The BS column: The reading life: Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru

(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

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

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.


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