S. Sivadas 

Waiting for the Mahatma

On the eve of the sesquicentennial year of Gandhiji’s birth, it is quite natural that there is a flurry of books about the Mahatma. And among them most prominent has been one by Ramachandra Guha, historian, biographer, sports chronicler and environmentalist, who has come out with his second book that pans his life from 1914 to the death; Gandhi 1914-1948: The Years That Changed the World. This impressive book is also exhaustive and runs into over a thousand pages and there is not a dull page.

When the Collected Works of Gandhiji project was undertaken in the late fifties, under Prof. Swaminathan, a young man had gone to him for a job and the benign Gandhian advised him that their project would be wound up in a couple of years and he better try elsewhere for a more secure job. But the collected works seemed to accumulate much karma and at the end of the century their offices had expanded to occupy an entire block of buildings in RK Puram and with editors, associate editors and assistant editors and a whole generation had joined and retired from it. The nearly one hundred volumes of his collected works is an impressive project by any standards.

Guha’s first volume was on Gandhi before he came on to the Indian scene and that has been substantial as well. When Gandhi landed in India one of the first persons he was anxious to meet was Vivekananda but the Swami was too ill to meet him. Sri Aurobindo was in Baroda and was in the process of discovering his own country and its destiny and they never met. In distant Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu Ramana Maharshi was ploughing a lonely furrow and Gandhi did not travel there, though a host of Western writers and thinkers had met him and had been written of their experiences extensively.

The public intellectual Guha is probably the most apt person to unravel the Gandhi mystique and this multifaceted persona in the second decade of this century.  How could Gandhi be made acceptable to a digital, distracted generation that has already turned its face against all that he stood for? Even his closest disciple Nehru had problems comprehending the antiquated ideas of soul force and inner voice, and it was as well that Gandhi passed away soon after Independence. Had Gandhi lived for another decade he would have disapproved of the many new temples that Nehru had planned and executed. Despite the halo of sainthood Gandhi was anything but that and the inner voice and fasts were all tools he used to get his way about and Nehru would have found it difficult to push through his reforms.

Guha, an avowed Nehruvian, has explained the contrasting personae and how they complemented each other and paved the way for a smooth transition of the country during the first half of the last century. This he does with wit and lucidity and it is quite a tightrope walk that he performs. To paint Gandhi as a liberal icon, a voice of tolerance and sweet reasonableness to a generation that is on a different trajectory, is quite a feat. This is all the more necessary because the problems the country face now are vastly different from those at the time of Independence and without contextualising these it would be difficult to keep up a dialogue. All the same many of the issues Gandhi had raised, like the primacy of agriculture and living in harmony with nature all of which he imbibed from Thoreau and Tolstoy, are relevant today when we are beginning to feel the impact of climate change and the dangers lurking behind. This Guha has tried to put across cleverly and lucidly to another generation. And more than many Gandhians and critics he has achieved this, and quite effectively.

Academic Ramin Jahanbegaloo in his new book,Gandhian Moment, charts a different course; of how Gandhi’s non-violent method of resolving disputes and persuading the rulers had touched a chord everywhere. Though he has been known as a votary of non-violence, Gandhi’s stature as s an astute political thinker has been somewhat obscured, he points out. As also the impact he had made across the world, right from the Civil Rights movement in the United States to Nelson Mandela’s struggle for liberation in South Africa or, nearer home, even the Dalai Lama’s displacement and exile.  As a theorist of the non-violent mode of protest Gandhi’s role has been exemplary, according to Jahanbegloo.  He should know, as one had been incarcerated in Iran for seven years for his political views and finally allowed to move to Canada and finally arrive in India, to the land he so much loved. According to this Iranian scholar, Gandhi’s core ideas did transform the world; from the political protests in the US, to the anti-Vietnam movement and, finally, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He foresees Gandhian principles coming into play in the new conflict zones that the Islamists and other fundamentalists are posing in many parts of the world.

According to Jahanbegaloo Gandhi is a political theorist and intellectual founder of a system predicated on the power of non-violence that challenges state sovereignty and domination. This has been the culmination of his inner struggle to recognize one’s duty to act which, according to him, is the ultimate ‘Gandhian Moment’. No wonder he inspired such diverse Muslim activists of that era as Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who exemplified the power of non-violent struggle for independence.  Thus his book places Gandhi in the global context and his relevance today.
Though he drew extensively from Hindu thought to assert the primacy of moral duty over individual rights, Gandhi rejected its chauvinism. So it is more relevant now when we are faced with the twin pulls sectarian pressures and intolerance as well as eternal compulsions.

Apart from the Gandhi revival, one of the issues that had generated much concern and debate has been the economic scene that had been through convulsions ever since the country opened up to the  new economic order. The miracle workers that Narasimha Rao’s dispensation brought in to bring to life the economy that had been on life support after the failure of the Soviet style planning and the first flush of euphoria had died and the wrinkles had begun to show, did  live up to their reputation. There was a decade of stability and then when the regime changed the after-shocks began to be felt. This was the time votaries of the Washington Consensus began to feel uneasy and unwelcome and  were replaced by others who too were more or less of the same mould. The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy by Arvind Subramanian is an effort to understand and contextualise this transition and the convulsions that it has created.

Perhaps the biggest tremor the new dispensation caused was the demonetisation, which the former economic advisor has described as Draconian. He writes that in one feel scoop 86 per cent of the currency in circulation was withdrawn and the growth that was slow earlier slid down further. The irony is that Subramanian on various occasions could have analysed demonetisation and said the right thing. In the Economic Survey of 2016-2017, one of the most innovative and informative of documents he had brought out, for instance, Subramanian had said: ‘What we can definitely say is that there have been short-term costs but there are also potential long-term benefits which we discuss in detail.’

He had also at that time tried to argue that the government would benefit because of all the demonetised money that won’t come back into the bank. In the Survey published in early 2017he was sanguine and said the ‘government’s windfall arising from unreturned notes should be deployed toward capital-type expenditures rather than current ones.’ This despite the fact that by the end of November 2016, it was more or less clear that almost all the money would come back into the banks. Ultimately, more than 99 per cent of the demonetised notes did come back.

The puzzle is why did he try to build a false narrative and wrongly defend demonetisation.. It is even more ironical that sometime later in a lecture he said that ‘experts often hold back their objective assessment. They censor themselves, and in public fora are insufficiently critical and independent of officialdom. To the extent they offer criticism, it is watered down to the point of being unidentifiable as criticism.’

Though he chose not to follow his own advice when it came to demonetisation, a few months after leaving his job, he has suddenly found his voice and is doing the things he had been advocating so eloquently.

For Dr ‘Venki’ Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and president of the Royal Society, it had been a long journey from Baroda to Cambridge in Britain after a career in the US. The account of his life which is a classic seeker’s pursuit of knowledge, Gene Machine, the race to decipher the Secrets of the Riobosme, is so lucidly written that even the complicated scientific aspects tend to read easy. He has a fluid style and a wry humour that it holds even the lay reader glued. On the Nobel Prize itself he mentions the corruption that the prize can cause, often affecting the hard work most scientists do in their laboratories and with collaboration across frontiers. But the hankering for the prize, the wait for the telephone call from Stockholm, the Nordic accent, so distort some of their behaviour and the trauma they suffer when they fail to get one, he has termed as pre-Nobilitis.

It does not end there. After they get the prize comes the post-Nobelitis phase when they are celebrities and are called upon to pronounce opinion on everything regardless of their expertise, and it soon goes to their head.
This might be an odd thing for a Nobel laureate to say but in one chapter, The Politics of Recognition, he writes about the ‘corruption’ that can be caused by the awarding of prizes, which, in his opinion, can distort the coverage of their day-to-day work.

In a disparaging way he laughs at the suggestion that Kolkata might pay him the ultimate tribute by ensuring that pirated editions of his book quickly appear on College Street sidewalks. Or what the taxi driver at Cambridge station recognizes him and exclaims: ‘Ah, LMB. Francis Crick Avenue.’

Of the book, as beautifully written as Watson’s Double Helix, Venki, who shared the  Prize with two other scientists working  on ribosomes, says: ‘The idea of the book is first of all to talk about the ribosome and why it’s important. Here is a small molecule which is older than DNA — almost every molecule in the cell was either made by the ribosome or made by enzymes which were themselves made by the ribosomes. Think of it as the mother or grandmother of all molecules.’

For a person who is a ‘bit of an outsider who came from India and went to physics and switched to biology and slowly had to work my way through’, it has been a long journey. ‘I did not go to very prestigious institutions initially and I talk about what it was like to slowly make my way into this problem and then find myself in the middle of this competition; how it all seemed as it unfolded.’

In all this topsy-turvy scenario, where it difficult to make sense of things, comes the story of an American pilot who crash lands in a desert and finds refuge in a camp which he had been assigned to bomb. This anarchic, tragic and staccato story can only come from the pen of the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Mohammad Hanif’s new novel, Red Birds, is about the sordidness of war taking places across the world, in the deserts and lush forests that has been so evocatively captured in this wild novel that a teenage refugee and a philosopher-dog narrate by turns.

This British-Pakistani pilot turned satirist’s novel is difficult to classify. It is a romping  tale of a US air force bombardier who starts out eager to scorch some ‘goat-fuckers’ and his laser-guided bombs are labelled ‘YES’, and ‘OH YESS’.  ‘What is a war if not an opportunity, ‘his boss had told him and so he volunteers for missions to escape weekends with his wife: ‘Nothing better than shedding your load, that shoulder-sapping feeling.’ It is thus he crashes in the desert and, after a week of starving and wandering, is rescued by a teen called Momo and his dog Mutt, residents of the refugee camp.

Momo is a capitalist with loyalty for hire and is a destitute with a copy of Fortune and a fake American accent. His elder brother, Bro Ali, disappeared after a mysterious transaction with Americans occupying a nearby hangar and the ‘the Hangar’ (always capitalised) fascinates and terrifies camp residents. Momo is a richer character and the state of his heart and mind is the most moving and engaging: he is unabashedly ambitious, funny, heartbroken. He complicates the picture of helpless children in refugee camps; he accuses the US directly, questions its easy lies, and asks to be paid for his ideas.

Into this arid desert walks in an USAID consultant who wants to study the Muslim teenage mind. She is ‘conducting a survey on post-conflict resolution strategies that involve local histories and folklore’. This ‘Lady Flowerbody’ intends ‘to use this community as a laboratory for testing my hypothesis about how our collective memories are actually our cultural capital.’ The embodiment of  tautological bullshit with a purse full of recreational hash, she says, ‘ Let’s admit that things happen on both sides.’  This hypocrisy is eerie in the mouth of a character who represents western academia. Momo doesn’t buy into her ‘do-gooder’s trickery’. He has seen scholars come through bearing chocolate, squeezed him for details, instructed him in western strategies for managing his pain, and then written books. ‘First they bomb us from the skies, then they work hard to cure our stress … I get PTSD, she gets a per diem in US dollars,’  Momo says.

All these seem familiar and whether it is the tomes that have been churned out on Gandhi or the condition of the economy or the global pursuit of this mysterious ribosome, roping in even the ‘Polish crystallographic mafia’ and finally ending in the podium of the Royal Palace to receive the Prize, they all are more likely to make sense only when viewed through teenage eyes of the destitute who can see that the emperor is without clothes.