For many years now, my principal teacher on the subject of Mohandas K. Gandhi has been a man who is only incidentally his grandson. To be sure, Gopalkrishna Gandhi does respect and honour the memory of his two grandfathers (the other being C. Rajagopalachari). But his own identity is by no means restricted to the genes he carries. He has written a fine novel in English (Refuge, set in the tea estates of Sri Lanka), translated (into Hindi) Vikram Seth’s mammoth A Suitable Boy, founded the now enormously influential Nehru Centre in London, and served as an inspirational High Commissioner in post-apartheid South Africa. At the time of writing he is (in the words of the economist Amartya Sen) ‘the enormously popular Governor of West Bengal’. In between (and before) these literary and public duties, he has acquired a deep understanding of modern Indian history, and of the freedom struggle in particular
Over the past two decades, Gopal (as I must, in defiance of protocol, call him) has done me countless good turns. He has directed me to books I did not know of, and clarified doubts relating to Gandhi and the national movement. He is, as it were, my own personalized Wikipedia: like that site he donates his knowledge without a fee, although unlike it he never makes a mistake. Over the years, this column would have contained far more errors had I not had the good fortune to count this outstandingly gifted (and generous) Indian as a friend.
Not long after I first met Gopal, I was due to travel to New York. He suggested that, in view of my interests, I meet someone named Enuga S. Reddy, whom he described as a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle. Thus, on a cold, dark, winter evening in New York, I called on a tall, erect, soft-spoken man who for more than twenty years had directed the United Nations Centre against Apartheid. In this time, Mr Reddy worked ceaselessly to wean the Western world away from its support to the racist regime in South Africa, by writing petitions, organizing conferences, lobbying leaders, and hosting South Africans in exile. When we met, in 1992, the struggle had more or less succeeded. Mandela was out of jail, the African National Congress (ANC) was no longer banned, and the first democratic elections were being planned.
Among progressive circles in South Africa E. S. Reddy was (and is) venerated. Some top leaders of the ANC counted him as a friend. So did many lesser activists. I recently met a young man who works in an office of the United Nations in Pretoria (an office that could not have existed during apartheid), and when I mentioned Mr Reddy’s name, he sat up straight, instinctively, as a mark of respect to a man whom his father and uncle had visited when in exile and who he had himself later met as a free South African.
Sometime in the 1980s, after he had retired from the U. N., E. S. Reddy began to develop a serious interest in Mahatma Gandhi. It was, at it were, a sort of homecoming, for in his native Andhra he had grown up in a family of Gandhians. He began to scour libraries in Europe and North America for rare materials on or by Gandhi. Later, after the demise of apartheid, his search was extended to libraries and archives in South Africa as well.
Over the past twenty years, E. S. Reddy has collected tens of thousands of pages of new material, including many letters by Gandhi not in his Collected Works, records of his law practice, government reports about his activities, tributes to and interviews with him published in French, German, English, and other languages. Mr Reddy has generously donated copies to archives in India, South Africa, and the United States. Meanwhile, he has himself produced a stream of important books on Gandhi’s relations with Americans, Europeans, and South Africans.
Gopal Gandhi has called E. S. Reddy a ‘Gandhi-reservoir’, a ‘one-man Open University on Mahatma Gandhi’. His generosity is legendary; so, too, is his energy. At the age of eighty-two, he made an arduous journey to New Delhi to help the Government of India resolve the mother of all messes created by a careless (and possibly malevolent) reworking of the standard edition of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. A year later I met him at Yale University, where, having taken a train from New York, he had come to deposit new materials on South Africa. Great institutions have benefited from his goodness and wisdom; so, too, have very many ordinary individuals. Every so often, I get an email from Mr Reddy with an attachment containing documents on or about Gandhi that I have not seen or heard of before.
While giving thus to India and Indians, Mr Reddy continues to give to his adopted continent as well. Surfing the Web, I found an account of his work for a website called Aluka.org, which is a digital library of scholarly resources about Africa. In September 2007 Mr Reddy gave lunch in an Indian restaurant in New York to a representative of Aluka named Angelique Mahal. She later wrote in a blog: ‘I was ready yesterday to return to him a book he lent to me and he told me to keep it for now and to keep reading it. While we have worked quite closely together these past months I had once mentioned that I previously lived and worked in Burkina Faso, and yesterday he brought me a special report section on Burkina that was in a recent Financial Times. He also gave me a book he edited on Gandhi’s speeches and signed it to my friend Angelique. E.S. isn’t only a partner for [our] project, he has become a friend and mentor to me.’
As he has been to this writer as well. For, among the many debts I owe Gopal Gandhi, that introduction to E. S. Reddy may very well be the greatest.
Published in The Hindu, 1/2/2009