January 25, 2020
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Helmsman Of History

A canvas pregnant with ideas

Helmsman Of History
Revenge And Reconciliation
By Rajmohan Gandhi
Penguin Rs 295, Pages: 463
In the midst of death life persists; in the midst of darkness light persists. Rajmohan Gandhi, the well-known biographer of Rajaji and Gandhi, concludes his study on this sanguine note. Some may find fault with his grand narrative encompassing the histories of the subcontinent from the Mahabharata to Pakistan's military adventure in Kargil. But herein, I venture to suggest, lies the strength of the book. If you are not just accustomed to reading tediously crafted scholarly monographs, you can travel far and wide, both in time and space, to discern patterns of revenge and reconciliation in South Asia. Most are familiar with the notion of violence and retribution, but so few attempt to reveal elements of integration, multiculturalism and inter-faith understanding in our polities and societies.

Given his eclectic mind, the author takes you on a historic voyage without much fuss. Armed with a compass of revenge and reconciliation, he steers his ship with ease through the rough and stormy currents of history. The halting places are dotted on the historical map of South Asia, but he and his crew do not detain you for very long on their long and arduous journey. While on board, you will hear the sweet message of the Gita - "the heart's heart of the Mahabharata." You will get a taste of what occurred in Kurukshetra, the site of an epic battle and will be acquainted with its contemporary reading and interpretation. But before you hit the high seas, you are told that "a continual recreation of the epic, with an emphasis on violence and revenge, and a continual prolongation of the past into the present, is the opposite of what we should be hoping for."

Reaching the placid waters of Buddhism, you come across a powerful dissenting or heterodox tradition that challenged the moral and spiritual order created by the Brahmins. Gautam Buddha disturbed the status quo in many ways, but he was essentially an apostle of a very different world where political norms and social management offer a great deal of variety. It may be equally rewarding to explore the wide world (call it civil society, if you like) outside the battlefields and the glittering durbars, and take cognisance of the "Little Traditions" or the subaltern voices in our discourses on Islam and the Muslims.

As a professional navigator, Rajmohan Gandhi takes you towards your destination watching out for the storms and the high tides in the ocean of South Asia. The experience is rewarding, for one is constantly being reminded of the various currents and crosscurrents that shaped the destiny of South Asia during the colonial and post-colonial eras. Professional historians may contest the terrain of The Good Boatman for several reasons. On balance, however, his tour de force is pregnant with some new ideas and opens up fresh areas of research and inquiry. You can look for the springs of revenge and reconciliation in the chapters on the 1857 revolt, Gandhi, and the Partition of India.

From the days of the Mahabharata till the demolition of the Babri Masjid, violence and religious intolerance have taken their heavy toll. What happens in the next millennium? Who will be the reconcilers? What field of South Asian life is likely to rear them? Rajmohan Gandhi has no satisfactory explanation, though he insists that reconciliation may come from the common people of South Asia. As you come to the end of the journey and the ship anchors, the weary traveller may echo Rajmohan's prayer: "May the Good Spirit that quickens the rain and kindles the laughter, the eagerness and the dedication, use willing women and men to reconcile South Asia's ingenious, impossible and lovable inhabitants!"

At the same time he or she may wonder if the gods are listening in this volatile region of South Asia.

Native Tongue

Dyslexia is a fashionable disease and a small industry amongst the western middle classes. In reality the disease is restricted to very few people and consists in the brain interpreting writing that which is from left to right as from right to left. So a dyslexic person would read 'god' as 'dog'. The fashion arises as an excuse for children who are slow with their reading.

The inability to read as other children of the same age do is not seen for what it is - bad teaching, deficient initiation or just a perfectly natural and acceptable longer span of absorption of the particular skills that go into reading. It has to be put down to a brain defect. Hence the rush to dyslexia clinics, which eventually do succeed in teaching children to read and cite their success as proof that the dyslexia existed and was scientifically 'cured'.

A boy in my class at school had a very selective dyslexic manifestation (common to many Indians). He would read and say 'sk' as 'ks' and the other way round. So 'ask' would always be 'aks'. We would ask [or 'arks'] him to say "the eskimo escaped with extra whisky". 'Exclamation' with its 'kskl' Gordian knot was an impossibility.

The evidence that this inability to negotiate an 'x' can become permanent is to be found in the forms of the name which different languages have for the Macedonian Prince and conqueror - Alexander. He is called 'Sikander' as he moves through Arabia and Persia to the Punjab, dyslexising the 'ks' into 'sik'. Further East in the stronghold of Urdu, a language which has made a game of linguistic accuracies, he undergoes the further indignity of being metamorphosed to 'Iskander'.

(A column on Indian words in common use in Indian cities.)

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