imagine that Mahatma Gandhi would ever be held in less than the highest esteem.
But 70 years after the Indian flag was unfurled from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, the idea of Gandhi and all he stood for has become fuzzy and vague to many Indians. To many, he’s just a figure on Indian currency notes. To some, he’s no more than the name of a street in their town. To India’s fervent nationalists, he’s the one who gave Pakistan away on a silver platter.
In this context, historian Ramachandra Guha’s definitive portrait of the most influential man in India’s history is a must-read. It’s not a eulogy, and Guha paints the picture of a larger-than-life man including the foibles that contrasted with his towering personality.
The book opens in July 1914 when Gandhi returns to India from South Africa. By 1919, he’s already the leader of India’s freedom struggle. In simple, precise prose Guha takes the reader through the extraordinary rise of Gandhi in people’s imagination – his long Salt March; face-to-face meeting with the British monarch; and Winston Churchill’s infamous description of him as the half-naked fakir only adding to his stature.
Guha creates unforgettable portraits of Gandhi’s mentoring of Vallabhbhai Patel and Nehru; his inability to build a bridge with fellow lawyer MA Jinnah in spite of many sincere efforts; tussle with the brilliant leader of India’s “untouchables”, B.R. Ambedkar; and his complex relationships with his sons.
There are tender moments between Gandhi and Kasturba and there are some that horrify when viewed with our modern-day sensibilities.
In the end, it is an imprint of Gandhi the man the reader is left with. The man who ought to inspire India today.
Don’t be taken in by fake news, read Guha’s erudite page-turner, it’s worth every cent of the fifty-two dollars.
Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point by Gyan Prakash, Princeton University Press, USD $29.95. On the night of June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, suspending constitutional rights and rounding up her political opponents in midnight raids across the country.
In the twenty-one harrowing months that followed, her regime unleashed a campaign of coercion and intimidation arresting people by the thousands and razing slums. Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, an extra-constitutional authority unto himself, oversaw the government’s imposition of compulsory sterilization of the poor.
Emergency Chronicles sheds light on this episode in India’s modern history.
A bizarre incident that registered Indira’s unequalled authority was the Nagarwala case. On May 25, 1971, the newspapers reported that on the previous day the State Bank of India’s Parliament Street Branch in New Delhi had been duped of 6 million rupees, a very large sum of money at the time. Reportedly, Ved Prakash Malhotra, the bank’s chief cashier, had received a phone call allegedly from the prime minister, who instructed him to hand over the cash to a man waiting at a prearranged location, which he dutifully did. Realizing that he had been hoodwinked, Malhotra reported the matter to the police. The man was soon caught, and most of the money was recovered.
... he was Rustom Sohrab Nagarwala, a forty-nine-year-old Parsi. He had been discharged from the Indian Army in 1951 as a Captain after seven years of service... he confessed and was convicted in a record 10-minute trial on May 27. But he appealed the conviction. During his retrial, the investigating officer in his case was killed in a car accident in November 1971. In a final twist, Nagarwala died of cardiac arrest in a hospital while in custody on February 21, 1972.
Gyan Prakash’s narrative is gripping and packed with mysterious instances such as this. The book is relevant in the context of today’s India where an explosive mix of populism, majoritarianism, nationalism and the government’s seeming control of the media seem to put democracy in peril.
Can a nation learn from history?
The Passage to India by Allan Mallinson, Bantam Press, $42.95. Not to be confused with EM Forster’s A Passage to India, this passage is a chance at redemption offered to Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Hervey who has fallen out of favour with the press for his actions taken to restore order after one of the bloodiest riots in England’s history.
Hervey and his company, the 6th Light Dragoons, are ordered to the state of Coorg in India where the Rajah has broken his bond with the company and the crown.
Mallinson brings the period just before the dawn of the British raj alive, the places, the people, the politics... and the food and the language. He describes a Bangalore that old-timers claim existed until the garden city was reborn as the IT capital of India.
Hervey soon saw why the city was so highly favoured by civil and military alike, for standing as it did at 3,000 feet on the Deccan Plain – though an ascent they’d scarcely noticed – it had more the feel of Malvern than Mysore. There were fireplaces in the houses, a very English-looking church, botanical gardens, ballrooms, a dissenting meeting-house (not unlike that in Horningsham, only bigger), a circulating library, English shops – very English, and yet with Parsee merchants – but yet a Hindoo pagoda at the end of the main street; and elephants and horses walking together in pleasant company.
Orwell on Truth, Harvill Secker, $19.99. If you’ve read Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-four, you know where George Orwell stood on truth in politics. In this selection from his writings editor Alan Johnson distils Orwell’s clarity of thought and skepticism for our post-truth world of fake news and confusion.
The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it. Orwell wrote these words long before nationalism and dictatorship started becoming synonymous.
His candid take on the British Raj in India: There is a prevalent idea that the men at the ‘outposts of Empire’ are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department, and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently. Few of them work as hard or as intelligently as the postmaster of a provincial town in India. The real work of administration is done mainly by native subordinates; and the real backbone of the despotism is not the officials but the Army.
The officials of the Raj, he says, wore a straitjacket where “every man is a cog in the wheels of despotism... you are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself”. The sahib’s opinion is dictated by an unwritten code. “And in the end there is nothing honourable, hardly even sincerity.” As Orwell wrote in May 1944, “Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives, that will become official history”.
Refuge by Dina Nayeri, River-head Books, $36. A moving, beautiful story of how the bond between a father and daughter are impacted by global immigration as their lives play out on two different continents. Niloo escapes to America as a child, her father Bahman stays behind in Iran and witnesses her transformation from a confused immigrant child to an overachieving Westerner from afar. With just four reunions spread over two decades in different international cities, their lives appear to have diverged. Until she begins to receive increasingly frantic e-mails from his address and becomes immersed in the lives of refugees who are flowing into Europe.
Great Job, Dad! by Holman Wang, Tundra, $16.99. A wonderful celebration of Dad’s many roles. Dad works like a manager in an office. At home, he cooks, is the chauffeur, and sometimes the judge, when siblings fight. He’s a librarian who reads to his kids, an architect who builds tent forts. Holman Wang creates a warm fuzzy family with characters he crafts out of felt and then photographs in natural locations with scale-model sets.
Puneet Sandher’s Teen Review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, Crown, $20.18. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a mystery filled novel, with a group of women trying to find a voice in the midst of World War II in the quaint village of Chilbury, England. This historical fiction is for those who want to learn about or have a great interest in World War II and the struggles that women went through during that time period.
In every chapter, the perspective of the novel changes between the main characters: Mrs. Tilling, Kitty Winthrop, Venetia Winthrop and Edwina Paltry. The novel begins with the funeral of Kitty’s and Venetia’s brother who has fallen in the war. In Chilbury, with almost all the men off at war, the choir has been disbanded. However, the women band together and resume the choir with a female choir conductor. They form a strong bond with their passion for music while going through their own personal struggles that have come with the war. The people of Chilbury are filled with fear for their men that are off at war and the enemy spies that could be lurking in the shadows among them.
Ryan creates a page-turning novel with main characters that are drastically different from one another but have a similar dream of being more than how society views women when the war ends. Ryan has a novel filled with independent female characters, with their own hopes and dreams set in a time period where women are considered the underclass.
• Puneet Sandher is a grade 10 student and a member of Brampton Library’s Teen Library Council.