Indians revere their leaders, but don’t read them. This comes naturally to a culture that worships physical forms, rather than ideas. But it means that the leader remains unexamined. Here are some facts about great people that we would rather not know.
In his book A Contemporary’s Estimate, Walter Crocker says Nehru would push and slap the people who got too close to him in public, as Indians tend to do.
Nehru was irritable, but also bombastic and verbose, making too many speeches (often three a day) and spending too much time lecturing the West. He was careless with his time, once giving 3 hours to a high school delegation from Australia, while his ministers waited.
Crocker, who served in Delhi as Australia’s ambassador, thought Nehru “had no sympathy for Gandhi’s religion, or for religiousness at all”. But there is a photograph in Mushirul Hasan’s The Nehrus that shows Jawaharlal entering the Ganga wearing a janoi, the Brahmin’s sacred thread. The thread looks new, however, and it’s not visible in two other photographs of him bare-chested, one in swimming trunks and the other doing shirshasan.
Nehru’s annexation of Goa was illegal, though only Rajagopalachari and Jayaprakash Narayan opposed it. Crocker writes what many of us will not believe: If Portugal had insisted on a plebiscite, Goans would have preferred Portuguese rule to Indian.
Though Nehru did poorly at Trinity College, Cambridge, Crocker says he was instinctively brilliant, politely demolishing a Nobel physics laureate’s argument once.
Each to his own: (Left) Jawaharlal Nehru was irritable, and would push away people who got too close to him in public; and Bose showed his military zeal mainly in inspecting parades. Hindustan Times
Unlike urban Indians, Nehru could identify trees and kept a zoo in his house, including three tigers. He allowed a slum to slowly come up right in front of the prime minister’s house, sympathizing with its occupants rather than turning the police on them. Such things reveal the man.
Indians cannot write biographies, and Crocker’s is the finest book on Nehru even though as a foreigner he cannot penetrate the culture. He thinks “lal” in Jawaharlal stood for the colour red.
We think of Indira Gandhi as being tough (Vajpayee called her Ma Durga after she partitioned Pakistan). But Richard Attenborough wrote that one evening as they were talking, she spoke of how ungovernable India was, and broke down in tears. Though this happened during the making of his movie, Attenborough tells us this not in his 1982 book, In Search of Gandhi, but his 2008 autobiography Entirely up to You, Darling.
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The Nehru-Gandhis were sophisticated because they were wealthy, but they were intellectually mediocre. In her biography, Indira, Katherine Frank revealed that Indira failed at Oxford’s Somerville College. She couldn’t clear Latin twice though she had crammed six months for it. She was advised to take up a diploma instead of a degree, but she dropped out of college at 22.
Like Nehru, Rajiv went to Trinity where, according to Dhiren Bhagat’s The Contemporary Conservative, he couldn’t pass his mechanical science degree, failing after three years. Sanjay Gandhi could not even pass high school, dropping out to become a mechanic. After Sanjay died, his wife Maneka launched a party with the grand name Sanjay Vichar Manch. What sort of thoughts could a half-literate 34-year-old have had? Difficult to say.
This lack of a proper education also extended to barristers Jinnah (Lincoln’s Inn) and Gandhi (Inner Temple). Gandhi wrote in The Story of My Experiments with Truth that after he successfully crammed his Latin, he was required only to attend a few college dinners to pass. V.S. Naipaul noticed that the book Gandhi was reading during the Quit India movement, in 1942, was How Green was My Valley.
Rajiv Gandhi could not pass his degree course after 3 years. Photo: Hindustan Times
As a student, Gandhi wanted to engage the West and tried to learn the violin and to dance, before giving up and finding his identity. One very strong influence on him was the 25-year-old Jain merchant Rajchandra, about whom little is known, but whom Gandhi adored.
We know Gandhi was kicked out of first class in a South African train, but in his autobiography he writes of a second time he went first class, this time wearing his morning coat and full suit (he wasn’t kicked out). In Ved Mehta’s excellent book Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles, we learn that Gandhi allowed people to enter his toilet and chat with him while he was defecating.
Jinnah did not write a book, but he mentioned the ones he read. His favourite book was The Count of Monte Cristo and later, in his “Muslim” phase, he liked a pedestrian biography of Ataturk by H.C. Armstrong called Grey Wolf.
In his book Roses in December, M.C. Chagla revealed that Jinnah ate pork, while Friday namaz in south Bombay’s masjids in 1945-46 would end with shouts of “Pakistan zindabad!” and “Jinnah zindabad!”
The great martial hero of the independence movement was Subhas Chandra Bose. R.M. Kasliwal, the Indian National Army’s (INA’s) medical officer, wrote The Impact of Netaji and INA on India’s Independence. Though he is devoted to his boss, the Bose he describes is incompetent and petty. Here’s an example:
“One day he sent for me in his office at the Supreme Headquarters. I entered his room and saluted him and then he started talking to me about some important medical matters when he suddenly moved his left hand at which I thought that he was asking me to take a seat and so I sat in a chair in front of his table and had about 15 minutes of conversation with him and after this I saluted him and returned to my office. In a few minutes General Bhosle came to my office and told me that Netaji was very annoyed with me because I had occupied a seat in his office without permission.”
Dr Kasliwal writes Bose had the military mind of Shivaji, the catholicity of Akbar and the intellectual genius of Vivekananda.
But actually Bose knew little about how to manage an army and the INA collapsed immediately when the Japanese withdrew air support. Dr Kasliwal’s descriptions of how this happened are almost comic, so poorly run was the INA, raised from soldiers who had surrendered to the Japanese. Netaji’s interest, going by this book, was mainly in inspecting parades.
Another Bengali hero who deserves closer examination is Vivekananda.
When I first read the story of Vivekananda at Chicago, I couldn’t understand it.
Why was the line “sisters and brothers of America” special? It was only “bhaiyon aur behnon” in English. How could that excite people enough, as the book claimed it did, to throw themselves at the man who said it? The book did not say. It didn’t sink in that their applause, and it can have been little more than that, was the reaction of a culture unaccustomed to sentiment in public speaking. Further probing revealed that the Parliament of Religions was a body of kooks, and not the equivalent of a religious United Nations that we think it was.
In his 20s, Vivekananda learnt mysticism under Ramakrishna at Belur Math. Ma Sarada’s shrine there has a board outside. It says she encouraged her husband Ramakrishna and others to put her chappals on their head.
In 1890, aged 27, Vivekananda travelled around India for a year. “He began to assume various names in order to conceal his identity that he might be swallowed up in the immensity of India,” according to Advaita Ashrama’s biography. But this isn’t true. Romain Rolland wrote: “Like a diver he plunged into the Ocean of India and the Ocean of India covered his tracks. Among its flotsam and jetsam he was nothing more than one nameless sannyasin in saffron among a thousand others.” This is even less true.
Vivekananda had no wish to be anonymous. He lived with nobility during this time, spending weeks at the palace of Maharaja Ajit Singh of Khetri, and then with Chamaraja Wodeyar, maharaja of Mysore. He was close to Bhaskara Setupati, Raja of Ramnad, who funded Vivekananda’s visit to Chicago. Common people did not interest him, and he spent his time with wealthy European socialites, urging them to give up sex.
Vivekananda left for America in 1893, returning only in 1897. Coming from a nation that was 95% illiterate, whose people knew little about their history or culture before the British and Germans educated them, he lectured the West on the greatness of India. Should he not have addressed Indians instead? He left again for America and Europe in 1899, returning at the end of 1900, a few months before he died in 1902.
One aspect of Vivekananda that shines through in his books is his vanity. He loved having himself photographed, preferably posing in studios. “Vivekananda as a wandering monk” reads a caption of him with a stage backdrop painted behind him. This is in Vivekananda: A Biography in Pictures. There are endless pictures of him playing holy man in full costume (like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) around the world, always posing: pensive, meditating, with his hand stuck in his robe, like Napoleon, and that famous cross-armed posture.
He complains (Letters of Swami Vivekananda) on returning from America, that Indians force him to wear a loincloth and that has given him diabetes. He does strange things, like memorizing Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Why? We do not know and it would be interesting to find out. But we are happy to worship his photographs instead.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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