The Supple Spine

A warped hash that fans the embers of old imperial verities, this is the story of India fit for a philistine
Jitender Gupta
Rediscovery Of India
By Meghnad Desai
Penguin/Allen Lane | 512 pages | Rs 699

Meghnad Lord Desai of St Clement Danes—not, mind you, of Dharavi—invites the wary reader to “enjoy” his book by “getting angry at the author, disagreeing...challenging his views”. I, for one, do all three. And am “yet having the fun” he urges “which takes you to the end”, as he lurches from a ludicrous preface to his hilarious final chapter, ‘Whose India? Which India?’—as if we natives did not know.

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Our Bombay boy-turned-British peer believes, apparently seriously, that India began to experience nationhood only after Vasco da Gama brought the enlightened West to our benighted land, that “India is a creature of the 150 years since 1857”, and that “there was no Indian nation before then”. Moreover that, but for the British, independent India would never have discovered unity or democracy not only since we would not have been introduced to Bentham or ruled by Bentinck but also because India has had the good fortune of emerging as “a creature of global capitalism harnessed to the winner country”. Indeed, even the Mahatma’s contribution to contemporary nation-building is attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi having been “an England-trained barrister”.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s “myth” of an Indian nation is dismissed by Lord Desai as a devious Congress device to establish its “hegemony” over the freedom movement. Indeed, my noble lord concludes that it is not us poor Indians but “Pakistan” that has “cemented India”.

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Not only Nehru, Gandhi too is not spared for having committed the outrage of squelching Ramsay MacDonald’s Communal Award of 1932, which would have given Dalits 72 seats from separate electorates, by the Mahatma offering them 142 through reservation. “Alas,” he says, the Congress portrayed the Award as “another ‘divide and rule’ ploy” (it wasn’t?!) and the native rascals got away with keeping the Dalits within the Hindu fold. Wah re mere Gujju bhai, you are not only Queen Elizabeth’s faithful servant, you have outdone Abdul Karim in your fidelity to Queen Victoria!

The book’s second half, on the post-independence years, is trite and full of mistakes. The sequencing of 26/11 is also wrong.

Nehru’s Discovery of India begins with his asking those who greet him on his 1937 election tour with the slogan “Bharat mata ki jai” the identity and meaning of this Bharat mata. And the book is a search for the essence of the millennial belief that Bharat is mata because the mother belongs to all of us who through “the trackless centuries” have believed that our being children of a common motherland is what makes us a nation. Nehru articulated India’s unique combination of antiquity and continuity with heterogeneity in the evolution of our nationhood—a civilisation that seeks unity not through uniformity, but unity through diversity, synthesising all races, colours and religions, numerous languages and thousands of dialects, and a bouquet of customs and traditions into a single Indian nation. Perhaps his Lordship’s long years in salubrious foreign lands (for he fled his country of birth as a callow lad of twenty-one) have made Desai forget the sankalp, invoked over at least five thousand years, that places the Indian worshipper in “Bharata-varshe”.

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The book’s second half, about India after independence, is trite, superficial and riddled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies and omissions. He cannot even get right the sequencing of 26/11, for he places the attack on the Taj before the outrage at the CST and the Cama Hospital (and fails to mention the Trident, presumably because it lacks his preference for a “haven of luxury”). As for inconsistencies, he claims “economic policy was the biggest failure of Nehru” and, in the very next paragraph, begins, “Nehru himself was witness to a good decade of growth in India”. And as for omissions, he gives us a potted, patchy history of Rajiv Gandhi as PM without mentioning either panchayati raj, the action plan for a nuclear-weapons-free and non-violent world order, or his championing (against Thatcher’s machinations) of an end to apartheid, colonialism and invasion in Africa, which led to Rajiv being invited as the principal guest at Namibia’s independence day celebrations even after ceasing to be prime minister.

Strange how a coloured immigrant has to twist and turn to become a peer of the realm. And, shame on us, we’ve given not only Chatwal but even this guy a Bharatiya Pravasiya Puraskar.

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