Books do not change lives, but books can change the way we look at the world. As a student of economics, I was a high modernist who believed in transforming rural communities through industrialization. Concern for the poor came with a heavy dose of condescension. Those who lived outside cities had to be improved and uplifted through an infusion of modern technology and what would used to be known as the ‘scientific temper’. Then I read Verrier Elwin’s Leaves from the Jungle, a charming evocation of the life of the Gond tribals of central India. This, and his other works, showed me that despite their apparent illiteracy and lack of material wealth, the tribals had a rich tradition of poetry, folklore and art, a deep identification with nature, and a strong sense of community solidarity. In the latter respects they had, in fact, something to teach a modern world that dismissed them as primitive and uncivilized.

A little later, I became a Marxist, persuaded into the faith by the scholars who taught me in Kolkata. I was young and impatient; the incremental idealism of my parents’ hero, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not seem sufficient to make a dent in the poverty and inequality that was so manifest a feature of social life in India. Then, on a visit to Dehradun, I picked up, on the pavement of the town’s main street, a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I took the book home and read it through the night. Orwell had seen, at first-hand, how the democratic aspirations of the Spanish people had been undermined by the takeover of their movement by a band of cynical and amoral Communists, acting under the instructions of Josef Stalin. He communicated his experiences in prose of an uncommon clarity. By the morning, I had abandoned Marxism, and was a social democrat once more.

Another book that changed the way I looked at the world was Truth Called Them Differently, published by the Navajivan Press in Ahmedabad. This reproduced the debates between Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. They argued about many things—India’s place in the world, the role of the English language, whether an hour a day at the spinning wheel was mandatory for the patriot. The exchanges reveal the intellectual and moral qualities of the two men, each of whom had the ability (and courage) to change his views when circumstance or reason so demanded.

Elwin was once a well-known writer in India. Tagore, Gandhi and Orwell enjoy global reputations. All had a considerable and varied oeuvre in English. Their books were published by the most prestigious publishing houses. A fourth book whose reading radically altered my understanding of the world was by contrast written by an author unknown outside his native Karnataka. And it was published by a totally obscure press. Browsing through Bangalore’s Premier Bookshop in the early 1990s, I came across a slim book called The Flaming Feet. The title was intriguing, as were its contents—a series of essays on and around the figure of B. R. Ambedkar.

Published by a local NGO called the Institute of Cultural Research and Action, The Flaming Feet was the first work in English of D. R. Nagaraj, a Professor of Kannada in Bangalore University. The politics of the 1930s and 1940s had placed Gandhi and Ambedkar as antagonists—as, more recently, had the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. The Bahujan Samaj Party had launched a series of stinging attacks on the Mahatma, accusing him of patronizing the Dalits and impeding rather than aiding their emancipation. From the other side, the Hindutva ideologue Arun Shourie had written a 600 page screed depicting Ambedkar as a toady of the British.

D. R. Nagaraj was unusual, and at that time at least, unique, in admiring both Gandhi and Ambedkar. To be sure, in their life-time their respective social locations made it hard for these men not to be political adversaries. By the time Ambedkar returned from his studies in the United States, Gandhi was the acknowledged leader of the national movement. For a brilliant and ambitious young man from a Dalit background, to join the Congress was to relegate oneself to a secondary role in politics. Thus, as Nagaraj pointed out, ‘there was very little scope for a Congress Harijan leader to develop interesting and useful models of praxis from within.’ So Ambedkar chose to form his own political party and fight for his people under a banner separate from, and opposed to, Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.

In The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj demonstrated how through their debates and arguments, Gandhi and Ambedkar transformed one another. The Mahatma became more sensitive to the structural roots of caste discrimination, while Ambedkar came to recognize that moral renewal was as critical to Dalit emancipation as economic opportunity. In seeking to honour both men, Nagaraj was, as he put it, fighting both ‘deep-rooted prejudices’ (which urged Indians to follow only one or the other) as well as ‘wishful thinking’ (which made one believe that one or other thinker provided all the answers to the Dalit predicament). Nagaraj insisted that ‘from the viewpoint of the present, there is a compelling necessity to achieve a synthesis of the two.’ ‘The greatest paradox of modern Indian history’, wrote Nagaraj, was that ‘both Gandhian and Ambedkarite perceptions of the issue are partially true, and the contending visions are yet to comprehend each other fully.’

Reading Nagaraj, like reading Tagore, Gandhi, Orwell and Elwin, was an epiphanic experience. He taught me to recognize that while Gandhi and Ambedkar were rivals in their life-time, from the point of view of India today the two men should rather be viewed as partners and collaborators. The legacy of both was required to complete the unfinished task of Dalit emancipation. After the publication of The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj began writing more often in English. These later essays, like the book, were marked by an unusual ability to bring disparate worlds into conversation: the past and the present, the elite and the subaltern, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan.

In 1998, just as he was maturing as a scholar and political analyst, Nagaraj died of a heart attack. Now, twelve years later, his published and unpublished essays on Dalit questions have been brought together in an expanded edition of The Flaming Feet, edited and sensitively introduced by his former student Prithvi Datta Chandra Sobhi, and appearing this time under the imprint of a more mainstream publisher. Here Nagaraj writes with elegance and insight about a wide range of subjects—on the ‘lack of a living tradition of militant Gandhianism’; on the self-invention of a Dalit identity (as he points out, in searching for a history outside Hinduism, ‘the modern Dalit has to seek his rebirth in a state of fearful loneliness. S/he has nothing to rely upon in his/her immediate Hindu surroundings’); on the need to build a united front of ecological, dalit, and tribal movements.

Nagaraj was a social scientist as well as litterateur, whose mode of writing was sometimes empirical, at other times metaphorical. Here is a representative excerpt: ‘Babasaheb [Ambedkar] had no option but to reject the Gandhian model. He had realized that this model had successfully transformed Harijans as objects in a ritual of self-purification, with the ritual being performed by those who had larger heroic notions of their individual selves. In the theatre of history, in a play with such a script, the untouchables would never become heroes in their own right they were just mirrors for a hero to look at his own existentialist anger and despair, or maybe even glory.’

This new edition of The Flaming Feet may be the most important work of non-fiction pubished in this country in 2010. At any rate, it is indispensable for anyone with any serious interest in society and politics in modern India.

Published in The Telegraph, 1/1/2011

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