Thursday, 8 December 2016

“Freedom At Midnight” and “The Men Who Killed Gandhi”

I am lumping these two books together as they are on the same subject and I thought offered a different perspective from what I knew about or was taught about history.  Both were great reads - only I read them nearly two decades apart.

India & Indians are quite open about hypocrisy in our lives, inevitable since the system is geared up towards that.  A honest discussion is almost rare and shied upon - we are more queasy than the Brits on a lot of subject.

When it comes to subjects of historical significance, sadly its become a cesspool and what should have been an objective, dispassionate narrative has been mired in controversy.  What I was lucky to read and study in school is no longer available and the subsequent generations get  horrendously warped versions of history depending on the local govt in force which pushes its slant and spin on it.

Both are important points - because its refreshing to therefore come across these two books that were refreshingly candid and gave their version of the events without any care about the biases that are likely to creep in or being accused of inaccuracy or insensitivity.

Freedom at Midnight was the only book by Dominique Lapierre and larry collins that I could read. I tried reading the others but gave up.  But Freedom at midnight was refreshing, plus also a subject closer to the heart.

Freedom of Midnight came from a westerner’s viewpoint and had the fascination of the British Raj at its heart and did a splendid job of bringing it alive.  the narration was colorful with details of how the viceroy and the British enjoyed their summers (shifting the capital all the way to Shimla) and how Lord Mountbatten’s family were taken aback that their dogs were royally served chicken cutlets when they first stayed at the largest residential house in the world.

It also went into great, sometimes gory details as well as trivia on what happened during the partition. Right from the violence and bad decisions to trivia about how the two sides Jinnah and Nehru were trying to split the assets from the tea trays to the armed forces and the different provinces.

I had read freedom at midnight during college and it was an easy read, but the discovery of an alternate view that was so refreshingly different (and engaging) only raised the question why studying history was such a nightmare to study in school.   (obviously none of this was even covered in my school in great detail).

One of the reasons for the success and the importance of sources like Amar Chitra Katha was that they offered children of my generation an alternative viewpoint in a gentle but very responsible way.  I still cant thank its founder Anant Pai enough (but this blogpost should do).

As fate had it, I read the somewhat controversial ‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’ much later when it was reprinted in a new edition with more photographs.  (If you want to know of Indian hypocrisy, this is a good example - the book does not have a wikipedia entry, just like a lot of subjects or details that have been prevented and blocked an entry).

This book was written by Manohar Mulgaonkar who is quite open and frank about his political views and leanings personally.  But when it comes to the book I didn't see much of this - and it definitely did not color the narration.

The book makes for compelling reading and a narrative from the Indian side and you cant help noticing how the world was sooo different, perhaps even a far better place in the early years of the last century and movements un-fettered not just within the south asian peninsula, but even within the entire Indo-Malay belt, as one finds out when you travel through the region.

Mulgaonkar’s strength is the rigor that has gone into the preparation of the book and he brings out both the motivations as well as the lapses in the assassination plots for the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi (Yes, there quite a few).  There were also lapses in the investigations and court procedures.

What I found fascinating was that as you read the book was that the other side had a chance to speak and you got some insights into what brought about the swell of frustration, passions that finally found a way to a destructive end.  

For me there was also a lot of fascination into how life was in those days. Both books bring alive life, society, popular culture and lifestyles.  

One book openly references homosexuality, while the other talks about possible colorful affairs and it does appear both tolerance and permissiveness was greater (and hypocrisy lower) in those days.  There’s fascinating trivia like the fact that Nathuram was actually nick name for Godse because he was brought up like a girl (read the book).

Overwhelmingly both books chronicled how life, society, times and nations had changed due to this landmark incident.  Might bring about a sense of loss, despair and wistful nostalgia of what could have been possible.

There’s a price we pay for hypocrisy and being queasy about discussing subjects we deem sensitive, while it is actually an open discussion and dialogue that is required.  The partition was one of the most terrible events in our history and it was quickly buried and allowed to fester, causing problems we see surface every now and then affecting our social fabric and life. Books like these are a good step in allowing us to listen to different narratives and possibly be more open and forgiving and tolerant…

But the best thing about both books were they made for great reading…