Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Comma in a Sentence by R Gopalakrishnan: A Review

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

 Books written by captains of Industry, Trade and those managing the commanding heights of India's elite institutions make drab reading for two reasons. First, there is little reflection of the history and politics of the time and their navel gazing obsession makes poor autobiography. Second, there is little insight into the momentous almost tectonic events that reshaped society right in their own life time and men write about their lives as if History has had no role to play. The book under discussion is guilty of both these major aberrations and i felt disappointed having read what seemed as an insightful peep into a high caste Brahmin household from the middle of the nineteenth century till the late twentieth century. Though there are a string of interesting anecdotes to liven up the narrative, the book is too obsessed about the "achievements" of the author and there is little reflection on the life and times behind the individual. I think Indians write poor autobiographies because they  are totally ignorant of the challenges of History.

The narrative deals with the family of an Iyengar land holding clan which lived in the Kaveri delta.  There is absolutely no awareness about the historical situation or condition that enabled the Vadakalai Iyengar family to emerge as powerful landed aristocracy of the region. Gopalkrishnan's attempt at placing his lineage in an overall historical context is pathetic. He recounts the (1) Vellore Mutiny and (2) the 1857 Mutiny as if his ancestors were aware of these events and were in a position to seize the historical and political import of these events. I seriously doubt the ability  of Ranga to ruminate on these events in the manner in which Gopalakrishanan has done in his book. Bogus historical recollections like the ones that he offers are not a substitute for reflections on men, events and circumstances. In a traditional Brahmin household the chronological span of memory does not extend beyond three generations and even here the memory is underpinned by the ritual demands placed by the Shradha ritual. Instead of inventing fictive conversations which fly in the face of what we know about the historical knowledge and insight of brahmins, it would be far better if Goplakrishnan had stuck to facts. What was life in the agrahara like? What were the inner tensions between different branches of the family? How were marriages arranged? Did brahmin women in the agrahara have friendship or liaisons with men outside the neighborhood?  These questions are not unimportant, as every Brahmin family has anecdotal information about girls running away with men and never reunited with their families ever again. In most cases, as indeed has happened in the case of my Gandfather's elder sister, there is no mention about the woman ever again in the household. In short, women who chose to assert their individual freedom are written out of the family narrative. I am raising these questions to underscore the partial and incomplete nature of Gopalkrihshna's narrative.

The book is an unabashed celebration of the life and achievements of the author. Obviously, the author and his children have doen well and the marker of their status the fact that many of them have advanced degrees from American Universities. But a more important question is skirted. Obviously when the author was growing up, the anti-brahmin, "rationalist" Dravidian Movement was on the rampage in the Tamil region. Like the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Brahmins were targeted by the Dravidian Movement in the most senseless manner. I remember my grandmother telling me that she as a young girl she was set upon by thugs near the Parthasarthi Temple in Madras who were obviously motivated by the hateful fascist ideology of the dravidian movement. I wonder why it has become necessary for men like Gopalakrishnan to blank out the horrid realities of Brahmin life in Tamil country. The migration to USA has saved many of them but what about those still lift in the Belly of the Beast.

As an extended portrayal of the life of a corporate boxwallah this book is adequate. But anyone interested in gaining insight into Brahmanical life and culture will be disappointed./

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