Under my byline

Thinking out of the cage

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 21 November 2009

OVERLEAF 56

Admittedly, Jawaharlal Nehru was there at the start of things, the end of an age, the awakening of a nation, that tryst with destiny. So he and others of his generation were better placed than we are to think laterally, to explore all of history for models towards which to incline the path of our future. He also spent years in prison, an enforced separation from the bustle and fire of the freedom movement which enabled him to look beyond the constrained present to the past and future, all in the service of his country. In other words, he used his time in prison to think big for India.

He spent five months of a three-year jail term in the mid-1940s, during the Second World War and at the height of the Quit India Movement, composing The Discovery of India, an extended meditation on history, India’s place in it, and likelihoods as well as lessons for the future. “I have covered a thousand hand-written pages with this jumble of ideas in my mind,” he writes near the end and, running out of paper — which was acquired only with difficulty in prison — he still languishes for a satisfactory conclusion. “The discovery of India — what have I discovered? It was presumptuous of me to imagine that I could unveil her and find out what she is to-day and what she was in the long past.”

Of course it was, but that’s the point. Today hardly anyone, far less a prospective prime minister, would dare to attempt such an ambitious thought exercise. Nehru concludes as he has continued throughout the book, by reflecting that although India is vast and Indians numerous, some ties do hold this nation together and give it a “personality”. In his mind those common ties extend far back into the past — and he muses that in order to enter the modern world India must make use of those common threads rather than deny them. For instance, he says, India must shed the elaborate and stultifying superstructure of religion, which inhibits and opposes human equality and Indians’ receptivity to the fruits of science. In doing so it will not be rejecting itself but embracing a purer and older self — the one represented in earlier forms of Vedic religion, for example, or the founding principles and early practices of Islam. Thereby India will not be imitating the West but fulfilling its own destiny.

And so on. This is a creative as well as politic, if not frightfully original, method. Nehru was not really a profound thinker, nor was he a particularly brilliant prose stylist, but his honesty and the effort he expended in attaining his ideas are open for all to see. What’s more, many of the ideas laid out here and elsewhere in his published writings from before Independence were reflected in his policy programme once he took over the government — which reinforces the impression of his intellectual probity.

Today much of what discussion happens on the state of India, the uses of the past and our potential futures happens within a settled paradigm. Democracy, economy, politics, Shah Rukh, communalism, corruption, IT, Tata, interest rates, Sensex, CBSE/ICSE and things like that form the corners of our mental domain when it comes to imagining the way we are or aim to be. Nehru, partly because he was there at the start of things and partly because he had the education, intelligence and imagination for it, was able to think beyond a paradigm. We now, in comparison, are trapped and caged.

Happy birthday, Mr Nehru, and thanks for the cake.

(The portrait of Nehru at top is by Elizabeth Brunner, the Hungarian artist, from the early 1950s. There is an online exhibition of her work and that of her mother Elizabeth Sass Brunner on the IGNCA website.)

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