Not surprisingly, our Literature Live! Evenings launched a spate of political books in quick succession during the period of elections. There was Yashwant Sinha’s ‘India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy’, P. Chidambaram’s ‘Undaunted: Saving the Idea of India’, Navin Chawla’s ‘Every Vote Counts: The Story of India’s Elections’, Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala’s ‘The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections’ and Ruchir Sharma’s ‘Democracy on the Road: A 25 Year Journey through India’.
As I write this, a thought strikes me – how useful it is that publishers add subtitles to the main title of books! From reading these you would have got a pretty good idea of what each book is about, so it saves me the bother of explanation. Except perhaps Ruchir Sharma’s.
Sharma, a 45-year old finance expert who manages a $ 20 billion country investment fund for Morgan Stanley in New York, still finds time to travel through India whenever there is a major election. In 25 years he has been through 28 elections, seeing a wider range of them than many journalists could have done. He travels with a group of friends, some 20 of them, all high-powered like him which gives them access to people in power which lesser mortals would be unlikely to get. But then, lesser mortals would not be able to write a wonderful book like ‘Democracy on the Road’. It’s full of anecdotes (Mayawati met Sharma in her bedroom wearing a pink nightdress. “Wait for a few minutes”, she said, “while I Colgate”) as well as surprisingly optimistic observations about Indian democracy at work.
Actually this should not be surprising when you think of the hard work and planning which goes into conducting the biggest democratic exercise in the world. Chawla, Roy and Sopariwala describe the process at some length in their books, and spoke about it lucidly in my conversations with them on the stage. Sinha and Chidambaram will no doubt be unhappy with the results of the elections, but then it is the will of the people, freely expressed.
However illuminating and provocative these books are, it was with a sense of relief that one turned away to something non-political. This was the launch of Andrew Whitehead’s ‘The Lives of Freda’. There’s a sub-title to this too, a rather long one that goes ‘The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi.’
Whitehead was with the BBC for 35 years, many of them spent in Delhi as the Beeb’s India Correspondent. He came across the fascinating story of Freda Bedi, an Englishwoman who as a student at Oxford University met and married an Indian, Pyarelal Bedi in 1929 when such marriages were frowned upon. (Their son, the actor Kabir Bedi, took part in the launch discussion). After marriage, Freda came to India, took part in the freedom struggle and even went to jail as a satyagrahi. After Independence, when Pakistani tribals invaded Kashmir, she joined a women’s militia and took up guns to fight them!
Years later when Tibetan refugees fled to India, she persuaded Jawaharlal Nehru to let her supervise their rehabilitation, which included starting a school for children and an institute to teach the English language to Tibetan monks. Two of the products of the institute travelled overseas, one setting up Buddhist centres in Europe and the other in the US, centres which helps keep alive the Tibetan cause even today. Later she became the first western woman to be ordained a Buddhist nun. Hers is truly a remarkable story, engagingly told by Andrew Whitehead.
By a serendipitous coincidence I was asked to a small lunch with Dr Lobsang Sangany, President of the Central Tibetan Administration, and the political heir of the Dalai Lama. He turned out to be an impressive young man, wearing a Nehru jacket over shirt and trousers, with an equally impressive CV. Brought up in a Tibetan settlement near Darjeeling, he studied in the Central School for Tibetans there (could this be what Freda Bedi started?) and went on to graduate from Delhi University. A Fulbright scholarship took him to Harvard where his PhD theses was related to the Tibetan government in exile.
Amongst other things, he’s a passionate environmentalist and speaks on climate change all over the world. The picture he painted of Mount Everest’s melting glaciers was frightening: the statistics of reducing water resources foretell the disasters which await the coming generations. For Tibetans, it’s a question of life and death, but their dire straits are only a few degrees more dangerous than ours.
Astonishingly, this imminent threat to humanity does not enter any political discourse, or even get a passing mention in anyone’s election speech. For most of us, it might well be a case of God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.