From Megasthenes to Mark Twain, Alberuni to Orwell, visitors from antiquity to the modern times have interpreted India to the world. In time, Indians themselves have sought in the works of these writers a picture of their past. Two recent books by foreign correspondents in India worthily carry forward this rich tradition. Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods, published last year, supplied in lucid, muscular prose a magisterial analysis of the Indian state, economy and foreign relations since Independence. Luce’s book is complemented perfectly by Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer’s Inhaling the Mahatma, which, although covering some of the same territory as Luce’s, is in spirit a wholly different work.
More personal and lyrical than Luce, roving widely and sympathetically among both high and low, and providing superb eyewitness accounts of key events of our recent history, Kremmer tells a double story: of watching a country change, and of being reshaped himself in the deepest ways. Kremmer served two stints in India during the 1990s, and closely saw many of its most tumultuous happenings.
Following Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 1991, he spoke with the former prime minister, confident of a second term in office, only a few days before he was assassinated. Thirteen years later, accompanying the newly elected MP, Rahul Gandhi, on a tour of his constituency, he notes the uncanny similarities between son and father, and the unquestioning, even comical, devotion the Gandhi name inspires among the masses. “On one occasion, a knot of elderly women mistook me for Rahul,” writes Kremmer, “and had to be prised off my feet before falling at his.”
Kremmer was also present when the Babri Masjid went down in 1992. His account records the pandemonium of “thousands of kar sevaks teeming over the crumbling structure like ants on an anthill” and his own scramble for safety, but it goes much further than that.
The heart of Kremmer’s book is a meditation on Ayodhya leading out in several directions: on the meaning of the Ramayana in Indian life, on how faith can shade into religious chauvinism, on the politics of India’s past and the divisive “history wars” of the 1990s. (“History wars,” he notes sensibly, “are civil wars without the gunpowder.”) His must be one of the fullest accounts of the repercussions on Indian life of the events of 6 December 1992. To a journalist’s nose for a good story—the title of his book turns out not to be a metaphor for his Indian experience, but a case of quite literally “inhaling the Mahatma”—Kremmer adds a practised eye for detail (he has previously written two travel books, on Afghanistan and Laos) and a novelist’s love for the riches of language.
Returning to New Delhi after six years, he finds that “the staid, bureaucratic capital wasn’t just growing, it was proliferating, throwing off far-flung suburbs like sparks from a Catherine wheel.” On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, “dhobis slap wet laundry not far from cadavers roasting on pyres, life’s drudgery and death’s drama played out on a common stage.” Investigating the problem of legal pendency, Kremmer arrives in Allahabad, where more court cases are filed than in any other Indian city, to find that the oldest case being tried dates back to 1965. An official confides that “slowly we are moving forward to the present.”
As with the incident in which he finds himself breathing in the Mahatma’s ashes, the real flows naturally into the surreal. Travelling and observing, and changing from “New Delhi expat to old Delhi local” after marrying an Indian girl, Kremmer finds himself being infiltrated by the ways of his adopted country. “Small superstitions or words, particular festivals and customs, had permeated my being as if by osmosis,” he recounts. Pestered with the standard Indian question about why he has no children, he learns to say “Bhagwan ki merzi hai” (It’s the will of god) while “glancing skywards with a resigned expression.”
“Barriers were falling away,” writes Kremmer towards the close, “and I experienced a feeling of being at home in India, taking pleasure in what is, rather than fussing constantly over what it should be.”
Inhaling deeply of much more than just the Mahatma, Kremmer has exhaled an account of India of almost unmatched richness and subtlety.
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