| Inhaling the Mahatma
by Christopher Kremmer
Fourth Estate, 2006
There must be something about the Subcontinent that turns the most well-intentioned reportage into ‘intensely personal stories’. An examination of the dustcover of Inhaling the Mahatma, Australian reporter Christopher Kremmer’s latest book, reveals another yatra into India: “A country in the grip of enormous and sometimes violent change.” While consciously avoiding the temptation to refer to ‘heady mixes’ and ‘multi-layered tapestries’, Kremmer nonetheless takes readers on the mandatory gut-wrenching bus ride along India’s crowded highways, complete with argumentative conductor, mad-cap driver and blood-red sunset against hazy grey skies.
In Inhaling the Mahatma, Kremmer sets out on a personal pilgrimage to track down the stars, bit-players and near-anonymous set-extras of what has now become the great Indian transformation of 1991-2006. Using as a road map the experiences, recollections and impressions of his first Indian tenure – in the early 1990s, when he came as a foreign correspondent – Kremmer charts a compelling and competent course through the major landmarks of the last 15 years. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Mandal Commission, the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the horrific killing of the missionary Graham Staines and his children and, of course, the rise of the call centre all find mention, sketched out in varying degrees of detail. While the writer’s voice throughout the narrative is clear and lucid, it is perhaps the current moment in which this book has emerged that makes it particularly interesting.
The blanket coverage of the Great Indian Growth story, in both Indian and international media, seems to have created a space for a well-crafted retrospective – a book that looks back over the last decade and a half and documents the churning and rumbling that accompanied this transformation, while drawing lessons for further growth.
Particularly refreshing is the author’s self-reflexivity, and his conscious desire to appear different from the judgement-forming goras of old, the writers of the ‘beggars, snake-charmers and elephants’ genre of coverage that typified early reportage on the Subcontinent. He notes, for instance, “The longer I stayed, the less disposed I became to the foreigner’s penchant for snap judgments and moralising about India. Instead of lecturing I began to listen.” It is in Kremmer’s listening, coupled with a disciplined ability to follow up on his stories, that his most interesting coverage emerges – stories of Ram devotee and hijacker Satish Chandra Pandey, court munshi Rai Jeewan Lal Bahadur, archaeologist and ideologue Swarajya Prakash Gupta.
Kremmer also analyses astutely the allure and electoral success of Hindutva, when he speaks of the power of the bania vote, the seduction of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s amiable façade, and Lal Krishna Advani’s shrewd calculus. He points out, for instance, that a significant number of people who supported the BJP in its rise to power were not uni-dimensional Muslim-haters, but came from the ranks of the small- and middle-scale entrepreneurs who missed out during the period now known as the ‘license raj’. Upper-caste, middle-income banias continue to constitute a large portion of the BJP’s vote base. Kremmer however, is less insightful in his evaluation of the Indian National Congress, and misses the contributions of V P Singh almost completely.
Gandhi v Singh
V P Singh – implementer of the Mandal Commission report, erstwhile Raja of Manda and rightly described by Kremmer as one of India’s most “enigmatic” and “controversial” politicians. Coincidentally, this reviewer interviewed Singh in exactly the same circumstances as did Kremmer – in a dialysis room in Apollo Hospital in Delhi – and yet came away with a very different opinion. While the final assessment of the impact of the Mandal Commission report and its phased implementation in 1992 and 2006 is still many years off, Kremmer’s view that Mandal and Singh were single-handedly responsible for unleashing “the caste card” seems uninformed and simplistic. “Before Singh’s reign,” Kremmer tells the reader, “India had chipped away gradually at caste injustice … But the fiery rhetoric of caste politics tended to polarise rather than manage the issue.”
Kremmer also suggests that Mandal was responsible for the collapse of the Janata Dal government of 1990, thereby implying that the populace had rejected Mandal and thrown Singh out of power – an implication that seems hasty and premature. The reasons for the fall of the Janata Dal were many, but a major one was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s suspension of support for the national government, something that Kremmer fails to point out.
Kremmer’s assessment of V P Singh appears particularly unfair when seen against his coverage of the Gandhi family. “By entering politics,” he writes, “Rajiv had answered the call of his dharma, Hinduism’s natural law of individual conscience and social responsibility.” While Singh is depicted alone and abandoned in his “five-star hospital room”, Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi are shown to be fulfilling their dharma: mingling with the sweaty masses, exercising the Gandhi charisma to the fullest, and explaining how V P Singh had destroyed Nehru and Gandhi’s pet project – the creation of a ‘perfect citizen’, unhindered by caste, region or religion. Kremmer does try to temper his assessment of the Gandhis and the Congress party by making predictable references to the Sikh riots, the Bofors scandal and dynastic politics, but it is obvious where his sympathies lie.
In his essays on the need and purpose of writing, and on the idea of the audience, Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk notes: “I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey”. Pamuk’s essays were largely in response to criticisms directed at him by the Turkish state, which accused him of writing exclusively for a Western audience. Pamuk’s response was to affirm the universal language of stories and books.
Kremmer’s book raises similar questions – those of reading audiences – but for very different reasons. The primary issue is that the events covered in his book are events with which most well-read Southasians are already acquainted. This, in itself, can be seen as one of the book’s strengths: it is a starting point for a dialogue with the Southasian reader. But Kremmer seems to have missed the opportunity to enter an already crowded genre and make his own space within it.
~ Siddharth Anand is a Delhi-based journalist.