The author's grandfather and Subhas Chandra Bose – Netaji - were brothers. He is also a professor of history at Harvard. His impeccable scholarship is in full view, as indeed is his awed regard for his grand-uncle. The result is a fine biography of man who is still regarded with some ambivalence in India, not the least because so little is known about him. This book ought to fill that gap, but as Jawaharlal Nehru said “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”.

Netaji was a great nationalist. He hated the British rule in India. He was a man of active action, as opposed to Gandhji's passive action. He was therefore very popular.

The core problem

The problem arose from the persona that these three qualities produced when in combination — a very action-oriented man who could be very wrong in his judgment and was therefore often misunderstood. Even Gandhji who liked him a lot was uncomfortable with his methods. But millions of others approved of him thoroughly.

That came home to Gandhiji very sharply in 1939 when ‘his' candidate for the party presidency was defeated by a huge margin by Netaji.An impossible situation had been created which Sardar Patel set about rectifying. He persuaded the party to pass a resolution saying that while Netaji could choose his own team for the Congress Working Committee, the names would have to have Gandhiji's approval.

This created another impossible situation. In the end, Netaji quit as Congress President. He had no alternative. It had been an ugly confrontation that led, eventually, to Netaji going out of the party altogether. He went off into various adventures that culminated in the Indian National Army and finally, in 1945, his death in a plane crash in Taiwan.

Central weakness

The story of Netaji making common cause with the Axis powers is also well known. One would have expected the author to explain the decision more fully. But he doesn't quite. So on this issue the reader isn't very much the wiser.

It was also reasonable, perhaps, to expect a more detailed exposition on Netaji's relationship with Nehru. Until 1939, when the Party turned against Netaji, the two had got along very well. But after that, the friendship collapsed. Their correspondence became acrimonious, even in public statements.There is, of course, the so-called mystery of his death. At last till 1985, many in Bengal believed that he didn't die and was in India. His grandson finally puts those myths to rest.

As a historian of repute, the author naturally seeks to be neutral. But one cannot also help get the feeling that he has been a little careful in avoiding judgments, except where Gandhji and Patel are concerned. Even there, the judgments about events are implicit in the adjectives used about the duo, and not explicit assessments. Both emerge as schemers and fronts for big money. That is the central weakness of the book. It is a labour, if not of love, then certainly duty and awe.