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Double role models

Can national and personal instincts co-exist? The lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru hold answers, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2010 23:12 IST

‘Salt?’ they asked in amused disbelief. Of all the oppressive laws of the Raj, the Mahatma had decided in the March of 1930 to break its salt Laws. And challenge, of all iniquitous taxes, the tax on salt. There was derision. And laughter. “Let him make the thing and eat it too!”

But by the time he was on his way to Dandi with 80 men, most of who were less than 30 years old, something deep had stirred within India’s psyche. Reaching Gujarat’s seaboard, Gandhi lifted a fistful of salt-ingrained sand. That act seemed to say, ‘This salt is yours. It was gifted to you by nature, like air and water. No government, much less a foreign government, has the right to hold it in thrall.’ That was on April 6, 1930.

By May, over 95,000 salt satyagrahis were in prison, as were India’s leaders, along with Gandhi himself. Among those taken in was the Congress’ newly-elected president, Jawaharlal Nehru. With his wife Kamala, the 41-year-old leader had defied the salt laws in Allahabad. Nehru was sentenced to six months’ simple imprisonment.

Though his own entry for that day in his pocket diary said ‘Great Day!’, the circumstances were grim. Nehru was placed in a part of the jail that had been earmarked for dangerous prisoners. And he discovered, to no surprise, that his circular cell was known throughout the jail as ‘kuttaghar’, or doghouse. “Was it my fancy,” he was to wonder in his autobiography, “or is it a fact that a circular wall reminds one more of captivity than a rectangular one?” And he added: “The absence of corners and angles adds to the sense of oppression.”

When the bolt clangs shut behind one, the particularisms of lock, chain and wall magnify into a titan of depression. One can let them do so. Or one can reverse the sequence and, instead of letting the minute become maximal, go to the unchained canvas of knowledge and pull it in to miniatures of a new cogency.

Relying on memory and his own notes from previous reading, Nehru wrote from his cell in Naini a series of letters to his 13-year-old daughter Indira. They were on the history of the human civilisation. “I cannot say if you will like these letters...” he wrote to Indira. “But I have decided to write them for my own pleasure.” His pleasure was the world’s profit.

The collection of letters, a gift of contraband salt, became the first 18 chapters of Glimpses of World History. Appearing in 1934, the work was naturally compared to H.G. Wells’ Outline of World History. Far away in America, the New York Times said Wells’ book looked “singularly insular” in comparison with Nehru’s, which was “one of the most remarkable books ever written”.

Nothing could have been more reductionist than making a national struggle pivot on to a single crystal of salt. Nothing could have been more maximalist than letting the white grain grow into an account of the history of the world.

Holed up in the Naini cell was a son, a husband, a father, a nationalist. But liberating himself from the circularities of cell, of family and even of the cause of the nation was an individual with a mind that travelled far and fast — and alone . Writing those chapters on world history, he was being the tarun tapasvi — the youthful stoic — soldiering for India on his own terms, and being his own person on India’s terms.

Can the story of the salt satyagraha, or of the freedom struggle itself captivate the tarun of today’s India?

At a convocation where composer and musician A.R. Rahman was being given an honorary doctorate, I saw an unforgettable scene. The shamiana was teeming with youngsters, boys and girls, from all sections of Indian society. They sat patiently and attentively through the long ceremony. But when, after the speeches were over, Rahman went up to them, they just erupted. With, of course, ‘Jai Ho!

I could not but wonder at how seamlessly we have moved from ‘Jai Hind!’ to ‘Jai Ho!’ Whose ‘jai’ is signalled in the cry that Rahman’s genius has turned into a marvel of two-syllabled aspiration? And what is the difference between the two ‘jais?

I could be wrong, but I think where ‘Jai Hind!’ had a clear and single message of patriotism, ‘Jai Ho!’ contains — like the Beatles’ ‘Help!’, an individual’s longing for assurance.

In a mind-rinsing article in Mint (April 8), Ramesh Ramanathan describes a discussion. The issue: Mohandas Gandhi is debating on whether he should give his life to India’s freedom or become a good husband, father, householder — all of which he is very good at being. What would you, if you were his closest adviser, ask him to do? Ramanathan links this speculative question to the practical one of why a larger cause, like India’s greatness, cannot combine today with the imperatives of personal success. “Why cannot we do both?” he asks.

I can imagine the students at the Rahman convocation saying ‘Jai Ho!’ is in my desire, but ‘Jai Hind!’ is another story, for that we will need a rahnuma.

Is the twinning of personal and national instincts impossible without the catalyst of a millennial leader? Kamal Amrohi’s hauntingly beautiful 1949 film Mahal has a scene in which the train leaving Allahabad stops at a station. The station is none other than Naini. The film’s plangent song ‘Aaega aane waalaa’ has a line that holds both a lament and a challenge for us:

‘Bhatki hui jawaani manzil ko dhuundhati hai,

Maajhi baghair nayyaa saahil ko dhuundhati hai...’

The metaphorical Naini, free and fascinating, is a manzil, a saahil, a station, where a Tarun Special can find its destination.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi was the Governor of West Bengal from 2004 to 2009

The views expressed by the author are personal