GOPALKRISHNA Gandhi, the author of the book Of a Certain Age, has selected 20 personalities belonging to what he calls the Gandhi-Nehru age, and has written brief sketches about them. Of course, there must be many others from that age who also deserved this treatment but did not make it into the collection. The reason is that they did not ‘fascinate’ the author enough, which is the sole selection criterion adopted by him.
Of these 20, there is only one Pakistani, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was well-known for his support for the Congress during the freedom movement. The other two non-Indians are Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka and the Tibetan Dalai Lama, now living in exile. The other 17, all Indians, include eminent personalities such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as well as several whose names have been little heard by most people, such as the sculptor Somnath Hore. The brief sketches are written in an enjoyable and light tone.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the grandson of M.K. Gandhi. His mother was a daughter of C. Rajagopalachari, a prominent leader of the Indian freedom movement and a Governor-General of independent India. Being a member of the Indian Administrative Service, the author has held senior bureaucratic and diplomatic positions, and was also appointed the Governor of West Bengal.
Writing about his grandfather, the author observes that the great leader had the remarkable ability to notice foul play, injustice and violence which others would fail to see. He would then take up a well-organised and disciplined fight against such practices. He says that the physically frail Mahatma’s strength was greater than the power of present day political leaders and that his soft voice went farther than the howling of today’s machos. But Gandhi has since been forgotten and no inspiration is sought from him in tackling the issues facing India today. Gopalkrishna Gandhi laments that every group in society has now become corrupt. He concludes by maintaining that Gandhi would always be relevant and helpful in solving our problems.
The incidents and the narratives about Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal, referred to by the author, show that he was mentally disturbed. He converted to Islam but soon returned to his original faith. His behaviour caused several writers to fictionalise his life in novels, plays and even a feature film. The author feels, perhaps rightly, that if Harilal had not suffered from such a disposition, he could have been among those at the helm of affairs after independence in 1947.
Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is another personality of interest to Pakistani readers. He began his public career by setting up various educational institutions. Subsequently, he started participating in the annual sessions and other gatherings and activities of the Indian National Congress. According to the author, India’s traditional view of the NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was that Pathan moneylenders gave loans at exorbitant interest rates and were also involved in violence. But Ghaffar Khan, adoringly called Bacha Khan, changed that perception, and the people of the NWFP came to be regarded as fellow fighters in the quest for freedom.
The sketch on Ghaffar Khan has been written with a clear bias against Pakistan. As stipulated in the June 3 Plan, a referendum was held in July 1947 in the NWFP to ascertain whether the people of the province wanted to join Pakistan or India. Before the referendum, Sir Olaf Caroe, the then Governor of NWFP, was replaced by Lt. General Sir Rob Lockhart, who enjoyed the support and trust of the Congress. Yet the Congress decided to boycott the referendum because independent observers predicted that NWFP was likely to vote in favour of accession to Pakistan. As they did. According to official figures, more than 51 per cent out of the total eligible voters opted for Pakistan. In addition, a Loya Jirga held in the tribal areas also voted for Pakistan. However, the author has twisted facts to claim that the “NWFP went to Pakistan by just 9.52 per cent of the total population of the province.”
Another drawback of the book is that the sketches, being too short, fail to give a well-rounded view of the personalities, many of whom are little known to readers in Pakistan.
Of A Certain Age (SKETCHES) By Gopalkrishna Gandhi Penguin Books, India ISBN 9780670085026 234pp. Indian Rs499