Sunday, October 21, 2007

Geert Mak's "In Europe"

Earlier this year, I got a copy of Geert Mak's "In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century." I dipped into it at a couple of bookstores, and was convinced I should read it. I brought it back to India and started it in June. I just finished it last week. Admittedly, it is a huge book (over 800 pages) and I have been very busy, but that is still a very long time for me to take over one book.

What a masterpiece!

It is a 20th century history structured like a travelogue, but there are places where the archival research could rival a traditional history book and places where the first person account is pure oral history.

For me, one of the most striking things about this book is the time and attention devoted to the Second World War. When you study either modern European history or the history of international relations at an Indian university, WWII (in student-write) is usually important but occupies no more than a maximum of 15-20% of the curriculum. Geert Mak devotes at least half and sometimes it seems like a lot more, of his book to this event.

There are first person descriptions of key events, carefully reconstructed battlefield accounts and passages from diaries and letters that describe life during the war. I wanted very much to quote some of them but I did not, alas, read the book with a pencil or place bookmarks along the way so I cannot. There is no escaping how horrible the wartime experience was for any side.

From the chapter on Leningrad in 1942:
page 430: ' "You had to be in line at the bakery at 5 a.m., by 11.00 there was no bread left. It wasn't easy to walk around when you were starving, you had to drag yourself along by force of will. If possible, you kept all your clothes on in bed. You lay there like a big ball of rags, you forgot you even had a body. But, well, we were young Soviets, we had absolutely no doubt that we would be victorious." '
Page 431: ' "It was the women who won the war, everyone knows that. Their lot was the heaviest to bear. The party bosses could leave the city and come back by plane. They had their own food flown in as well, we found out about that a few years ago. They told dramatic stories about all their heroic hardships, but meanwhile they took good care of themselves. The common people couldn't do that. We wasted away; we were being shelled all the time."

If I had not told you that was about Leningrad in 1942, you could have assumed it was any contemporary war zone.

I would recommend this book as a companion to any European history text. I think it is a hard read but only because of the seriousness of its subject matter.

The writing is excellent, even in translation (or should I say the translation by Sam Garrett is excellent) and it humanizes events whose reach was global although in Mak's book, the rest of the world is really a distant footnote. That is in itself odd given Europe's imperial commitments at this time.

In that sense, along with the attention focused on one period and the relative lack of attention to the impact of decolonization, Mak underscores the very Eurocentric nature of the European perception of this war. I am not a historian of this period but I do not think I would be far off the mark in saying that by contrast, America's engagement with the world really began during this war. American popular histories, in print or film, seem to take cognizance of non-Euro-American people who were part of the war effort, even if Americans are portrayed in a singularly heroic light. I am only talking here of the way in which the Second World War is portrayed and perceived, and from a very inexpert perspective.

I found this book marvelous too for its descriptions of small detail and its quiet humour, expressed as relish rather than mockery, of the things that make us human. I am sure someone with the inclination will find a million things to deconstruct and critique from some deeply political perspective. I just soaked in the detail and traveled through time with Mak. I wish someone would write something like this on our part of the world.

And what I was going to say right after that, reminded me of another remarkable feature of this book: Mak himself features very little through its 800-plus pages although you know it is a journey he is undertaking and he does occasionally refer to himself to tell us where he went and how. It is a book written without the need to showcase the author's genius, and therefore, it does precisely that.

I cannot do justice to this book in one post, and I would really urge you to find a copy and persevere through it. As for me, this is going to be the year of 'fat books' (started with Rajmohan Gandhi's 'Mohandas' which I loved) and I have Ramachandra Guha's book and Nayan Chanda's as well waiting for me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gandhi and me (and you, if you like)

Everyone is writing about Gandhiji, why not me?

Earlier this year, I read Rajmohan Gandhi's 'Mohandas' and found it utterly absorbing. Having grown up on a mind-numbing diet of Gandhian hagiographical texts that caricatured and rendered him boring, I was captivated to discover him as a person, and a person I could have related to, in this account.

Six months after that reading, the image that stands out the most in my mind is that of a person all alone in spite of the crowd around. There is actually a paragraph in which the author signals this, but as the story of Gandhi's life moves towards its conclusion, it is hard to miss. When everyone called him Mahatma, placed him on a pedestal, asked him for advice, to whom could he have said: I am not sure or I don't know why but I just feel low today? To his credit, he did not hesitate to voice doubt. He was not encumbered by the need to keep up appearances. If he was not sure or if he found himself inconsistent, we know it now. 'Satyameva jayate,' but the point of departure with Gandhi was that he was as honest with himself and about himself with others as he could muster. This is greater heroism than camping in strife-torn Noakhali, in my view. Harder to overcome the impulse to construct a heroic meta-narrative for one's own life than anything else.

Also difficult, the need to align one's life and ideology, one's personal habits and one's rhetoric, and Gandhi tried to do this admirably and annoyingly; he was evangelical about some of these things. But as I write this, I think that for all my blogging about the lack of public sanitation, if I were Gandhi, I would probably go out there and start cleaning up after people. Now the moment I say that, this Gandhian streak seems less annoying and more admirable.

In fact, the alignment of personal and political in Gandhi's life is remarkable because of the way it manifests. In our day, it is more common to see it in the form of friendships at best and patronage or nepotism at worst. For Gandhiji, it took two forms. The first is this need to walk the talk, to do what you say should be done. The second is closely aligned: a cultivation of personal qualities that have been valued by this civilization at all times.

These qualities begin with the ability to be true to yourself and to be honest. Gandhi's language reflects his deep roots in Indian ways of thinking and being, and being true to yourself is also being true to your dharma (however you define it). This is the second quality: courage of conviction, and doing what is right or righteous. Gandhi's references to Rama evoke not a mythical or historical personage as much as they do a set of values for public life: upholding dharma or law, carrying out one's duty, doing what is needed, taking action. (It is another matter that we may read those definitions of dharma or right action differently; but the right or even duty to define for oneself is surely part of this tradition.)

More than all of these, for years now, I have been struck by the idea that a satyagrahi must first meet some criteria before she can offer satyagraha (not wage, but offer). The notion that a degree of personal evolution is a prerequisite for political or public action moves me greatly. It resonates with the important Indian value that saiyyam (self-control or self-discipline, but less negatively) is to be cultivated by all persons and personages. The Puranas are full of stories about gods (Indra, most often) who are unable to control their lusts, their egos, their anger. Indra's repeated fall from grace is a mythical illustration of Shantideva's advice that a moment of anger can be a monumental spiritual setback.

I will not declare here that all politicians are bad or politics stinks. But how many politicians or political activists can you think of that come into the public arena without avarice or ambition, without anger or without ego. Each of these is harder to lose than the one before. We may not seek fame and fortune in politics, but how much better is it if your activity is constantly fueled by anger?Nowadays, I find that perpetual outrage very hard to be around. Yes, there is a great deal to be outraged about, but witnessing the anger, one should be able to move without it towards action. And leaving behind ego? For most of us, it would be hard to separate our selves from our egos even intellectually.

Gandhi's view that the satyagrahi within has to cultivated before a person can offer satyagraha is therefore inspiring. It is irrelevant whether Gandhi or any other satyagrahi consistently and perfectly met this requirement. What is very relevant is the idea that social change begins within a single individual, that the individual's inner journey animates the public one.

This works on so many levels. If I am struggling and struggling with awareness and honesty that I am, I am more compassionate towards others, no matter what their challenges. Compassion enhances my identification with them, and motivates me to serve, surely an imperative in public life. The will to serve slowly diminishes the ego, as does the recognition that we are all the same. In the context of a long journey, small lapses are small; in the absence of that journey, there are only lapses.

As I grow older and want to commit more and more of my time to broader objectives, I find myself reflecting on this a great deal. My appreciation of Gandhiji's journey improves as I understand how profound his inner challenges must have been. At the same time, I grow fonder of him--almost as a family member--as I realize that his road and mine or yours are not that different. He too had to work hard at overcoming a liking for this or a distaste for that. He too had to learn patience. He had to learn to be honest, more and more honest. Because he acknowledged being challenged, it is easier to face our challenges. It was not his ambition to become a Mahatma, but by looking each situation in the eye and patiently seeking to resolve it, responding to the demands of each moment, and then being honest about his inner struggles each time, he became one.

Mahatma-hood has served Gandhiji ill. It has separated him from us. It has taken a quirky, lively person and made him a plaster-of-Paris saint cum cure for insomnia. It has created an industry of image-makers for this iconoclast. It has replaced the drama and colour of his life for vapid dialogues and insipid sepia tones. The Mahatma's life is told as a string of discrete events--born in Porbandar, went to South Africa, got pushed off a train, started a farm, came to India, became Father of the Nation--which obfuscate how he lived and who he was. None of this makes a difference to Gandhi, but what a loss to us!