Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The eternal search for India’s soul

by Kuldip Dhiman

Father India by Jeffery Paine. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 404. Rs 295.

When on his way to Benares, Carl Jung landed in hospital with dysentery, he said jokingly: "I got dysentery because I could not digest India." There were many before him and many after him who came here and were either shocked or surprised by what they experienced. Some come here for seeing the natural wonders and they are rewarded; some come here to get away and they find an ideal escape and relief as E.M. Forster did and found no European within 20 miles. Then there are others who come here looking for answers and it is usually this variety of traveller who loses his way, for the answers are not available at the airport bookshops or in the temples and caves where holy men reside.

Jeffery Paine, a contributing editor who has been writing for the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and many other publications, tries to analyse the predicament of people to whom India is the ultimate destination. "Father India" — a rather uninspiring title of this otherwise excellent book — was chosen "to evoke a little of these travellers' disorientation and surprise when they discovered that tradition, and everything else, were not what they were supposed to be."

Paine revolves his story around three main characters — Lord Curzon, Mrs Annie Besant and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, because these three in his opinion embodied in their person the battle for the soul of India. The others who have a comparatively small but important role to play in this metaphorical oriental voyage are Madame Blavatsky, Aurobindo Ghosh, Mirra Richard, E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, W.B. Yeats, Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, Martin Luther King Jr and so on.

Aided by an evocative prose, the author manages to bring Curzon and other figures to life. Curzon's second great ambition was to become Prime Minister of England; which was the first? Elementary! It was to become Viceroy of India. And when he arrived in India in 1899, he had a specific purpose in mind. "He recognized," Paine observes, "that India sometimes served as a combination spa-mental hospital-penal colony, where England deposited its mentally and morally enfeebled sons. In Britain's Indian Civil Service (ICS) many a dullard and incompetent found a place, but they were not the worse. Vicious, sadistic officers — possibly not so many in number, but not many were needed to do untold harm — viewed the native populace as a semihuman species, whose understanding was limited to a boot in their arse." Curzon wanted to change that and do more good for the Indians than they could do for themselves. A tall order indeed, but Curzon nearly measured up to it.

For instance, Curzon wished to cancel the Coronation Durbar of Prince Edward in 1903, because he felt it could be better celebrated by reducing the unfair salt tax that Indians paid. "Curzon liked his position not so much for its magnificence as for its hardships. He inspected disease-ravaged slums and cholera hospitals and relief kitchens, where titled Englishmen never trod ..." He was also one of the first to advocate colour-blind justice.

But it was not a smooth sailing for him here. He did have his moments of frustration. "Nothing has been done hitherto [in] six months," he complained to an old friend. "When I suggest six weeks, the attitude is one of pained surprise; if six days, one of pathetic protest; if six hours, one of stupefied resignation." Not much has changed since your time, Lord Curzon.

But like most great men, Curzon made some fatal miscalculations in his life. One was the decision to partition Bengal, and the other to appoint Horatio Herbert Kitchener as head of the army in India. And this move was the instrument of Curzon's downfall.

Paine then turns his attention to Annie Besant, the rationalist's rationalist, the "militant Annie". Not many appreciate the fact that this firebrand woman asserted her identity long before the word "feminism" was coined. She had the guts to take on the intellectuals of her time and the guts to take on the mighty Empire. "To know Annie Besant's stance on anything concerning India," Paine writes, "is simply to flip Curzon's position on its head. The decayed, backward Indian civilization Curzon found in such need of English restoration and repairs, Annie acclaimed as on a par with, and in many ways superior to, Europe's own."

Annie Besant's initial flirtation with spirituality followed by its acceptance mainly due to her friendship with the ubiquitous Madame Blavatsky shocked many in England. It was a time in history when science was finally coming into its own. Darwin had changed the way we thought, and within a few years man would learn to fly. At this juncture, when everybody was awed by the brilliance of science, there was Mrs Besant going in the other direction. And although she is very well remembered in India, it is surprising that she doesn't find mention in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Paine should have dwelt a little longer on the coming that went wrong, in other words the refusal of Jiddu Krishnamurty to play Messiah, or World Teacher — a dream dearly cherished by Annie Besant. She and her other colleagues had invested so much in Krishnamurty, that the Theosophists went into a tailspin by Krishnamurty's refusal. Surely it is not as simple as saying no. It requires great courage to say no to such a tempting proposal of having the world at your feet. Years later when Krishnamurty was asked what would have happened if Mrs Besant had not adopted him, he replied characteristically that he would have died of tuberculosis.

While others came here for salvation or seeing the splendour of culture, E.M. Forster came here to cure himself of his massive writer's block. And he chose the small principality of Dewas, but he was "determined not to have a small or provincial experience of it. He used it as a microcosm, placing it as it were under a magnifying glass, to reveal something large both about India and about himself". He had his reasons, and so did W. B. Yeats and Christopher Isherwood. "India's religious appeal to people like Yeats and Isherwood," Paine observes, "was exactly this, that experience in it appeared organised and categorised in ways different from the West at large. Christian theology categorises one as either orthodox or heretical, but in India Madame Blavatsky could be happily both and neither."

When Gandhi entered the political arena, the British were totally unprepared for him. They "knew how to deal with an insurrectionist armed to the teeth but not with someone claiming the weapon he carried was his love for them. Indeed, what is any westerner schooled in Locke and Jefferson to make of Gandhi's claim that his political activities merely furthered his quest for religious salvation?"

One person who the author should definitely have included is Sir Richard Burton, the eternal traveller who knew more Indian languages than most of us know, who translated Kamasutra, and who was so successful in disguising himself as an oriental that he was perhaps the first and only non-Muslim to enter Mecca.

This book is not a cold narration of historical figures and events; it is rather a passionate study of the dramatis personae presented. More than the historical accounts, what makes it a pleasure to read is the masterly flourishes that the author adds in his narrative; the way he delves into a character's psyche, the way he compares and contrasts one figure with another, the way he weaves anecdotes, personal accounts, and his own analysis to present the reader rounded characters rather than frozen figures from the pages of history. His characters are not like the wax images of Madame Tussaude's museum; they seem to breathe

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