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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

Contrapuntal Histories

The book is a humble little volume of around 250 pages in a plain brown paper cover. Twelve chapters are ordered chronologically, bracketed by a brief introduction and an epilogue. On opening the volume, a black-andwhite picture of the heads of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Indian Nobel Laureate and anti-colonial nationalist, and Mahatma Gandhi, captioned with the text ‘To plant the message of love and courage in a wilderness of hatred and terror,’6 greets the reader. The picture sums up the purpose of the book better than the title, reinforced by an epigram from Stefan Zweig7 referring to Romain Rolland8: ‘One great man who remains human can for ever and for all men rescue our faith in humanity.’9 This book did not seek to glorify a great man but to use his ‘gift’ to inspire activism in a contemporary moment the authors describe as ‘the tragic eighties’ where many young people ‘see no future ahead’.10 This political purpose is reinforced by Hallam Tennyson’s preface, a British pacifist and socialist himself,11 Tennyson affirms the freshness of the book’s perspective on ‘the well documented’ Gandhi by pointing to how ‘Marjorie and Jehangir make him real to us once again ... once more for the fight’.12

The authors’ note states the book is ‘essentially a record of Gandhi’s impact on our own lives’ rather than a history or a life story of Gandhi as such.13 Each of the 12 main chapters interleave political events, the ideas and activisms of the two great men, and how they came to impact on Sykes and Patel individually. Some chapters dwell more on Gandhi and Tagore, their ideas, engagements with each other, and activities, whereas others focus more on the milieus Sykes and Patel inhabited and encountered their ideas. The result is neither biographical nor autobiographical but more of a conversation between and with Gandhi and Tagore’s ideas, set against the backdrop of the political struggle against the British. Gandhi was the more visceral, passionate activist, whose spiritual eclecticism was bent to his vision of the Indian masses melded into a self-reliant, non-materialist ‘perfect democracy’ eschewing private property and the constrictions of caste. He saw this “freeing” of India and Indians as an essential pre-requisite for India’s internationalism. Tagore was no less a patriot, but became less and less enamoured of Gandhi’s non-violent politics of protest such as satyagraha, and more convinced such tactics fed the particularisms of nationalism and communalism, thus militating against a true universalism.14 Tagore’s absence from the title reflects his influence on only one of the co-authors, Sykes, who ‘found that the stimulus of Gandhi... was inextricably intertwined for her with that of Rabindranath Tagore’.15

Interestingly, Patel and Sykes structure their own back-stories around the same chronological points as each other, integrating a life cycle trajectory from childhood to maturity into significant moments in India’s journey from colonialism to post-colonial independence. Extracted and placed side by side, they constitute a fascinating contrast explored in detail below. However, beyond the book, there is little available evidence with which to contextualise the nature of their collaboration in writing the book. Was it a mutual idea to write the book? How did they arrive at (to the reader) a seamless singular voice, despite the acknowledgement that the book was ‘a joint undertaking on the part of two very dissimilar people whose differences of background and temperament have served to enrich their friendship’?16 How did they determine its structure and form? Or decide how and what to include?

Another set of questions are raised for the historian. What is the status of this text as ‘evidence’? Written late in life about two protagonists long since dead, we push historical method to its limits by treating this exercise in self representation and memory as source for an end of empire anticolonial moment of cosmopolitanism that predates the writing of the book by four or five decades. Where does the fact end and the fiction begin? How much of the book is a desire to make a compelling story for the book’s intended contemporary audience, offsetting the ‘despair’ of the 1980s by offering Gandhi’s ‘gift’ of hope?17 The very title of the book - an admiring quote from Tagore about Gandhi’s rambunctious activism18 hints at the aspiration of the authors to provide a clarion call to travel ‘Gandhi’s road... now the only road into a viable future, for India and humanity alike’.19

Few sources have thus far surfaced to provide substantive confirmation or refutation of the book’s narratives - as history of ideas or as autobiography, especially for Patel. There appears to have been little research focusing on him or personal records in archival repositories. Apart from the details provided in the book, we have to date been able to track down few other sources, beyond a passing reference to him as a leading Parsi who served on the central board of the Reserve Bank of India20 and extracts from letters written to Patel by Gandhi in the period 19451947 compiled by Professor Yogendra Yadav, Gandhi Research Foundation. Yadav acknowledges Patel as ‘a famous associate’ of the Mahatma who was involved in setting up the All India National Institute of Naturopathy in Pune as part of Gandhi’s health program, as confirmed in the book. The letters are largely advising Patel on people he is working with and urging him to persevere at learning Gujarati, with a passing reference to soil improvement.21 Marjorie Sykes was a published author22

and a slim biography, drawing heavily on Sykes’ own input in letters and conversation, by her friend and fellow Quaker, Martha Dart, was published in 1993.23 Indeed, in the preface, Dart acknowledges that Sykes largely wrote the chapter on her childhood. The biography confirms many of the details of Sykes’ life, but adds little in the way of reflection or insight into Sykes’ emotional or spiritual journeys nor is there any mention of her friendship with Patel or the writing of The Gift. Dart subsequently published a book of letters from Sykes to Dart covering the period 1967199424 when Sykes was in retirement but living an active speaking and writing life primarily at Kotagiri, in the Nilgiri Hills of the Western Ghats. These letters are shaped by the nature of the friendship between Dart and Sykes, focussing mainly on keeping in touch with Quaker friends in the UK and USA, soliciting help from Dart in research for the books Sykes wrote during this period; and plotting the movements of Sykes and a seemingly endless stream of visitors to her Indian residence. Frustratingly, only a brief mention is made of Patel and The Gift, in a letter from 21 March 1982, where she sketches who Patel is and that ‘The Towls told you about the “Gandhi” book,’ closing with the observation that ‘Gandhi sent him ... on a number of Hindu-Muslim concerns, as he belonged to neither community and had good friends in both’.25 A deeper insight into their friendship may have to wait until Sykes’ personal papers are released by the Library of the Society of Friends in London, currently set at 50 years after death.26

Of course, traces, remnants and fragments are part and parcel of the social and cultural historian’s modus vivendi. As Steedman eloquently points out ‘she is not looking for anything: only silence, the space shaped by what once was; and now is no more’.27 Memory is perhaps more contentious and challenging if one is reading back to capture an historical moment. However, we aspire less to evoke historical fact than to ‘use the analytic advantage of historical hindsight scrupulously to disclose the failure of imperial binarism’28 through a contrapuntal method. This is defined by Edward Said as ‘intertwined and overlapping histories’ of colonial contact zones.29 I unpack Patel and Sykes’ singular voice to sit their two autobiographies side by side, not to test or contextualise their veracity but to read them as texts that reveal the myriad confluences through which the binary coloniser/colonised is rendered in polyphonic tones. As Said puts it ‘to think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant... all of them coexisting and interacting with others’.30

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