A mellow view of icons

Updated on: Sep 30, 2011
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It's not an easy task to take twenty iconic figures known so well to people all across the globe and write their life sketches afresh. That too, with content that is riveting and a style that sets each biography apart. But Gopalkrishna Gandhi has been able to do just that in his book, ‘Of a Certain Age' . Each of his stories is embellished with new light in charming prose. His background, of course, has helped. Grandson of the Father of the Nation, former governor of West Bengal, in diplomatic service for many years and secretary to former President K. R. Narayanan, he has closely interacted with the luminaries at one time or the other. Some he has worked withat close quarters and others he has met at special occasions. Then through personal knowledge, conversations, and research, he has scripted their life histories in a way that rekindles an interest in these personalities who have, no doubt, been an essential ingredient of school textbooks and writings on modern India.

Be it Mahatma Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Kripalani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jyoti Basu, R. Venkataraman or K. R. Narayanan — Gopalkrishna Gandhi's work is replete with anecdotes that are not in public domain, correspondence that was missed out and conversations that reveal personal traits of the individuals.


Frankly, when you pick up the book you don't expect much. You presuppose that it will be yet another pedantic rendering of historical facts. However, you are almost left exclaiming, ‘hey! I didn't know this'. The first – “The Inconvenience of Truth” – on his grandfather, talks of the revered man's frailties. So honest was the Mahatma that he tells a story of his regretful behaviour during his stay in Durban with wife Kasturba. One day, Kasturba's hesitation to clean the chamber-pot of a new guest, a harijan, made him fly into a rage. He actually took her by the hand and dragged her to the door with the intention of pushing her out of the house. Kasturba's reaction and words, “Have you no sense of shame? Must you forget yourself?... For Heaven's sake behave yourself, and shut the gate. Let us not be found making scenes like this!” really shamed him. The Mahatma wrote regarding the incident, “I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her.”

Gopalkrishna Gandhi's best insights are on Jayaprakash Narayan and his uncle Harilal Gandhi. Little is known regarding three facts concerning Jayaprakash Narayan — first, that the political leader was a “passionate, if passive, Marxist”, drawn as he was to the ideology during his days in Wisconsin. And second, that it was his wife Prabhavati, a resident at Mahatma Gandhi's ashram, who introduced him to the man committed to non-violence. Third, that he respected his wife's wish for celibacy, however difficult it may have been for him personally.


Of his paternal uncle Harilal, the eldest son of the Mahatma, who was only nineteen years younger than his father, he writes, “Harilal was vitally important to Gandhi during his struggles in South Africa. The struggle saw Harilal in jail and Gandhi not only did not discourage his most prominent kin, his eldest son, from playing a leadership role there, ...What then went wrong, so wrong, between the father-and-son pair that one would disown the other? We will never fully know. What I, for one, certainly believe is that the great rift denied the country the services of a man who was unusually gifted in will, daring and the spirit of public service.” Gopalkrishna regrets the want of a paper trail to throw more light on Harilal.

Published on September 30, 2011

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