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Saintly confessions

Nelson 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

books Updated: Jan 14, 2011 22:45 IST

Conversations with Myself
Nelson Mandela
Macmillan
n R999 n pp 454

Nelson 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 personal observations, it shows Mandela the private man, writing intimate letters from prison, conversing with trusted colleagues, and jotting his thoughts down in notebooks and diaries. The book (its 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 Mandela thrice 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, we were able to speak with 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, he 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’s undergone great suffering, who’s had the prime of his life taken away from him by imprisonment, who’s seen his marriages deteriorate due to his incarceration, and who’s yet proven capable of forgiveness, of statesmanship and the 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 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.

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” emphasises a crucial difference too often lost even on his admirers. Multiracialism, Mandela writes, “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’s easy to see why few modern leaders are as 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