The fascinating encounters and learnings from teachers, from His Holiness Dalai Lama to former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa, have been carefully preserved in the book, Running Toward Mystery, by venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi. Published by Penguin India, this exemplary work encompasses his views on spiritual disillusionment, science and technology, meditation and the link between Buddhism and the modern world. In an exclusive interview, Priyadarshi talks about his inspiration behind this book. Excerpts: Q: What influenced you to write this extraordinary book with Buddhism and spirituality at the core? A:My students were asking me to write something for almost a decade and initially, people were hoping for a straightforward memoir, but I am too young for that. My work highlights my spiritual learnings from various interactions with teachers.
Q: You have said that spirituality should be approached as a seeker and not as a teacher. What has been the role of the powerful teachers in your life — from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa? A:They helped me look at the world differently. What spiritual teachers do at times is give you a different lens for looking at the situation and the world around you. One of the learnings from my experience is that they help us refine our questions so that we ask better and more relevant questions about life and the world. Observing Mother Teresa’s day-to-day work in Kolkata and how she balanced her spiritual life with the ability to manifest a tremendous sense of compassion, was a learning in itself. She could make a slum in Kolkata or a room filled with people suffering from diseases a sacred place where people can learn about compassion. She could transform even the most ordinary of spaces into the most sacred space. With His Holiness Dalai Lama, the key learning was not to take anything at faith. He would always, and continues even to this day, encourage people to ask questions and enquire.
Q: How have you explored spiritual disillusionment in the book?
A: It includes disillusionment with the institutions sometimes that we built around spirituality or religion; such systems can become constraining and confining. There are useful aspects to those systems but we need to promote more in the sense of seeking and curiosity. And not try to utilise building institutions to control how people think or behave and so on. Another aspect of it is the disillusionment when religious or spiritual systems polarise our behavioural patterns, where we adhere to a certain sense of belonging and it poses a kind of animosity towards people who don’t think like us, or believe in the same things and that does violence to our sense of thinking. I witness disillusionment in the fact that everybody wants to be a teacher and nobody wants to be a student; everybody wants to be a guru and not a disciple. The sense that we are not exploring the spiritual world, sheer yearning to learn and grow, but with shallow desires of becoming gurus, influencers or authoritative figures.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Buddhism and the modern world?
A: The modern world has progressed quite a bit in terms of its scientific and material pursuits and so on. But if you look at how humanity has evolved, then we have not overcome or evolved so much in our emotional experience of the world; the emotions that we experience are the similar kinds of emotions that our ancestors 10,000 years ago experienced, including fear, greed, jealousy and envy. As long as we are trying to regulate emotional states, Buddhism becomes highly relevant as the tools that it provides hold relevance amidst the struggles of the contemporary world. Also, I believe that as long as humans are seeking a deeper sense of meaning, joy and happiness in their life Buddhism will continue to help give them a kind of perspective on what is invaluable. The tools, techniques and the lessons that were given 2,500 years ago have become much more relevant in today’s world. That’s why you see resurgence in mindfulness and meditation techniques in the last 10-15 years.
Q: What are the biographical elements in this book?
A: Such elements are throughout the book. However, the teachings are not just abstract teachings but from encounters and first-hand interactions with certain individuals. It comprises my struggles and journey and is deeply biographical in that manner but I did not want it to be about me. I wanted this comprehensive work to be about the spiritual processes that one experiences. I have talked about how all humans are contemplative by nature, whenever we ponder the meaning of life. Also, whenever we ponder a greater sense of joy and a deeper sense of happiness, we are being contemplative. We don’t need to be religious or even spiritual to ponder such questions. Running Toward Mystery highlights that particular process of pondering, but it is also a process of contemplating one’s journey while being open to the idea of lessons learnt and unpredictable meetings with teachers.
Q: What are the core principles at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT?
A: The centre was founded almost 10 years ago with the simple but audacious idea of nurturing and promoting ethical imagination in our world. Ethical imagination implies that we need more critical thinking and tools to learn about ethics and compassion in our education system, governance system and financial system. Therefore, much of our work and programmes are directed towards this direction to recognise the relevance of promoting such learnings and tools. We have been focusing on developing innovative tools and innovative programmes in promoting conversations around ethical learning.
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Books to look out for this week
Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside
Rupa Publications, Rs 595
N.K. Singh has been a formidable civil servant, an empathetic politician, a keen chronicler of India’s socio-economic history and the quintessential academic that academia never got. His life’s work, as chronicled in this book has indeed been intertwined with the progress India has made. In many such cases, Singh has been not just an active contributor but has also given shape to those many momentous decisions—whether through the use of diplomacy or the rigours of understanding the mechanism of the levers of power or, for that matter, by consensus building. From personal happenings to national movements, ‘Portraits of Power’ covers it all.
Unrestricted Access: New and Classic Short Fiction
HarperCollins, Rs 2000
In this collection of short fiction, James Rollins’s first-ever anthology, he brings together 12 thrilling stories that dig a little deeper into his creative stomping grounds and open vistas into new landscapes and characters. At the centre of this book is the never-before-published novella Sun Dogs. Other stories, each with an introduction by James Rollins, offer broader insight into this acclaimed author’s fictional universes including: The Pit, Tagger, The Devil’s Bones, The Midnight Watch, The Skeleton Key, Kowalski’s in Love, Blood Brothers and City of Screams. ‘Unrestricted Access’ is filled with adventure, intrigue, history, and speculative science.
The Illustrated Child
HarperCollins, Rs 1200
Romilly lives in a ramshackle house with her eccentric artist father and her cat, Monty. When her father finds fame with a series of children’s books starring her as the lead, everything changes: exotic foods appear on the table, her father appears on TV, and strangers appear at their door, convinced the books contain a treasure hunt leading to a glittering prize. As time passes, her father becomes increasingly suspicious of everything around him, until he begins to disappear altogether. Romilly turns to the secrets her father has hidden in his illustrated books, realising that there is something far darker and more devastating locked within the pages.
Right Under Your Nose
Rupa, Rs 295
Superintendent Vijay falls prey to the machinations of his rivals in the force and is transferred to the traffic department from crime. He finds solace in a stimulating friendship with a lovely freelance journalist, Padmini. A slick murderer eliminates scientists right under the nose of the police and leaves forensics baffled. Tensions rise as the whole country watches the massacre of the entire team of inventors with shock and awe. In response, the Chief Minister calls upon Vijay, who is given an impossible deadline to solve the case before Parliament resumes in a week. Vijay’s skills as a detective along with Padmini’s creative intuition and imagination are pitted against a genius who eliminates every possible lead.
A fictional take on the future of Covid-19
The book, Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Short Tales from a Pandemic Future, is a collection of short stories by Priyadarshini Narendra, Sanjeev Roy, Aiyana Menezes and Prabhakar Mundkur. Mythili Chandrasekar has penned the ‘Foreword’. The book encapsulates their fascinating take on possible alternative future outcomes.
It all began from a WhatsApp group that was formed sometime in April. The common thread was trying to make sense of the unfolding future and an interest in a method of strategy planning called ‘Scenario Planning’. Sanjeev elaborates, “I was quite keen to understand and use Scenario Planning. I felt it could help organisations make sense of the future. We gave the name Future Forward to this virtual group.”
Prabhakar suggested putting the future-predictions tool of scenario planning to use and the group wrote a highly acclaimed piece in June which appeared in a newspaper titled “As India unlocks, here are six ways our lives have changed forever”. From there, they decided upon exploring the short story format and talked about the future based on their assumptions.
Sanjeev asserts, “The health sector interested us as it had assumed such huge importance in our lives. Priyadarshini, one of the co-authors, suggested we write stories of alternative scenarios and all of us jumped at the idea.”
Priyadarshini says that she was struggling to grapple with the pandemic when it started. “In scenario planning, the possible futures are written up as narratives rather than PPTs, so we decided to springboard into writing short stories from alternate futures.”
Prabhakar was getting increasingly impatient and restless about the way people were thinking about the pandemic, he admits. “The future of what would happen to all of us I thought could be better predicted with a little imagination rather than based on case studies of other emergencies in the past. So we decided to write our assumptions about the future,” informs Prabhakar.
As a consumer behaviour enthusiast, Mythili was observing the change in people behaviour all around and listening to some conversations among brand custodians as well. She continues, “There was a lot of uncertainty and thus, confusion on how to plan long term. An opportunity to collaborate on scenario planning was the key push to participate.”
Talking about the Foreword, ‘Unmasked’, Mythili says, “I needed to lay out the contours of scenarios, capturing, and synopsising all-out discussions, the grids we worked out and the parameters. The areas of impact, the matter of the timeline and the matter of degree. The stories all pivot around these critical pillars. The Foreword sets the ground and the backdrop against which the stories play out.”
Prabhakar has penned “Sheena’s Good Deed” that depicts how doing a good deed may not always lead to a positive outcome but that should not stop people from helping others. Talking about it, he says, “What happens to Sheena is quite real. Kirti’s character shows the weakness of humans. When people are pushed beyond their level of tolerance, and it is a matter of survival, people sometimes change (but not always). Their characters can change for the moment, just to survive. It is a common human failing that is depicted in the short story.” When asked about whether Sheena should not have helped Kirti as she had to pay a heavy price for it. He replies, “We must continue being what we are. Sheena did the right thing. I believe that we must all help those less privileged than ourselves. What happened to Sheena is unfortunate. It does not mean that she must change her essential character because of one bad experience.”
Priyadarshini, who has written “Nirmala’s News” and informs us that it has a Covid cure woven in, as that is one of the possibilities in the future. Asked about how she views the loss of jobs once the pandemic is over which were created or given more importance due to Covid-19, Priyadarshini answers, “From everything experts are saying, Covid-19 is only one in a series of pandemics to follow. Given that, any sane society would create a systemic healthcare response to it rather than a jerky one-off. If that happens, then jobs are likely to be imagined from the perspective of long-term response and thus safe.”
In “Mrs Kumar’s Day of Remembrance”, Sanjeev has painted a picture where vaccines have been found, technology is making a lot possible but at the same time income inequality has increased opening the gap between rich and poor and there is a ubiquitous government. Some things remain as always, ‘jugaad’ being one of them. The story has certain elements which can be called futuristic including customised health pills, body scanners, weekly and daily logs. He elucidates, “There are some things that are certain, no matter what the scenario—one of them is the acceleration of technology adoption and innovation in multiple aspects of our lives. Along with it is the possibility of greater government control of private lives and healthcare is one such domain. Another possibility is that there is another virus attack in future, leading to people living more contactless lives. If you put these things together then you can begin to see the kind of possibilities that emerge in Kumar’s household in 2036.”
VR already exists and it is set to become more ubiquitous in some form. Sanjeev adds that with governments wanting to keep a tighter control on epidemic spreads and insurance companies wanting more here and now data, the need for regularly updated data will be there. Since diagnostics is the most creative area in healthcare and there is enormous innovation already underway, he saw regular diagnostics in places where they are needed (like homes), updated databases accessible to governments and insurance companies, healthcare systems all happening together. That is why the daily and weekly logs. “The customised pills are a wish that genetics and medicines will reach a level where medicines can be made for individual systems—the regular medical checks and updates will also help in that,” he anticipates.
Babri Masjid unlocking: In defence of Rajiv Gandhi
‘I knew nothing of’ the unlocking the gates of the Babri Masjid, in February 1986, ‘until I was told of it after the orders had been passed and executed… I suspect it was Arun (Nehru) and Fotedar (Makhan Lal) who were responsible,’ then PM Rajiv Gandhi said.
But from a narrower prism, this action (the Rajiv government’s Shah Bano act) was seen as having angered Hindus who, from that perspective, were perceived as having seen it as an appeasement of Muslims. So, to appease the Hindus, the government decided, in February 1986, to unlock the gates of the Babri Masjid to the devotees of Lord Rama.
This was done through a local court in Faizabad vacating a stay order that had retained a status quo at the location in Ayodhya since 1949 when the mosque had become the site of communal confrontation. Was Rajiv Gandhi involved in the decisions leading up to this unlocking? Vir Bahadur Singh, the then chief minister of UP, denied his own involvement. But the fact attested to by many a witness is that that he was ensconced with Minister Arun Nehru in the state capital, Lucknow, deliberating this very case at the time when the sessions court actually pronounced the judgement. And this simple act of unlocking the access gate to a building already in long use as a temple—invested with the entire panoply of Hindu images and priests—was to vitiate community relations between north India’s two largest religious communities for the remaining years of the twentieth century, and usher in the twenty-first with a communal pogrom in distant Gujarat erupting from a massacre of kar sevaks in a train carrying them home from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya.
In September of that year, I found myself sitting opposite Rajiv in the PM’s cabin of his Boeing 737. The sparse monsoon of 1986 had petered out and we were flying to drought-hit Gujarat. I put to him a question that had been troubling me ever since February of that year with the ordering of the removal of the locks on the gates of Babri Masjid by the local magistrate, an order that had been complied with forthwith.
I realised of course that this was a political decision. Ever since the locks had been installed in 1949, the Masjid had ceased in fact to function as a mosque. While Hindu devotees continued to find access, Muslims were virtually excluded from entry into the precincts. But the idols installed in what had been the mihrab, the section of the mosque which would be equivalent to a sanctum sanctorum, the ‘magical’ appearance of which had triggered the locking of the gates, continued to so remain.
And although legally the entrance was secured, worshippers entered readily over a ladder surmounting the wall, with a regular mahant serving what had come to be used as a mandir. This situation had been engineered in 1949 by the District Magistrates K.K. Nayar and Guru Dutt Singh, both of whom went on to become active members of the Jan Sangh, the right-wing political entity that was the predecessor of the BJP. So the removal of the locks, and entry through the gate rather than over the wall, would have appeared only as an acknowledgement of a ground reality, besides getting the government credit for having taken this step to accommodate Hindu sentiment at a location, which—thanks to the vigorous promotion by right-wing religious groups and the aggressive advocacy of the Jan Sangh—had come to be, in the public’s mind, the very birthplace of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the God Vishnu.
As Belgian right-wing researcher and activist Koenraad Elst, in his article in Outlook titled ‘What If Rajiv Hadn’t Unlocked Babri Masjid?’ observed, ‘Fundamentally, this decision didn’t alter the Ayodhya equation. Architecturally, the building was and remained a mosque while functionally it had been and continued to be a Hindu temple. That is why in my opinion not taking this decision wouldn’t have changed the Ayodhya developments except in their timing. The different players, their strategies and resolve all remained the same. The Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would have gone about their “business” just the same.’ This is an astute observation. Yet it was in its timing that the issue was to impact the country’s social harmony that was still slowly recovering from the trauma of Partition.
So my question to Rajiv was: ‘Since the removal of the locks was not going to change the status quo in any way, but would earn the support of sections of the Hindu community for your party, was it not realised that such a benefit could only be limited? After all, with the core of the Congress remaining secular, the development could not be exploited to its maximum, and the right wing would hijack the outcome, which it could trumpet as its triumph.’ That is what had happened.
Rajiv’s answer was direct and instant: ‘No government has any business to meddle in matters like determination of the functioning of places of worship. I knew nothing of this development until I was told of it after the orders had been passed and executed.’
I was, as might be imagined, completely taken aback. ‘But, sir, you were prime minister.’
‘Of course I was. Yet I had not been informed of this action, and have asked Vir Bahadur Singh [under whose watch, and under whose instructions, it was rumoured, the magistrate had taken this fateful—or shall I call it fatal—decision] to explain. I suspect it was Arun [Nehru] and Fotedar [Makhan Lal] who were responsible, but I am having this verified. If it is true, I will have to consider action.’ In the coming month, Nehru was dropped from the cabinet.
The author is a former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities.
A DELUGE OF PANDEMIC-INSPIRED ART IS WAITING TO ARRIVE: UDAYAN MUKHERJEE
Journalist-turned-author Udayan Mukherjee’s Essential Items is a collection of short stories underscoring how the pandemic has affected every individual in the country—but in very different ways. In an interview with The Daily Guardian, Mukherjee speaks about what inspired him to write and how immersing himself in the project helped him survive the anxieties of the lockdown. Excerpts:
Q: The book is set around the many things, people and opportunities we took for granted in the pre-Covid era. Tell us more about what moved you to write it.
A: The writing of Essential Items began around the first week of April, at a time when it was quite impossible to focus on anything but the unfolding contagion. The scale of the misery unleashed by the sudden lockdown had me thinking continuously about the plight of others who were in a less fortunate position. Fiction is the only thing I can ever imagine writing, yet I wasn’t sure at all if it was a good idea to set about creating fictional worlds based on an unfolding crisis while sitting in the throes of it, as it would entail blurring the lines between immediate reality and fiction. Then, one day, I put some words down on paper and one story blended into another and three months passed just like that.
Q: From young urban partygoers to workers at a cremation ground, the people in your stories come from all walks of life from all around the country. What went behind shaping them and writing about their lives during the pandemic?
A: How were elderly couples dealing with their loneliness or contemplations of mortality? How did shifting realities at the bottom end of the job market affect power equations in families which lived hand to mouth? Would wealthier people respond to this crisis with compassion and generosity? Would the pandemic make people even more inward looking or would it open their eyes to the travails of others whose contribution to their comfortable existence they may have taken for granted? As I grappled with such questions, the characters slowly formed in my head, each unique in their particular settings.
Q: Most stories have an open ending, where the character/s are left thinking, or without a conclusion. Was this a deliberate move to reflect the feelings of uncertainty and despair that the pandemic has left everyone with?
A: An open end urges a response from the reader. If it succeeds, the story can linger in the reader’s mind long after the page is turned, triggered by this absence of a neat resolution or closure. It can make her wonder about the various possibilities, the future of the protagonists. In a sense, the story then becomes the reader’s rather than the writer’s. This emotional transfer can make for a very satisfying reading experience. In the case of this collection, I also wanted to avoid being too judgmental about the moral issues at the heart of the stories, which it may have come across as in the case of too rounded an ending. Finally, everything about our lives and the world at large today is so uncertain and fraught that open endings seem like the natural fit to any set of imagined circumstances.
Q: Many have complained about finding the motivation to work or create art during the lockdown. Did you feel the same? What was your writing process like?
A: For me, concentration, rather than motivation, was an issue during the initial days of the lockdown. I felt disturbed. It wasn’t a state of mind conducive to creative writing and I had apprehensions about embarking on any project. On the other hand, the prospect of staring at those empty days ahead seemed frightening. I had something nebulous in my head and willed myself to sit and commit some words to paper. I wrote every day and it was an immersion as well as a distraction from the horror unfolding around us. The first step was difficult but then the stories sucked me in and provided a kind of refuge.
Q: Plenty of films, stories and art about experiencing the lockdown have been produced this year. What would you say about the role of art and fiction during a global crisis like this one?
A: I think a deluge of pandemic-inspired art in every form is waiting to arrive. It is bound to be the case, as life is the well from which art springs. This is the biggest crisis the world has faced for many generations and it should not surprise us to see it reflected in the creative space. Some writers will respond immediately, others will wait for the dust to settle and then look back from a different perspective. Some will seek to document for posterity, others may subject to moral scrutiny how we held up as a species to this enormous test. That is the role of art: to hold a mirror up to the human soul.
Q: Which books/authors kept you entertained during the lockdown?
A: Typically, I don’t read much when I am writing. But this time, there was just so much time, I did read and re-read a few books, including Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Muennuddin. Right now, I am reading the beautifully written Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.
Q: What do you wish readers to take back from your stories?
A: There is no great message in these stories. They were written in solidarity, in expression of the welling of empathy I experienced in that period, and if readers can identify with that and share some of my empathy, I will feel grateful.
PRINCELY STATES AND BRITAIN’S DIABOLICAL DESIGN TO ‘KEEP A BIT OF INDIA’
Sandeep Bamzai’s latest book reveals Winston Churchill’s sinister plan to Balkanise India, and the role played by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru to stop that from happening.
Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in the mid-1960s, made a scathing attack in his book Continent of Circe, on Indian writers for seeing “their country and society in the way Englishmen and Americans do and write about India in the jargon of the same masters”. More than 55 years have passed, but these words remain as true as they were then, more so when one reads Sandeep Bamzai’s new book, Princestan: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten Made India.
Much has been written on India’s Independence and the accompanying Partition, and yet so little is known and explored about some of the most fundamental aspects of the two events. For instance, it took our intellectuals decades to comprehend that Partition was as much the handiwork of the Muslim League’s communal politics and the Congress’ failure to aptly respond to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory, as it was the sinister British design to keep a friendly base in the subcontinent.
I still remember the furore Narendra Singh Sarila’s book, The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, had created in the early 2000s when he linked India’s Partition with the British fear about the erstwhile Soviet Union gaining access in the region at the cost of the US-led Western powers. Realising that Indian leaders led by Nehru would not play the “Great Game” against the USSR, the British settled for Jinnah who was more than willing to bat for the West.
Now, Bamzai, through his new book, exposes another British plan for Balkanisation in the run-up to Independence. Under the express patronage of Winston Churchill, then British Prime Minister, a plan was devised by a few powerful princes, led by the Nawab of Bhopal (“a stalking horse for the all-powerful Nizam of Hyderabad”), to create “Princestan”. In all this, Bamzai states, Jinnah and Lord Wavells, the then Viceroy of India, played an active role too.
“The saboteur Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal also roped in the Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, and the wily Prime Minister of Kashmir, Pandit Ramchandra Kak. The trio formed a powerful lobby and pressure group, which was aided and abetted by the British Political Department boss, Sir Conrad Corfield—who, till the end, refused to give an inch to the Congress. Until he was summarily packed off by (Lord) Mountbatten on the insistence of an irate Nehru,” Bamzai writes.
Such was the devious plan that in a parting message to Lord Wavell at the end of his trip back home on 31 August 1945, Churchill had told him unequivocally, “Keep a bit of India.” Bamzai reveals, “In the spring of the same year, Churchill, then in power, had spoken with Wavell and told him of dividing India into Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan. Leopold Amery, secretary of state in Churchill’s War Cabinet, had said something similar to Wavell’s predecessor, Lord Linlithgow, during the Cripps negotiations of 1942: ‘Keep an eye for space around Delhi.’”
The high point of the book, however, is how Pandit Nehru, Lord Mountbatten and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel battled the rulers of the princely states “at every twist and turn to foil that cunning plan, even as the process of decolonisation had begun”. In all this, the author has a natural advantage over others: he was born in a family that was close to some of the main characters of the saga. The author’s grandfather, K.N. Bamzai, for instance, had the access very few could have: “First as special correspondent for Blitz in New Delhi, where he cracked some of the biggest exposés of the time; then as Private Secretary to Sheikh Abdullah, who was installed as the first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir; and then finally as Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to Pandit Nehru, he was at the cutting edge of the dramatic developments of that era.”
This first-hand access to records makes the book one of its kind. Unfortunately, the author couldn’t talk to K.N. Bamzai or even his father, Jawaharlal Bamzai (the name shows the influence Pandit Nehru had on the author’s family). But they “provided me with real-time nuggets on what transpired during that time… I have been able to access hitherto unpublished top secret and confidential documents, missives, letters, papers and aide memoires bequeathed by my grandfather to me”.
What also stands out is that the author, despite his family’s affinity with the first Prime Minister, doesn’t fall into the Nehru versus Patel trap. The book never undermines the role played by Sardar Patel and his deputy, V.P. Menon, even though the author’s sympathies with Nehru are evident all through. In fact, the author can be credited with keeping a fine balance when he states that Patel “completed the task imagined and envisioned by Nehru and overseen with great sagacity by Mountbatten”. Without denying the role played by Sardar, he emphasises that the unification saga wasn’t just about Patel but Nehru, Mountbatten and even V.P. Menon made significant contributions.
Bamzai says that Nehru’s aversion to the idea of princely states was fulsome and uncompromising. And it’s not surprising given his socialist background. “Long before Sardar Patel started corralling the princes along with V.P. Menon and the enforcer Lord Mountbatten, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who was at the vanguard of the Congress’s idea of integrating the Princely States by giving the people power and overthrowing the autocrats who had subjugated these people and had been making them live in penury,” the author writes.
The problem is Nehru’s aversion was too ideological—and this came in the way of the execution of some of his noble objectives. Patel, on the other hand, had no such baggage. He had no love lost for the royals but he would play along with them if it suited the interest of the newly-independent nation. India and its interests were paramount for him. For that matter, he was ready to deal with anyone and everyone, including Lord Mountbatten.
As Alex Von Tunzelmann writes in Indian Summer, “He [Sardar Patel] was impervious to Mountbatten’s famous charm, describing the new Viceroy as ‘a toy for Jawaharlalji to play with—while we arrange the revolution’… For Patel’s part, he realised immediately that Mountbatten, with his own semi-royal status and personal friendship with many of the princes, was uniquely suited to help India achieve its aim of leaving no state behind.”
This pragmatism, along with tough negotiating skills, made Patel succeed where very few could have. It was this practical, nation-first approach that helped him unite almost the entire nation without shedding blood. Bamzai brings out this aspect of Sardar when he quotes V. Shankar, private secretary to Patel, who wrote in My Reminiscences of Sardar Patel: “As regards Junagadh, he was not prepared for any compromise and finally succeeded in evolving and executing his own plans despite Lord Mountbatten’s counsels against precipitating matters or his suggestion of a plebiscite [under UN auspices]… He [Sardar] remarked with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Don’t you see we have two U.N. experts—one the Prime Minister [Nehru] and the other Lord Mountbatten—and I have to steer my way between them. However, I have my own idea of plebiscite. You wait and see.”
Bamzai’s Princestan is worth your penny. Not just for bringing out the role played by Patel, Nehru and Mountbatten in the making of India as it is today, but also for realising how this country escaped Churchill’s diabolical design to “keep a bit of India” with Britain. It is also a stark reminder of how little we, as a nation, know of such a momentous period of our history.
SHORT STORIES ARE LIKE LITTLE RIVULETS FORMED AFTER HEAVY RAINS: SRI M
After writing bestsellers like Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master and On Meditation, spiritual teacher, educationist and Padma Bhushan awardee, Sri M has authored an eclectic mix of short stories, some of which have been collected in his new book, The Homecoming. The spiritual guru spoke to The Daily Guardian about the book, what he thinks is the power of fictional narratives and how his transformational journey from a young boy to a yogi inspired his stories. Excerpts:
Q. You have written autobiographical works and texts on the Upanishads previously. What drew you to writing fiction? What, in your opinion, is the power of fictional stories?
A: I have always been drawn to writing fiction. Many years ago, I published short stories in The Hindustan Times and Indian Express which I have lost track of.
Fiction allows the imagination to explore and expand without the conditions imposed by fact. Chimpanzees, for instance, even though they have one extra chromosome than Homo sapiens, cannot actually conceive of fiction. The roots of creativity lie in imagination, be it the concepts of God, heaven, hell and religious experience, the embroidered emotions that go into the romantic foreplay before the sexual act or the exaggeration of facts in literature, poetry and drama with their metaphors. All fiction has some fact or the other as its core. The power of fiction is to manifest the core in all its nakedness but with layers of attractive fictional garments which first attract the mind. The skilled writer then proceeds to strip the garments until ‘Truth’ or fact is beheld naked.
Q. You have mostly written longer narratives, including a novel. How was the process of writing short stories and putting together a collection different from that?
A. Short stories for me are like the little rivulets that form when it rains heavily. They need to be captured then and there because they disappear soon. It is indeed not so easy to capture the action in as few words as possible. There is no time to ramble on. It’s one dew drop that needs to be defined before it drops off the leaf.
Q. In the story, “The Homecoming”, a young man travels to the Himalayas in pursuit of a higher truth and, by the end of the story, learns a lesson in balancing his inner self with the outer world. What part of this is derived from your own transformational life experiences?
A. In some ways, I am the young man in the story. Biographical facts might differ but the philosophical and psychological factors are similar.
Q. A theme which runs throughout the book is how human beings are often incapable of seeing beyond their individual selves, which can lead to undesirable consequences. Do you think this lesson has become more important in today’s social media age?
A. If only actors on the social media stage begin to think beyond their TRPs and individual selves, social media could turn the earth to heaven.
Q. What are some other key lessons which you would like readers to take back from this book?
A. Fiction is not meant to preach lessons but since there is no fiction without a factual core, readers are sure to be influenced. How and in what way that happens differs from person to person and depends on the individual’s background and experiences in life.
Q. A lot of great short stories use the device of a “twist in the tale” and your stories also have moments of great irony, sometimes with a very darkly humorous turn of events. Are there any particular authors who have inspired your style of writing short stories?
A. I think it is the twist that breaks the boring chain of the narrative. Like the mysterious mutations that change the direction of the evolution of life forms. The new happens when the old is broken.
Chekov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway and, of course, Edgar Alan Poe, are authors I appreciate and, in a different way, the short stories of P. G. Wodehouse, that exquisite wordsmith, whose character Mulliner tells his tale while sipping his sour whiskey.
Q. Is there a story in the volume which is closest to your heart?
A. The first story, The Death of a Builder.
Q. What are you writing next?
A. A collection of Indian horror stories, essays on consciousness, and an exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These are some of the things I am working on. There is another, which is a kind of new dictionary of the English language where I am trying to discard the old meanings given in standard dictionaries and finding new meanings which emerge as we walk into a new world, which in a lot of ways—psychologically, socially, philosophically and economically—is different from the past.
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