Ganesh Prabhakar Pradhan (1922-2010) wrote the first draft of the book under review during a term of imprisonment of eighteen months during the Emergency in 1975 (he completed it in 1979). This was not the first time he had been sent to jail for his political convictions. During the Quit India movement he was imprisoned in Yerwada jail for eleven months. He was an impassioned, idealist socialist politician, a litterateur, a professor of English literature for years at Fergusson College in Pune, and he had, as this book shows, the capacity to take a brilliant, crystal-clear, distanced gaze at politics, instead of merely remaining mired in the conflicts that so often divide upholders of different political beliefs. This reviewer has not encountered a book quite like this one before: a book that shows seven men from what we would today call Maharashtra, with seven different political ideologies, talking amongst themselves as friends, through a period that begins with the Quit India Movement, and ends with the death of Jayaprakash Narayan. As the title itself indicates, Pradhan believes that each point of view and each ideology is a search for a different plot or story, with a different posited answer for India’s path towards emancipation. This book is thus a veritable compendium of richness: for social history, for the history of literature, for the representation of politics and power, and indeed, in the largest sense, for India’s history from the 1940s onwards. We are grateful to Shrikant Tambe and the National Book Trust for producing and bringing out this translation.
From the very beginning, we know that political differences can be incendiary. Madhu Khanolkar is in prison in the very first letter for supporting the Quit India Movement, including its violent, sabotaging elements. Narayan Samant is a constructivist Gandhian who will dedicate his life to building up rural welfarist institutions, working closely for and with Adivasis, the Warlis. Gajanan Joshi belongs to the Hindu Right. Khairnode fights as part of the dalit vanguard. Madan Ranadive supports M.N. Roy. Vasant Vaidya is a Communist. Shreepatrao Deshmukh works with farmers. Shreeniwas Gokhale does not subscribe to any ideology, but observes, as dispassionately as possible. A nation goes through its birth pangs, inequalities remain savage, people dedicate their lives to what they see as the best means of eliminating such inequalities, illusions and disillusionment strew the path—but throughout, there is a humane, intelligent vision that never for once tries to pretend that all can easily and simply be better for India’s millions of labouring, brave, suffering men and women. This is not a book about women. But it is far more aware of its limitations in this respect than many. Pradhan writes, The political workers described in this book married the women who were prepared to assist them in their work and these women bore them company throughout life. This is a representative picture of the married life of the political workers belonging to my generation. I have been a witness to the pull in opposite directions of a person devoted to an ideal if his wife isn’t the responding kind. But I have avoided describing such emotional conflicts as the book is written after deciding to fix as the focal point, portrayal of an ideological life (p. x).
If this was all that this book contributed to our understanding of how men as well as women participated in Indian political life, it would be severely limited: the emphasis in this passage is squarely on men devoted to politics, and women partners of the men who supported or opposed that devotion. Fortunately, Pradhan in fact gives us far more than this. For this reviewer, one of the most fascinating strands in this novel was that devoted to Narayan Samant, and his eventual wife Shanta. We first encounter her when Narayan speaks of her as a worker in experimental child education, in an institution launched by Tarabai Modak: although Shanta had been at college with the male protagonists, one of them describes her rather derisively as ‘clad in a coarse Khadi saree and a Khadi bag hanging from the shoulder… a typical Gandhian patriot’ (p. 20). Tarabai Modak, of course, was a pioneer in adapting Montessori methods of education for Indian (especially rural Indian) conditions; she worked with Gijubhai Badheka in his experimental educational community at Bhavnagar for years, and eventually devoted herself to furthering preschool education in the village of Worli. Shanta thus belongs to this world of working, experimental, socially committed women, and she keeps an independent voice. Shanta admires Communist work among the Adivasis, often supporting Godawaribai Parulekar’s stand that unless the vicious moneylenders be combated frontally, constructive work among Adivasis will eventually fail. She continues to teach, but she continues to have a critical voice about Gandhian rural reconstruction.
By 1973, the men and the women are talking openly about gender dispensations in the home and outside. Gokhale says, ‘Our friends are all for women’s emancipation abroad, but are certain to be solid Aryan husbands at home. They expect wives to join them all the time’ (p. 384). The women participate spiritedly in the conversation. No consensus is reached about a wealth of issues debated round gender and class, but they all agree that the complexity has to be admitted—Khairnode, the dalit thinker, says, ‘Compared to the white collar ones like you the woman in the toiling class has less restriction of custom and convention. But they have to put up with thrashing too’ (p. 391). When a male friend criticizes women’s associations, borrowing weapons from Pu.La. Deshpande’s satire You Have It with You All Along, Vasudha criticizes Deshpande’s view. In sum, Pradhan’s fiction, while heavily circumscribed by its male point of view, nonetheless offers tantalizing windows into possibilities of combining emancipation on gender, caste, and class lines.
Gandhiji, Sane Guruji, Jayaparakash Narayan: these are three of the book’s heroes. One gets a powerful sense of a mind that does not seek recourse to facile nostalgic wishes for the ‘old, better, idealist days’ of pre-Independence India. The questions that drive people to transforming their own lives into arenas of socio-political experiment remain crucial. We end with an accepted sense of the tentative, but necessary status of these questioning, lived human experiments: In 1942, Independence was not visible on the horizon even. Yet many like you threw themselves in the Freedom struggle. You even determined your course for social transformation and proceeded along it for three dozen years or more. The questions that caused restlessness to our generation were faced by you and the tenacious fight that you gave definitely yielded some answers to you. This tale of seven answers has been crafted out of your strenuous movement through the last four decades. In a worldly sense it is not fruitful. It’s incomplete at the same time. And yet my thoughts remain entangled in this tale—since it’s a saga of conflict of the anonymous.
Barnita Bagchi teaches and researches Comparative Literature at Utrecht University in The Netherlands.