The Lettered Spirit

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Ananya Vajpeyi, Writer & Academic

IN JULY 1917, a 26-year-old Bhimrao Ambedkar boarded the SS Kaiser-i-Hind in Marseilles, France, heading back to Bombay after his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics were rudely interrupted by the sudden drying-up of the scholarship funds he had been granted by the Maharaja of Baroda. He booked his luggage, including a vast library of books acquired in London and before that in New York, where he had been a Masters’ student at Columbia University from 1913 to 1916, on a separate cargo steamer, and insured his belongings with Thomas Cook and Co. With the hostilities of World War I still raging in the Mediterranean, the steamer was torpedoed by the Germans. By the time Ambedkar reached India in early August, he had lost his entire library.

The young man’s woes were only just beginning. Using the insurance money he received from Thomas Cook to pay for his passage from Bombay northwards, he proceeded to Baroda. There he was hired as a probationer at the Accountant General’s Office attached to Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III, his erstwhile benefactor, and discovered that no one would rent him a room or house because of his untouchable status. After much difficulty, poignantly described in an autobiographical fragment of 1935-36 titled Waiting for a Visa, Ambedkar ended up at a decrepit and gloomy Parsi inn, bribing the caretaker and falsely entering himself under a Parsi name in the register. Late at night after he returned from work, he had no one to talk to. The establishment had no electric or oil lamps, and was plunged in darkness and solitude, both of which Ambedkar found terrifying. Night after night, he borrowed books from the library, got the caretaker to bring up a hurricane lamp for him, and tried to banish his fear and despondency. He writes:


“I felt that I was in a dungeon, and I longed for the company of some human being to talk to. But there was no one. In the absence of the company of human beings, I sought the company of books, and read and read. Absorbed in reading, I forgot my lonely condition. But the chirping and flying about of the bats, which had made the hall their home, often distracted my mind and sent cold shivers through me — reminding me of what I was endeavouring to forget, that I was in a strange place under strange conditions.”

He was eventually discovered and thrown out of the inn, and had to leave Baroda, but Ambedkar overcame this — and every other — obstacle and humiliation, to become not just a political figure of great consequence, but also one of the most erudite and scholarly of India’s founders: a man with multiple academic degrees, a writer of many books, a maker of the Indian Constitution, and the propounder of a new school of Buddhism, the Navayana. By the time of his death in December 1956, Ambedkar was surely among the most learned politicians of his generation. His last book, The Buddha and His Dhamma, published posthumously in 1957, necessitated him combing the Buddhist canon, acquainting himself with numerous sectarian traditions of Buddhism throughout Asia, and even teaching himself to read Pali, the classical language of Buddhism. In a completely distinct dimension, Ambedkar’s engagement with American pragmatist philosophy and liberal thought through the figure of his teacher and mentor John Dewey (1859-1952) is a subject about which we still know very little.

Bibliophiles Both Nehru and Ambedkar were voracious readers

The venality and bathos of contemporary Indian politics make it hard to imagine a time when the country’s leaders were well-read, thoughtful, and acquainted with a vast world of ideas. But hardly a hundred years ago, India’s political landscape was populated by minds of a very different calibre. Mohandas Gandhi wrote his revolutionary tract, Hind Swaraj, in November 1909, on board the ship Kildonian Castle, over the 11 days it took to sail from London to Johannesburg. He wrote in a frenzy of inspiration, never pausing, completing the manuscript with his left hand when his right hand became tired. Gandhi probably had no access to any reading materials on that journey, nor would the epiphanic burst of writing have allowed him to consult sources if there had been any at hand. But this did not stop him from publishing a list of what he called Some Authorities as an appendix to the English version of his book, telling his readers, in his characteristic voice of a hectoring schoolmaster, that a variety of works by Tolstoy (The Slavery of Our Times), Ruskin (Unto This Last), Thoreau (On the Duty of Civil Disobedience), Plato (Defence and Death of Socrates), Mazzini (Duties of Man), Dadabhai Naoroji (Poverty and Un-British Rule in India) and Henry Maine (Village Communities) were “recommended for perusal to follow up the study of the foregoing”.

Gandhi was no less strict with himself than he was with his followers: he discovered the Bhagavad Gita at a very young age (under 20 years), and in midlife began reading it every week from start to finish. By about 1930, he admitted to not just reading the Gita every single day but also attempting to “enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of 40 years”. A dedication to the practices of reading, reflection and interpretation — coeval with a profound exercise in ethical self-discipline — that informed Gandhi’s relationship with a text like the Gita, seems almost preposterous from our vantage. “I have called it my spiritual dictionary,” he wrote, “for it has never failed me in distress”. For men like Gandhi and Ambedkar, a certain kind of book could be solace, compass and anchor in the very midst of the hurly-burly of politics. They turned to particular books and engaged deeply with them not because they were trying in a self-conscious way to be intellectuals, but because in their understanding, political life — for it to be sustainable over decades of hard struggle — had to have active and contemplative dimensions in equal measure.

Jawaharlal Nehru was able to write The Discovery of India in jail partly because his friends and family brought him books to work with. But even for him to have asked for these, he had to have already been familiar with not just Indian but also European history, philosophy, literature and religion. Evidence of his eclectic tastes and ecumenical habits as a reader and thinker is everywhere to be found in his book: from Bertrand Russell to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Plato to Kautilya, from Shakespeare to Kalidasa, from George Bernard Shaw to Marcel Proust, he knew or knew of every significant ancient and modern source necessary to answer the tough question he posed to himself and to his compatriots: “What is this India?”

In a recent Nehru Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi in November 2012, the Burmese resistance leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described in moving words her own years spent in house-arrest under the powerful military junta, when she in turn read Nehru, and tried to learn from his descriptions of his experiences in surviving imprisonment and in nationalist struggle alike. As the daughter of the assassinated General Aung San, she had personally grown up knowing Nehru in India in the early 1960s, but when she returned to The Discovery of India in the 1990s, Nehru now spoke to her not as a friend of her parents but as one freedom fighter to another, across time and across national boundaries. Through his voice she found her own.

THE GREAT Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), author of The Prison Notebooks, used to organise classes in philology for fellow-prisoners while jailed by Mussolini’s Fascist regime for most of the last years of his short life. The figure of the popular political leader as the solitary dissident intellectual, reading and writing in some oppressive jail words that signify liberty, is a recurrent one in the 20th century — again, a remote and unlikely figure in the garish vacuous cacophony of our hyper-mediatised political culture. Oddly, apart from Machiavelli, Marx and Lenin, Gramsci and Nehru seem to have had a shared interest in the early 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson, an index perhaps as much of their common erudition as of Nehru’s cosmopolitanism, the ease with which he navigated the conceptual worlds of east and west alike. Nearly 70 years after Independence, Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore remain among the most consistently popular Indian authors in the English language, and Ambedkar is fast entering those ranks as well.

‘The venality and bathos of contemporary Indian politics make it hard to imagine a time when the country’s leaders were well-read’

India’s founding generations teemed with readers and writers, thinkers and doers, lawyers and theologians, poets and philosophers.

For a nation created by people as well-read and well-spoken as Rabindranath Tagore, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Maulana Azad, Sri Aurobindo, Allama Iqbal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sarojini Naidu, it’s difficult to fathom or forgive both the bankruptcy of ideas and ignorance of the past that seems to afflict our political classes today. It might be worth bearing in mind, however, that in a democracy, the faults and flaws of our leaders are, alas, nothing but a mirror held up to the shortcomings that are all too often our own.

Ananya Vajpeyi’s new book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India is published by Harvard University Press (2012)


  1. Ananya, the age of Gandhi and Nehru was the age of real heroes. Now we only have cardboard figures, with no substance, only the facade. If history had given thinking beings or philosophers to us once, it is now parading these farcical characters, these parodic versions before us. Whether or not Indian society is postmodern, but our political class certainly is. Total bankruptcy of thought is what makes our leaders into living cartoons.

  2. I think this is a great article Ananya. It does make one sad to listen to some of our political leaders speaking or debating – the lack of logic in their appeals and blind populism in their promises is scary. One also feels like they don’t really have the perspective to learn from history besides the history of murky political machinations.

    However – maybe this is what democracy is, maybe our political leaders and founders from an earlier era represented our feudal history and each one of them came from a privileged background where their parents were able to send them to Eton and Columbia. As gifted as they were individually, they still were products of a time when our society was a lot less equal than it is now.

    The other thing to note is – the freedom struggle was not made of just these elite. There were also hundreds of thousands of grassroot leaders, who are not as extensively chronicled and written about. And who knows – maybe those leaders were as illiterate as some of our most colourful politicians from the hindi belt or Harayana.

    I don’t know what’s right or desirable, just trying to understand the reasons for what you point out.

  3. considering all, I would just like to say that more than blaming or worrying, its better to come forward in order to make change or revive the things of past which Ananya has highlighted in her article in the name of few great statesmen.More than reaction its now time for some concrete actions.

  4. Good article for sure – for it provokes even further thought.

    The great leaders of the pre-independence era all came up in a non-democratic environment – thus probably the highly educated and ‘learned’ bias. The current crop of leaders are output of a democratic environment – thus without any bias based on education or other ‘elite’ factors.

    The author & the readers are all from this ‘elite’ class, thus probably all of us are biased towards rating educated & learned leaders as better quality of leaders. But would the ‘aam aadmi’ care for how many books has his MLA read? Or does ‘well spoken’ only mean people who are well read and can quote from various books? I personally find several of our currently politicians very good speakers, take for example Laloo Yadav.

    Or if do believe that the politicians from the mid-1900s were better than the current crop, does it mean democracy is not the best form of government, or at least not best suited for our country?


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