(Published in the Business Standard, August 17, 2010)
As another August 15 passes by, here’s a thought: what would our country have been like if the leaders of the freedom movement had not been readers?
It’s easier to see them as writers. Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiographies, letters and other work have provided gainful occupation for thousands of scholars. Pandit Nehru, incarcerated in jail, bereft of reference books, set pen to paper and produced The Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and Letters From A Father To His Daughter. BR Ambedkar’s Who Were The Shudras, Castes in India and the autobiographical Waiting For A Visa still hold the attention of readers.
And it is their progression as writers that historians and thinkers like Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani have written about. But to study the libraries of India’s leaders is to realize how relentlessly, and sometimes restlessly, all of them, from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Sarojini Naidu, read as a way of understanding the values by which India would be formed.
Gandhi came to English uneasily; the alien tongue made him a virtual prisoner of silence on his shipboard journey to England. In South Africa, as a lawyer who had got over his initial fear of speaking in public, he put together a formidable and eclectic library.
Even a partial list of books on Gandhi’s shelves makes fascinating reading. He read extensively on religion, from Syed Amir Ali on Islam to Moulton on Early Zoroastrianism, and read and re-read the world’s great religious texts. Tolstoy, Thoreau (on the duty of civil disobedience), Max Mueller and Patanjali share companionable space on his shelves.
There is the personal—a book on obstetrics, purchased and read before the birth of his first child, several works on naturopathy, The Vegetarian Messenger, hydrotherapy. In his first year in South Africa, he read “quite eighty books”: most of them on religion. The local histories he read remained influential—an education inspector’s report on Basutoland, for instance, played a key role in Gandhi’s determination to have Indian languages taught in Indian schools.
Nehru was the quintessential privileged reader, with tutors and libraries at home, and later, the libraries of Harrow and Trinity, Cambridge, open to him. His early experiences with the Theosophical Society taught him to read widely—and perhaps skeptically, given his abjuration of organized religion: “an empty form devoid of real content”. Nehru rarely mentioned or quoted the writers he read so voraciously, though one of the books that left a lasting impression on him was Trevelyan’s biography of Garibaldi.
He would, today, be classified as a disciple of Richard Dawkins, the scientist and flagbearer of atheism, and would probably have enjoyed The God Delusion greatly. Long after Nehru had left Trinity and his Tripos in Natural Sciences behind, he continued to read, and enthusiastically recommend, the study of science: “I realized that science was not only a pleasant diversion and abstraction, but was of the very texture of life, without which our modern world would vanish away…”
Ambedkar may have been the most passionate reader of the three. Denied the study of Sanskrit because of his Untouchable status, he had the opportunity to explore his love of books—and the world of empowering ideas they promised—as a young student at Bombay University and then at Columbia. He had mentors in John Dewey and Professor Muller, who lent him books, bought him books and perhaps most crucially, recommended the best of political and socioeconomic thinkers to him. His personal library ran to a vast 50,000 books, representing the range and depth of his interests, from the history of political struggles to Buddhism.
Ambedkar did, according to some scholars, read black protest literature while in America, though he made little direct reference to their works. But here’s an interesting footnote to his history. He wrote to WEB Du Bois, the redoubtable civil rights activist, who took note: “I have on my desk a letter from Dr BR Ambedkar of the Untouchables of India…” Ambedkar made use of his experiences in Slavery Or Untouchability?, arguing that untouchability was far worse as an institution.
But WEB Du Bois had an unusual Indian connection—aside from his friendship with Lala Lajpat Rai, he had penned a romance, Dark Princess, which combined politics and eroticism with admirable economy. In this astonishing work of fiction, Matthew Townes, a doctor discriminated against for his skin colour, meets Princess Kautilya, the beautiful head of an organization of people of colour who plan to overthrow Western imperialism. It ends with the birth of a messiah, “a palpitating bubble of gold”, in tribute to the love between the princess and the idealist.
Whether or not Ambedkar read Dark Princess is, unfortunately, not a matter of historical record. His reactions to a book that included the Ku Klux Klan and a Maharajah of Bwodpur would have been priceless.