12 July 2009

India After Gandhi - The Book

Being a self-professed avid reader of non-fiction, this is my first serious attempt in writing how I liked reading a book. This is neither a book review nor a synopsis. That is for the pros although, at some points of time, I have made my own half hearted attempts to write reviews of ‘My Years with General Motors’ and ‘The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari’. The former is a book, written in form of a memoir, on which the concept of modern management - as taught by B-schools and espoused by Peter Druckers of the world – is based. I need not to elaborate what the latter is about.

Coming to the book in question, it is ‘India After Gandhi’ by Ramachandra Guha. It was released sometime in March-April 2007. At least, that’s when I read its review in Outlook. The sub-title of the book is ‘The History of World’s Largest Democracy’. It is essentially a political, economic and partly, cultural history of India over past 63 years. Of course, cultural history is not something which changes much over such a small span of time.

I developed a particular interest in the post-colonial history of India, after reading ‘Freedom at Midnight’ by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in 2nd year of my MBA. (Courtesy: Some Crossword Gift Vouchers from A.) The book, although admittedly pro-Mountbatten, gives an adequate picture of pre-Independence days, partition, integration of princely states, and assassination of Gandhi. Although this book is not a purely scholarly work and is written like fiction at many points, as is evident from liberal sprinkling of colorful trivia and anecdotes, it is a good introduction to anyone interested in the history of those tumultuous days.

As with any good work of non-fiction, ‘India After Gandhi’ is well-researched. Guha has delved into a mind-boggling number and variety of books, journals, private papers and referred to archives spread across 3 continents. However, unlike many historians like William L. Shirer writing the history of Nazi Germany, Guha didn’t have access to any classified papers like that of Mrs. Gandhi’s on Emergency or the official papers on Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962. He has also not relied on interviews with people, much unlike Messers Lapierre and Collins.

Chronologically speaking, Guha’s book starts with Cabinet Plan being drawn up for the Partition and ends sometime in 2007. Apart from the well-known leaders, the book introduces the reader to many lesser known characters – politicians, bureaucrats, army generals, policy mandarins, who played key roles, in making India what she is today. Posterity has already passed its judgment on many of them and will continue to do so for the remaining. The characters referred to are as varied as the self-made-among-the-elite (ICS) V.P Menon, the socialist P.N Haksar, the arrogant Krishna Menon and the ramrod straight Gen. Thimmaiya.

The thing I liked most about the book is the objectivity with which the author has tackled all the events and issues even the ones with which it are difficult to be truly objective. As mentioned by Guha in the prologue, it is very hard to write objectively about recent events, especially the events which have occurred during the author’s lifetime and author has witnessed closely, if not as a participant, as an onlooker whose life has been or will be impacted by the same events in some measure. Considering the fact that most of the educated, well-read Indians have sharply etched political views which are more often than not biased and highly subjective, I give full credit to the author for keeping his own personal biases away from the book. Except for a slightly pro-Nehru tone, the reader is not influenced by Guha’s own political or economic views, whatever they might be. At many places where the information is classified, points of history controversial enough to trigger many drawing room debates and academic speculation even today, he resists the temptation to speculate and getting into the What-ifs.

One plausible reason for this is Guha’s lack of formal training as a historian. In fact, throughout the book, it is evident that the author is an amateur historian and it is this particular fact which makes it such a refreshing read.

At the same time, the book is not a narration of factual history. Its prose is lucid and holds attention of even amateur history buffs like me. Unlike the works of A.L. Basham, Romila Thapar or Irfan Habib, the book is for the non-academic type – the mainstream audience. But again, I don’t think completely lay people with no idea or interest in the history of the sub-continent will enjoy this book. But if one has even a passing interest in subjects like Partition, Sino-Indian War of 1962, Mahalonobis, Five Year Plans, Emergency, Kashmir, Tribals, North-East etc., I assure that this is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of work.

On the flip side, I feel that Guha could have devoted some more space to North-East. Considering the two major political disturbances on the two extreme geographical peripheries of India – Kashmir and North-East, Guha has tried to give equal weight ages to both. But viewing the fact that Kashmir is a much more written about subject in the mainstream media, he could have given more attention to North-East, though he has systematically touched upon each of the states separately and the root causes of their respective disturbances.

One of the things which author continues to marvel is how India has survived in spite of so many doomsday predictions by both Indians and Westerners. Through various arguments which include generous praises for Indian Constitution, Guha says that India has not survived because of its complexity and diversity but in spite of it. Guha winds up the book by saying that ironically, all the institutions which bind India today are British legacy – the railways, the civil service, the armed forces and of course, the English language.

And he gives phiphty-phiphty odds for the survival of Indian democracy.

He ends the book on an optimistic note i.e. India will thrive as long as there is a moderately functioning bureaucracy and armed force, constitution is not amended beyond recognition, there exists a free press and citizens can read/write/speak in the language of their choosing.

Probably, there is hope. Hope that we will not just survive but thrive. Not just live but triumph, that romantic dream of India of future, however irrational it may sound, considering all the chaos which is India today.

I saw another comprehensive work on India’s post independence history in Landmark last Saturday. The title is ‘India Since Independence’ and is written by 3 academicians – one of them being Ms. Mridula Mukherjee, present Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library . However, the book appeared to be pretty academic and not-so unbiased.

1 comment:

Amul Kumar Saha said...

Well covered.

As you said, it is not a book review, but an article which comes out on the page adjacent to the editorial. If this is what your intention was. Then you've pretty much achieved it.