Every now and then you get lucky enough to stumble upon a book that doesn’t just change your perspective, but gives you a new foundation to base your perceptions on. Before I had come to India this summer I was acutely aware that having lived abroad my whole life, I was sentimentally attached to India – but more the idea of it versus the actuality. This lack of awareness led me to pick up “India after Gandhi” by Ramchander Guha, a man who I believe, through his work, can be called the pre-eminent Gatekeeper of contemporary Indian history.
If you haven’t read the book yet, and are interested in the history of the worlds largest democracy, buy this book now. No, I’m serious, grab your car keys, go to your nearest book store and pick this up – before you ask, Amazon isn’t fast enough.
“India after Gandhi” does not only document, it educates, it contextualizes. It gives what we see in India today a historical lens – for the first time it let me appreciate a country that struggled in its infancy, was troubled in its teenage years, and is slowly showing signs of reaching its maturity now.
Take for example the frenzied political climate we are seeing in India today as elections draw nearer. Every news channel and media source has a barrage of reports that range from policy to the luxury cars the Indian political elite drive. I had always pegged this to be as simple Indian politics, melodrama at its finest where theatrics are not only common but required. As I read the book, these reports burst into color. I began to see Modi and the BJP’s approach in light of their policies and their evolution under stalwarts like LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I saw the congress show shadows of the Indira Gandhi era flash across their press releases. Indian Politics went from being boring, to a Mahabaratha-esque epic.
I began to watch bollywood offerings not so much for their cinematic presentation, but more for what they represented and the special place that they had in Indian society and its portrayal. I rewatched the classic Amar Akbar Anthony, and for the first time appreciated that Amitabh Bachans role was not only that of the ‘angry young man’, but the movie was a reflection of a country developing and nurturing its secular roots.
What I liked the most about the book was that things that I had always seen as quintessentially Indian sprang to life, took meanings, and I began to understand why they had carved out a place in the Indian psyche. Why Amul still has the longest running and most up-to-date billboard in Bombay – how a simple Milk cooperative took on a national identity. I saw a Maruti 800 sputtering past me, and rather than it simply being the Indian car for Indian roads, I saw it as a symbol of industrial pride and a politically streaked background.
As I write this, its 3 am on a Tuesday night. It’s been a long day at work, I’m sipping some chai (I make EXCELLENT chai now), and watching NDTV. The initial polls say that no political party is looking to have a clear majority in the house. That for the first time, the largest party present might have less than a third of the seats available. There will be those that bemoan the fact that we are probably looking at another coalition government, where consensus takes a back seat to launching verbal tirades, and there will be those that rejoice in the fact that there is a check to policy making.
Regardless of my political thoughts, I see this as a good thing. I see this as the people of india deciding (hopefully) to vote their minds over their religions/historical party ties. That the roots of democracy have grown deep and strong in a country that is only 65 years old, and that its still growing.
For all these lessons Mr Guha, thank you. I just hope that there will always be authors like you to remind people like me what extraordinary times we live in.