Volume I of this set of books presents sketches of the people the author meets in the course of her unusually wide travels. The initial pages chronicle her journey – a journey from one culture to a completely different one in space and time.
Written at the suggestion of her friend Bimal Prasad, the book is incompletely autobiographical for it does not include a large part of her life – her marriage to Nripendranath Chatterjee, originally a Professor of English, her experiences in the university in Uttar Pradesh in which there “were caste hostels” and her subsequent involvement in district and village life of Bengal after her husband became one of the first emergency recruits to the newly formed IAS. Raising her family of husband and three children and acquiring a working knowledge of two languages filled years “which I have not recorded, but they were certainly years which marked crucial stages on my journey,” says the author.
On her travels, the author meets Comoladi Dutt in Delhi with whom the former enjoys playing duets on the piano. She says that Comoladi did a lot to develop western music section of All India Radio. Live programmes apart, a library of records was built up so that recorded programmes were of the highest quality.
The author talks of Dr JJ Sarid, a remarkable lady who was the daughter of Hanna Lazar who came to Wardha in 1938 wanting to write about her uncle Hermann Kallanbach’s life story as he was a great friend of Mahatma Gandhi. JJ Sarid becomes a close friend of the author and whose pastime is to feed a large army of stray cats and who has warm relations with her Palestinian neighbours.
At Shantiniketan the author meets Israeli Kotia who has made her home in India. Here she meets sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri, who lives with his mother-in-law and wife and with the author’s help holds exhibitions of Tagore’s works. Later, she finds Sankho laid in bed with diabetic condition. The author says that even in his failing health, Sankho would pick up a piece of paper or tinfoil and twist it into different shapes “for his inventiveness never left him.”
The author meets Mulk Raj Anand also who had lost his heart to live after his companion Dolly Sahiar’s death. The Seven Ages of Man series which he had planned earlier remains unfinished because of his health. She also meets Krishna Kripalani’s last days which were very painful and “I found it hard to accept that such a brilliant man was no more.” She also talks of Sisir Kumar Das, DN Wadia, Bimal Prasad and Nirmal Kumar Bose and concludes by saying that Gandhiji “was the key to understanding India and the needs of its people.”
This book will interest only those who are known to the readers because the author writes about these seniors who in various ways had a link to Gandhiji or the Gandhian era.
The second volume presents a series of sketches which begin with contemporary times, looking back at Gandhiji and finding that, so far from being locked into a specific historical situation, he had much to say and even more to show in his dealings with people and events which address our complex circumstances.
In the way the first volume maps out the journey to Gandhiji’s land, while the second provides an activity of recall which paradoxically brings Gandhiji into today’s world. Here the author addresses not personalities, but issues. She says that guidelines laid down by Gandhiji in a different historical situation “address us with urgency in the thicket of our present circumstances.” Thus, according to the author, remembering Gandhiji is not just an activity of recall but brings him into the heart of our dilemmas today, providing us with pointers to an alternative vision for tomorrow.
One begins reading the books with a lot of expectations hoping to find something new on Gandhiji, but it all turns out to be a damp squib with the author trying to bank upon Gandhiji’s name to write about her meetings with different persons.
(Promilla & Co., Publishers, C-127 Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi-110017.)