What Good Books Do

Learning Indian history when growing up was like eating an Indian meal – the life you live now is the rice in the middle and you have these little cups on the side with lots of little offerings – never a lot, and never in depth.

thali

There were two choices to learn about history – school books and comics by Amar Chitra Katha. I think ACK did a better job of telling us stories that happened in history right from the pre-Islamic reign until perhaps the Independence movement, the freedom from the British Raj.

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In school you learnt them for exams, nothing big in particular. To be really candid, I remember a few things from then, not a lot. It is amazing how like in the US I suppose, history was more inward looking. So a lot about Indian history, but don’t think we focused on the World Wars as Europeans do (or perhaps the British did).

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It is not embedded into the psyche of the people as much – we don’t commemorate the wars, we don’t have war museums (I’m sure they are under-funded, if they exist) and we don’t have fiction set in the wars as much. People are more preoccupied with what’s going on today – ie, history is always in the making. That does lead to a level of unhinged anchors – because many of us don’t realize the price our ancestors paid for this disruptive democracy we have.

The one thing I remember from studying Indian History in school was the Sepoy Mutiny – what we call the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The year stuck in my head and I have never forgotten the courage and the calamity.

The rest I read from story books – rather non-fiction told in comic strips by ACK. (they are still available, if you want your kids to find out more about Indian history).

Some people stuck in my mind and they became part of the moral fabric of what I was made of eventually. I still quote them and more importantly weigh my decisions in the light of their lives.

Jhansi Rani Lakshmi Bai Rani_of_jhansiShe was a story told over and over and to a young girl that’s a fiercely brilliant role model. My parents surely regretted it when I was a teenager fighting against all sorts of oppression – including staying late, refusing to do chores and getting arranged to be married. But Jhansi Rani taught me if you don’t believe in it, don’t do it. If you believe in it, fight for it. She was part of the Sepoy Mutiny too.

Swami_Vivekananda-1893-09-signedSwami Vivekananda – the disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, the educated socialist who can articulate his thoughts really well. He preached equality, he preached religious acceptance. His words stuck in mind and I still think about it when I am in a situation where I might be unfair to someone – I’m paraphrasing him – but he said – Tolerance is not good enough. Acceptance is what you are obliged to. Here is the speech he gave in Chicago in 1893. Is it relevant today still? Duh!

This is what I got out of it – living in a caste-based society as a teenager. I had to evaluate every day in the light of this teaching – because life in India is not really fair to everyone (just like anywhere in this world).

Tolerance smacks of supremacy. You have to accept it because every religion has a place in this world – because it is one person’s spiritual journey. So there’s no question of one tolerating the other – you have to accept it.

And I think that’s one of the basic principles that have made me a global citizen today and perhaps even a storyteller who loves stories from all over the world.

Subramanya_Bharathi

Poet Subramanya Bharathi – this is an interesting connection for me. I read his poetry as a child. He wrote about women’s education, women’s right to walk tall and conquer the world. He asked women not to walk with their eyes to the ground but stare at the world ahead of them. He lived in the same city as me (sadly a few decades earlier). He was a militant type of poet – up in arms about any type of oppression. One of the reasons I read poetry was because I was attracted to his. I won a poetry prize in school and the prize was a collection of his poems and I still have it and treasure it.

More so, I was inspired by someone who believed women can rise up and change the world. Imagine the head-banging my parents went through as I digested these teachings and put them into practice. I argued about restrictions on clothes, about going out, about whether I can have boys as friends. If the poet knew about me , he would have been chuckling in heaven.

 

netajiNetaji Subhash Chandra Bose – Bose in India does not mean the wonderful speaker system named after another Indian Bose. Bose in India is Netaji. He was the militant double of the non-violent leader Gandhi. He had a different attitude to the British Raj and his was fighting against them. Of course he made some opportunistic choices and did not succeed and did not see India get freedom – but he did make connections with the Atlee and the labour party before he died, asking for Complete Independence.

Until Bose repeatedly argued for it, the Indian National Congress was fighting only for a dominion government – we will be British, but let’s rule ourselves. But Bose argued for a complete severance with the British. Eventually the mainstream politicians including Gandhi and Nehru adopted it too. JAI HIND, which is the national slogan of most Indians and the Indian Army was coined by Bose.

A lot of what I’m writing is from memory. I looked up a few things to see if I was making it up or remembering it wrong. But otherwise the impressions of those leaders are purely from my emotional fabric.

Here is a timeline showing how their paths might have crossed or not.

timeline

So why am I writing about this now? What brought on a flashback into India’s history. Well, what else? I read a book. Yeah, I do that a lot.

Anyway, I read this book that I bought a year or so ago, on the recommendation of a colleague at work. She loved it and she said I would like it too and it is called Elephant Moon.

elephantmoon

I read a lot of fiction set in India, especially the wonderful Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, a Man-Booker prize winner), Arvind Adiga who won for The White Tiger and books written by my writer friends in India. I’ve read V S Naipaul, Ruskin Bond and so many more.

To be honest, I don’t read lots of Indian books written by non-Indians simply because I might not agree with the perspectives. It is a completely different lens. Of course that is not to say they are not great writers or their viewpoint is wrong – but for me, it is their version of India and perhaps being born in India, I prefer an Indian lens – you don’t see things I would see or vice versa.

Does that make me less open? Am I not seeing the world from another perspective? No, I have always seen the world from a British or American perspective because we grew up with foreign books mostly. If not for ACK, I wouldn’t have known much about India and would have learnt a lot more about English villages and cream tea.

As an adult, as someone living outside India for the last 16 years, I understand the different viewpoints and I can see the layer of colonial dust in the language even today when a British person would write about an Indian theme.

However I need to add quickly I understand the right / need for British view on India – they too lived in India. Many left behind legacies, families and more. Many stayed back. They had a different lifestyle I’m sure, a different viewing platform – we have a shared history for the duration of the Raj and a bit before and a bit after. It is good to hear the stories British want to tell about their time in India.

And now I live here and I’m technically British-Asian and understand the lens of the British better. As a child when I read a book about India, I did not check if the author was Indian or British. Now I do. But when I read them, I didn’t understand perhaps the tone or the pre-existing position of their elevated view. Now I do.

Anyway, I digress. I read this book about a British schoolteacher braving the jungles of Burma to enter India during the last few years of the colonial rule and of course when Japan attacked Burma.

A beautifully written book. The language was exquisite and evocative. There is a lot of voluntary admission that the British left too early and their mistakes during this time. (Tongue in cheek, I’m sure that’s all true).

But the axis to the plot was Netaji Bose. Although a lot of ifs and buts were added, to me the book seemed to call Bose a Fascist. It retracts and backtracks and repeats it – perhaps I have to read it again to see if it was as strong as I felt. Or did it touch an Indian nerve, a nerve I didn’t realise was sensitive?

what is this

As a child who grew up revering Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, not remembering his association with the Japanese and the Germans at that time, it came as a shock to me. As far as I was concerned Bose fought against the British, anyway he can. His #1 target was British and anything else was fair game.

This led me to search for answers. See this is what good books must do. This book first made me vehemently refute what the author was saying. Then I wanted to find out more. I read more and I have a movie I want to watch about Bose.

From what I found out over the last two days, of course Bose associated with the Japs and the Germans – but he also met with the Labour leaders like Clement Atlee. (the conservatives refused to meet with him.) He wanted the British out of India – pure and simple. So he met with whoever would help him – and in that adventure ended up getting help from the wrong side of the fence. History also says he realized his mistake and tried to come back – but again with the help of the wrong side.

Perhaps it is the Karma we all Hindus believe in or the ill-will that was sent his way, his plane crashed and he was killed. (Or so we think… the conspiracy theories abound and only this week some 70 year old documents have been released and it opens the debate about Bose and his presumed death).

Here is a documentary about his life.

Bose like me believed in the Gita – the Hindu holy scripture. I believe in many of the tenets in it – the more spiritual ones. One says – Do your duty, be detached from the outcome.

Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana,

Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि

Perhaps that’s what Bose did – he saw his duty as liberating India from the British – he did not expect any rewards in return. Whether everyone approved of his methods – perhaps not. But there is no one way to peel an onion or drive out colonial masters, I suppose. Sometimes the price you pay is bigger than what you had imagined or perhaps the not the price you wanted to pay. But it is easy to point fingers in retrospect and I am proud that he had the courage to step out of line with Gandhi and do it his own way.

So I thank this book for bringing me closer to the truths in my heart, to making me search for things I had forgotten and of course now rekindled my love for Indian history – without intending to.

Good books can do that to you. Keep reading.

*I'm still reading and researching this background of Bose. These videos I've quoted here are widely watched - but I cannot claim anything about their authenticity or accuracy of their research. 

What do you think?