The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru
My Rating: ★★★★★
It is but folly for me to attempt to review a book so close to my heart. But, on my third reading of this book, it is time to finally go beyond the beauty of the prose and the elegance of Nehru’s presentation. It is time to see if the book achieves the objectives it sets out to achieve and judge it thus. I will let my earlier one-line review stand. Here goes…
The following passage reflects the objective of the book.
To know and understand India one has to travel far in time and space, to forget for a while her present condition with all its misery and narrowness and horror, and to have glimpses of what she was and what she did. ‘To know my country’, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘one has to travel to that age, when she realized her soul and thus transcended her physical boundaries, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.’
Does it achieve such a grand objective? It sweeps across Indian history on very able wings and the history unfolds with irresistible drama and with the glow of a golden splendor. India of old comes alive for the reader in all its old grandeur. But this is dazzle. Does the expedition go beyond that and ‘discover’ India? It does and it doesn’t. The India glimmers and fades – reappearing every time Nehru takes an unbiased look back and disappearing every time he turns his gaze eagerly to the present.
The second half of the books quickly descends into a political commentary from being a historical study – and in this transition from history to the present, the ‘discovery’ is left incomplete in the urgency to expostulate on current happenings. This is a minor failure and Nehru is quite aware of it. He has to go back to the vagueness he started with to end his quest:
Nearly five months have gone by since I took to this writing and I have covered a thousand hand-written pages with this jumble of ideas in my mind. For five months I have travelled in the past and peeped into the future and sometimes tried to balance myself on that ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time.’ These month have been full of happenings in the world and the war has advanced rapidly towards a triumphant conclusion, so far as military victories go. […] Because of this business of thinking and trying to give some expression to my thoughts, I have drawn myself away from the piercing-edge of the present and moved along the wider expanses of the past and the future. But there must be an end to this wandering. If there was no other sufficient reason for it, there is a very practical consideration which cannot be ignored. I have almost exhausted the supply of paper that I had managed to secure after considerable difficulty and it is not easy to get more of it. The discovery of India — what have I discovered? It was presumptuous of me to imagine that I could unveil her and find out what she is today and what she was in the long past. […] Yet something has bound them together and binds them still. India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and today when she appears to be the plaything of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive. There are terrifying glimpses of dark corridors which seem to lead back to primeval night, but also there is the fullness and warmth of the day about her. Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable, and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly, and looked down into wisdom’s well. Each one of them is drawn to her, though perhaps each has a different reason for that attraction or can point to no reason at all, and each sees some different aspect of her many-sided personality.
While that maybe so, this too is pardonable as even the political statements soar to heights sometimes and is amazing: (more in updates section)
The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India, and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’
The conclusion is a fitting one (though this passage is not really the conclusion). It was ultimately not about the Discovery of India as India is too diverse and manifold, it was an inquiry into the soul of a generation, a Discovery of their India, of the India then, of that generation, the greatest generation perhaps in our living memory:
My generation has been a troubled one in India and the world. We may carry on for a little while longer, but our day will be over and we shall give place to others, and they will live their lives and carry their burdens to the next stage of the journey. How have we played our part in this brief interlude that draws to a close? I do not know. Others of a later age will judge. By what standards do we measure success or failure? That too I do not know. We can make no complaint that life has treated us harshly, for ours has been a willing choice, and perhaps life has not been so bad to us after all. For only they can sense life who stand often on the verge of it, only they whose lives are not governed by the fear of death. In spite of all the mistakes that we may have made, we have saved ourselves from triviality and an inner shame and cowardice. That, for our individual selves, has been some achievement. ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live as not to be tortured for years without purpose, so live that dying he can say: “All my life and my strength were given to the first cause of the world — the liberation of mankind.”‘
If only we could also figure a path to save ourselves from triviality. If only we too could Discover the moving spirit of our own Generation.
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