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Review: Conversations with Myself

Shashi Tharoor assesses the new autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Here’s the verdict.

books Updated: Jan 15, 2011 07:28 IST

Conversations with Myself

Nelson Mandela

Macmillan

Rs 999 pp 454

Nelson Mandela is one of the great figures of our age. Born into South African nobility, educated in the law, forced to break it in quest of the higher cause of freedom and justice from apartheid, imprisoned for 27 long years, and finally emerging, unembittered and majestic, to lead his people to independence and dignity, Mandela looms large in our consciences, part-hero, part-saint. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1994), has already told much of that story, and told it well. Conversations with Myself is not a sequel but rather a companion volume. A carefully-edited compendium of miscellaneous personal observations, Conversations shows Mandela the private man, writing intimate letters from prison, conversing with trusted colleagues, and jotting his thoughts down in notebooks and diaries. There is also a lengthy excerpt from the “unfinished sequel” to the autobiography, written by Mandela himself rather than a ghost-writer. Conversations with Myself (a title inspired partly by Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) adds depth and insight into the private mind of a public figure.

I have had the great privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela three times during my United Nations service, twice in the company of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, when our own exchanges were perfunctory, but once over a nearly two-hour lunch at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where we were able to speak directly to each other at much greater length. The man was in every way worthy of his larger-than-life image. Thoughtful, courtly in the gracious manner of an earlier generation, candid without being loquacious, Nelson Mandela came across as imbued with a great spiritual strength and a profound inner calm. There is indeed something of the saint about him – someone who has undergone great physical and emotional suffering, who has had the prime of his life taken away from him by imprisonment, who has witnessed the death of beloved ones from behind the bars of his cage and seen his marriages deteriorate because of his incarceration, and who has yet proven capable of forgiveness, of statesmanship and of an astonishing capacity for reconciliation. “The [prison] cell,” he writes to his faithless wife Winnie in 1975, “is an ideal place to learn to know yourself.... [T]he cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.” What could be more saintly than the attitude of the writer of those words? And yet on this subject Mandela is almost embarrassed: “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world: of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Conversations with Myself is divided into four parts, each with a neo-classical heading: “Pastoral”, covering his childhood years growing up in villages and small towns in the Eastern Cape, “Drama”, dealing with his years of struggle, “Epic” with the rigours of imprisonment, and “Tragicomedy” with the period of negotiations, freedom and finally power. The last title reflects the ironic detachment with which Mandela often writes, an endearing quality that punctures any editorial pretensions to hagiography.  In one memorable instance, he mentions the elderly African lady from the northern Transvaal who wanted to vote for “the boy who came from jail” (the “boy” was 76!) in her country’s first free and democratic election, but did not know his name and had no clue which of the candidates he was. The author’s modesty is genuine, the self-disparagement wry.

Indians who assume that Mahatma Gandhi was Mandela’s role model will be interested to note that while he had read the Mahatma, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who “was really my hero”. (Indeed, Mandela had told me in our conversation that he had found the Gandhian prescription unsuitable for the anti-apartheid struggle, which took place against an enemy who, unlike the British, could not be shamed into submission). Democrats will savour the many references to Mandela’s political values and beliefs. His rejection of “multiracialism” in favour of a “non-racial society” emphasizes a crucial difference too often lost even on his admirers. Multiracialism, Mandela writes here, “perpetuate[s] the concept of race,” whereas “we are fighting for a society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour.... It is not a question of race; it is a question of ideas.” In such passages it is easy to see why few modern leaders are as greatly admired as Nelson Mandela. Conversations with Myself is a must on every political bookshelf.

(Shashi Tharoor is member of Parliament, author and human rights advocate)