Autobiographies are often highly subjective and therefore only partially true in many respects.While biographies are likely to be more reliable and might give a full account of one’s life.
We seem to live at a time when there is an unprecedented change in our lives.Globally it is so.Globalisation is now almost a cliche.
Our life on the planet has become enriched and I look up life today with full of new optimism.Yes,there are causes for worry.If you are a historian or champion of international peace or disarmament or an environmentalist you have reasons to be worried.There are such great souls.I count Jimmy Carter one such.Then,I also has to contend with Bill Clinton who is anything but a pessimist! He is also on the agenda of promoting international good with his Clinton Global Initiative.So,there is much to cheer about.
But as any serious thinker would be a troubled soul.There is much to decry.There is what I would call as the trivialisation of truth.
Has reason triumphed?As hoped for Enlightenment thinkers?It hasn’t.
So,anyone who tries to write about himself or about one’s own times has to first give an outline of what he or she thinks as the core issues of the times.
As for writing one’s autobiography,I gave much thought and did try my hand and yet kept it for some other day which might not come at all!
Now I turn to what I consider my thoughts on writing an autobiography means or whether an autobiography is enough to tell about oneself.It looks at this point of time that an autobiography often doesn’t tell the full truth of oneself and so an autobiography be supplemented by a biography by some outsider.The more one is detached the better.
And yet,I cant to bring to bear upon me the thought of writing about myself as much of my life is,in terms of education and mental training,highly Westernised and modernized,in tastes and temperaments and I remain basically an Indian and my pride and prejudice might not find much favour with the Indians of this generation.Anyway this is one of my reasons for proceeding further.
So,what I write here has to be conditioned to this mental horizon.Now,there is a high international migration,more so the high brain drain and there is a huge concentration of Indian intelligentsia,besides,other skilled and unskilled NRIs.
So,whatever I write here is also conditioned by the fact that I have very different view of what India means to me.Living and working and committed to promote certain definite agenda of action as such,I have more pride and prejudices in whatever I say and do!
I have given much thought to writing my autobiography for sometime.Though I have written one in Tamil language,though it is still in manuscript form only.I have lately come to feel that after all I write more on several topics,topics of interest not just to me but to a wider audience in India,perhaps abroad also(my weblog:www.isvarmurti.com attracts quite a bit of visitors).So,whatever I write is also part of what I think and feel strong about and they become,in a way ,part of my mental growth process only.So,why write a new separate autobiography?
So, the urge to sit down and write a separate autobiography seems a bit unnecessary and so my writings in all forms now seem to constitute a decent corpus of my own autobiographical pieces.Readers should see my mental processes in these pieces.Seen in this light,I have now revised my own idea of what autobiographies can be like.
Even Gandhi has written at some place that what he wrote as his autobiography gave only a partial account and he wanted to try for the second time but didn’t have the time for it.Nehru also said the same thing about his autobiography.
Also,I feel that the time now left for me is limited and as such I should concentrate on some of the overwhelming thoughts that are driving me now!
India as a slave country for thousand years.India as a free country for just 60 years.Yet,Indian people as a nation,had never had gone through a historic process of independent change,as the Europeans did,as Europeans had the process of an Enlightenment,the French Revolution and the thoughts and ideas that preceded it and also what followed and the rise of reason and an open society and much else hasn’t touched the Indian shores for whatever reasons.
British rule bypassed Indians of the European Enlightenment.The Christian missionaries,from England and Europe concentrated on their missionary work,they spread everything but not the Enlightenment knowledge.This is one of my theses on India and Indian history.
Also,Indian mentality,owing to long years of servitude,the Hindu religion and the Hindu religion and the social caste hierarchy and much else had held us in some permanent form of inferiority status.This inferiority complex is another of my thesis.How to get Indians of this inferiority complex?There is this subordination of one’s self just for the sake of survival.Indians don’t have any idea of freedom,individual liberty,no idea of a liberal society.Much of our otherwise noble ideals enshrined in our Constitution remain just on paper,we are so satisfied without ritualistic life’s routine.We have democracy but no democratic behaviour in variety of our political organisation and governance.
We have a Prime Minister who has not been elected and who is comfortable in his formal designation,he has no moral scruples to declare himself as a resident of Assam and pays his rent and power bills and shows them as proof.Such is Indian dualism,between precepts and practice! Down through a whole spectrum we can trace this dualism,this hypocrisy.
So,what Do I do?What is my dharma?My karma?Such thoughts engage me.
So,in this mental frame,for me a good piece of autobiography,biography,literature,poetry or novel or any good essay,my favorites being the Montaigne(1533-1592) and Pascal(1623-1662), along with Leo Tolstoy I would rate as the greatest pieces of autobiographical writings that verge on classical proportions. And that is why they have become classics in that special genre. This is not the place to go into their individual merits.But what runs as the common theme in their writings is the search for finding about one’s own inner nature,to understand human nature,to arrive at a morality that would give their lives and thoughts a new meaning.Pascal’s “Pencees”,Montaigne’s”Essays”(written over a lifetime) and Tolstoy,in all his novels,short stories and essays are all literally journeys of the soul only and they touch your personality in so many ways.
Of course each lived in different historic times and we have to make room for their times and seek the larger historic and social currents of the times.
As for autobiographies by others,by those who became famous in later times and later years I have mixed feelings.Also those who wrote autobiographies but who didn’t become so famous and forgotten give me a different type of reaction.As one noted journalist of reputation wrote in the course of his memoirs,”what price earthly glory”? Such question often comes and haunts me,honestly! And then,men are driven by such earth;ly glory only?Yes,it looks like that when we read some of the autobiographies by men who made it big when they lived on this planet.I am not sure how lasting their achievements,more so in the fleeting life of politics and business.Anyway,men(and increasingly women )would continue to be lured by earthly glory only and this we have to keep in mind whenever we read autobiographies or biographies.
Writing an autobiography is welcome for we can at least know what we have done in our earthly life and some dates and events are at best a reliable guide to a person’s life,rather than leaving them to others or guesses,often such guesses are exaggerated and
even twisted.See the life of Swami Vivekananda(I went to a Ramakrishna Mission School) for instance,in recent times is written in an entirely unsatisfactory manner.there are already miracles-like incidents are created!This,for a man who was so refreshingly free from the age-old Hindu practices of empty rituals!
Just now,I read the pages of autobiography by Tagore where he narrates how Raja Ram Mohan Roy(1772?-1833),”a very great hearted man of gigantic intelligence,a revolutionary ,he tried to reopen the channel of spiritual life which had been obstructed for many years by the sands and debris of creeds..”.
Anyway,my thoughts on writing autobiographies are like this:”Wherever possible an autobiography is a starting point to know the person.Otherwise ,there is this danger of later generations likely to introduce inaccuracies and even plain falsehoods,even miracles,as we find in the current life accounts of great men,Jesus Christ to Buddha and other great masters,religious and secular.
But autobiographies are often one-sided.My ego wont allow me to become objective about myself! I would tend to see what my ego dictates.So,we need some objective corrections.These are provided by biographies.
Let us take the well-known autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi.As pointed by many,more so by foreign writers and admirers,Gandhi has written as his autobiography events and his own interpretations,as if he evolved into a unique spiritual man,a man of truth and god.So,we are precluded to see him more objectively.So says an insightful writer.(The un-Gandhian Gandhi by Claude Markovits,Permanent Black)
It looks that writing autobiographies,that is straightforward biographies of oneself is becoming rare these days.Nowadays there is a craze for writing novels,every other first time novel,by every new writer,seems to me a part autobiography itself.This impression or a dominant streak one can trace in every major novelist in the past as well as in the present.
How to read James Joyce(1882-1941)and his many writings.”Dubliners”and “Ulysses”,except as his own autobiographies.Only that way I was able to read Joyce,or was able to” tackle” him! As every reader of Joyce knows that to read him is not easy.Nor his output so small.And Ulysses is a monster of a novel.Hundreds of books have been written about the one book alone and the output on James Joyce continues to this day.So,I am nowhere in this Joyce “business” but I had been following him for quite a long time.The one book,a biography on Joyce by Richard Ellmann(OUP) is again a monster of a book, running some eight hundred and odd pages.But each passage is a delight,so much of diligent research and beautifully written pages.They make ,in my opinion,the best substitute to reading Joyce in the original! He is otherwise very complex ,a very complex writer and though I have developed a certain fascination by reading about him,more so by a biography of his wife Dora Joyce and was also attracted by his own matchless short stories and then ultimately his magnum opus,the great novel.
At the very beginning of the biography of Joyce,Ellmann says:”Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past,but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it.His relations appear in his books under thin disguises”.Fine,wonderful,I exclaimed.Joyce writes extensively about his father and mother and their families in all of his writings.So,to read a good autobiography,I would say,go for the world’s best creative artist,James Joyce.It is with that spirit I nowadays try to read books,mostly biographies and
As for the Ulysses,I am still to read the text fully and perhaps I may not succeed.But I am curious to read and know more about how he came to write it in the first place. This is one reading why I am still reading James Joyce.The famous and often unintelligible monologue in the novel,the”interior monologue”,we are told was an earlier experiment,Joyce was moving towards a new conception of personality,”the construction of character by odds,bits and ends by minutiae”(page 368,Ellmann).He had read well,it seems,authors like Henry James,George Moor and Tolstoy and even the Freud’s theory of verbal associations.So,there was much preparation beforehand and he would write a list of words and then proceed to gloss them,”as if a multitude of bells were ringing in the mind”!Yes,such was a mesmerising power of the world play in which he set new heights of achievement.
When I am in search of more richer literary and cultural harvest I turn to great writers, my own favorites and that is how find myself reading these famous literary works.So too I have read more about Jane Austen and Bronte sisters,rather than,I confess,I choose to read them fully in their own writings.Anyway,my enjoyment of reading has only enhanced my own understanding of human life and human character.
I keep coming back to that novel often,though it continues to fascinate and I keep enjoying by reading in a disconnected manner.For I am more curious about the way the life’s many ups and downs,as narrated by his undaunted wife,often it is the wife who holds the key to men’s inner voices and that is how I have become attracted by Jame Joyce.So,in the same manner the lives of writers and poets,their own writings,be it prose or poetry attracts me more by the sort of truths they come to convey through their various writings.Often the writings of poets are uneven and now I realise that is how poets and creative spirits would do their life’s works.Life cant be steady in any conventional sense for creative artists.So,we have to learn to appreciate the sort of literary or artistic pieces left behind by such great minds.And ,the pity is that for some of the more gifted artists lives have been so insecure that most didn’t even live a decent stretch of time.The lives cut out short are so many and so precious and so rarely gifted that their lives are,in later times,become so precious for posterity.That is how I have been drawn to the lives and writings of so many poets,Shelley,Keats,Byron and Coleridge and many others like Thomas Grey,Rupert Brooke(1887-1915),Wilfred Owen(1891-1918) and some other poets and writers.Brooke and Owen are truly tragic figures,having killed in the first world war so young and their poetry gives a new poignance even now,in our own times when war might not be a threat but the strange feeling the thoughts of war evokes after reading their prescient lines.The so-called ” war poets”were the ones who bring out the brutalities of war even in our times reminding us the precipice on which our lives in the modern times are also still perched.War poetry is a reminder of such life that is tragic.
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.Shelley lived to his own dictum!
Recently I spent a whole day reading through the volume of “Shelley’s Poetry and Prose”(Norton).It was an absorbing experience,a unique experience to have communion with such a fiery spirit like the poet who often proclaimed himself to be more than a poet,a true reformer of mankind.Such a universal vision at such an age,I wondered.What a rare gifted he possessed and how those gifts led him to one crisis to another and how he was able to draw towards him always a dedicated circle,so many equally gifted,bothy men and women and who were all willing to sacrifice their all for his cause as he saw it. Shelley’s poems are so uneven and it is difficult to make a neat selection and I picked up my own favourte poems and in fact my own favourite lines!”A poet participates in the eternal,the infinite and the one”.”A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth””Immortality of poetry”,”Poetry is indeed divine””A poet is the most illustrious of men”.What more life or arts or philosophy can give for man?
His shorter poems themselves are enough to ensure his immortality.Hynmn to Intellectual Beauty(The awful shadow of some unseen power(1816)),Ode to Liberty(A glorious people vibrated again,The lightening of the nations;Liberty)(1820).His Ode to the West Wind would be his great piece of life’s testament.His poems were often reactions to current events,Adonais is perhaps the most moving tribute to a fellow poet,Keats and also a piece of pure poetical excellence.Some of the words that deeply inspired me were like the one,”Spirit”.This one word finds repeated in many places and for those of us in India who are used to the world spirit and spiritualism,here is an anti-dote to inaction and lack of life in our culture and our lives.A reading of Shelley gives a new inspiration and a new relevance to our lives today,lives that are distorted and displaced by the rise of lack of imagination and a cultural refinement and the outcome of a freely released total freedom and a new spirit of living with no barriers and narrowness of mind or limited vision.
Those who were fortunate to live a longer life,like W.B.Yeats and T.S.Eliot and William Wordsworth in an earlier century wrote great poetry and became great poets in turn and they all give us enough length of time and mental space to speculate their evolution of art of poetry and thus we take it as natural to read and enjoy their work.But their lives,I mean the lives of the poets and writers who lived a full-life as such don’t make for interesting reading,unless their lives had some dramatic turns and twists.That is why the life a great writer like Tolstoy continues to be of perennial interest to readers for their lives give us many new insights into human minds and human conduct and perhaps hold much lessons for others,for posterity.
That is how other writings,in particular,autobiographies by such great minds like St.Augustine and Rousseau and in India,the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi continue to fascinate people of diverse interests.
The more nearer is the life of a person,like Gandhi and others ,in our case the lives of Nehru and Subash Bose who have also written their autobiographies,the more objective we remain as far as taking a more closer look at their lives.
Tagore’s autobiography is not so well known as his poems and prose and novels and short stories.
Though I had lived at Santiniketan for four years and had imbibed much of Tagore’s writings,more so his songs and poems and other writings,I had hardly had the opportunity to seriously read his autobiography.Luckily,recently I saw a new volume,”My life in my words”edited by Uma Das Gupta(Penguin) and I eagerly read the same.”My boyhood Days” is already known as a separate book.Here we see him writing about his family and the changing times,besides on his father and mother,on his wife and children,his experiments with the Swadeshi Movement and his relationship with Gandhiji,besides some other rather glimpses into his personal life.They are all new material for me,more so after I read the well-researched and even somewhat objective and critical biography by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson,St Martin’s,1996).This is,in my view,the best critical biography that gives us many rather unknown and very relevant information and assessment of Tagore’s long life.For instance,how Gandhi referred to Raja Rammohan Roy as a pigmy and got into trouble with Tagore who gave a rather crticial reply to Gandhi’s ‘unhistorical’ understanding of modern Indian history.Also,how Gandhi,in spite of his long association with Tagore and his household,in 1906and 1915(when he brought his South African contingent to Santiniketan)in his autobiography,as noted by Dutta and Robinson,Gandhi didnt have a word about Santiniketan or about Tagore’s various contributions to modern India.Also,as it has now been made public by various writers about Gandhi’s early association with a Tagore family lady(Sarala Devi) and how he became infatuate d with her and the numerous letters he wrote to her to the point of even leaving Kasturba to marry Bengali beauty of the times!
Much more damaging is the late revelation that a stiff letter Rajaji wrote to Gandhi dissuading Gandhi to give his further pursuit! This letter was suppressed for over nearly some half a century and only now became public knowledge.And this,from an apostle of truth!
And also there are critical references to Gandhi in the Tagore biography,as to how Gandhi didn’t reciprocate with sufficient sensitivity over Tagore’s own renunciation of the knighthood over the Jalianwallabagh tragedy.
There was a certain self-obsession about Gandhi’s personality.Since he is such a larger than life figure in the popular Indian mind,anyone who tries to look at Gandhi’s own personality,his whims and fancies and many seemingly irrational ways of doing things,would be surely facing trouble.Hence,there is still some underlying fear of openly discussing or debating about Gandhi’s many-sided personality in an objective and historic context.
This has only contributed to overplaying Gandhi and in the process somewhat underplaying the contributions of his contemporaries like Nethaji Subhas Bose and Tagore,even others like C.R.Das and Lala Lajpat Rai and more particularly other leaders like Ambedkar and Jinnah.
.Why,even before and after 1915,when the great men ,Gokhale and Tilak ,were very much on the national scene,when the Swadeshi movement emerged and nationalism was born,Gandhi was nowhere and the contribution of the early Swadeshi pioneers is clearly left out of much of our nationalist history.After 1920,when Gandhi took over the national movement,there were others in many regions,as in Tamil Nadu where the early Swadeshi pioneers like V.O.Chidambaram Pillai were very much alive and because of Gandhi’s own limitations they were completely sidelined.VOC lived and died in utter poverty!There are so many others in other parts of India.Even Sir C.Shankaran Nair in Kerala had to live in isolation.
The point is that we are yet to get a balanced picture of how Indian nationalism evolved,if at all in the period since Gandhi’s entry into active Indian politics. Whether Constitutionalism would have shown a more liberal path?Or,direct action as Gandhi conceived,was too high a price?In terms of the lives lost,lives suffered?And for what ultimate gains?To lead the country into Partition?
Tough questions?Yes,but such questions agitated the minds of men like Tagore and Lajpat Rai.Rai,in particular,warned as early as the 1920s that Gandhi’s approach to the Hindu-Muslim question would pave the way for a religious divide and it eventually did!
Anyway,Gandhi’s autobiography would be read by the present and future generations in a more objective way with no backlog of propaganda that marked the national icon and father of the nation.
In a way,the new books that are coming out in the West are becoming more objective and more balanced and give us,Indians,newer insights.In particular,the two books(Liberty or Death,India’s journey to Independence and Division,by Patrick French,Gandhi:A Political and Spiritual Life,by Kathryn Tidrick)gives us new insights.The great leader,with all his spiritual strengths proved a failure when he found himself helpless at the time of Indian Independence that saw the country divided.Gandhi didn’t come out with any solution to the partition challenge and simple surrendered.Yes,a grateful nation still worshiped him but will history pardon him?The other book examines for the first time Gandhi’s life in England when he arrived there in 1888 and how he evolved by Theosophy and vegetarianism etc.His understanding of Hinduism or political ideology were all patchy and one great achievement was his theory and practice of non-violence.But then today we have not much use for non-violence in the Gandhi mould but we need political ideas of Constitutional democracy and a more equitable society.
This casts a great burden to find solutions in the modern context and modern jargon.
Now, let us come back to Tagore’s autobiography.
I have been reading the Indians who wrote their autobiographies,from Rabindranath Tagore to Gandhi and others for some time recently.
Though other Indian leaders like Gokhale and Tilak havent written autobiographies,there is enough material to get a glimpse into the minds of such early nationalist leaders to give the present generation an idea of how the modern Indian mind had evolved.
Tagore wrote autobiographical pieces and they were few and far between.He wrote them in Bengali,Jibansmriti,in 1912 when he was 50 years old. He wrote another piece,Chhelebela in 1940,just before he passed away in 1941,aged 80 years.
They were translated as Reminiscences and My Boyhood Days and they bring to us,to the present generation in particular certain unique insights,we don’t get by reading just Gandhi and Nehru autobiographies which are in the market even now,produced and marketed with certain business skills.These skills are not in evidence for other autobiographies,say,such ones by Tagore or Nethaji Bose,two names that are comparable in stature and in historical perspectives.
These four men hlped to shape modern India of the pre-Independent period.
Just from Tagore we learn,for the first time in my opinion,that modern India was born out of the Bengal renaissance that took over nearly a century,perhaps the whole 19th century.Tagore traces three streams of this renaissance:religious awakening thanks to Ram Mohan Roy,literary renaissance,owing to Bankim Chandra Chatterji(1838-94) and the poltiical consciousness that got a stir owing to the partition of Bengal under Curzon.
It was the Tagore family that helped to start the celebration of the Hindu Mela and the Tagore family members composed patriotic songs,Tagore himself as a 14-year old youngster composed one and sang under a banyan tree!
So,the rise of Indian nationalism,the flowering of patriotism,the Swadeshi movement, all arose out of Bengal and spread to the entire country.Then came the 1857 revolt and the rest is history.
Bose,on the other hand,didnt get due attention owing to the circumstances of his disappearance from India,after 1942 and his death too contributed to his short attention in the Indian consciousness.
Also the longevity of life helps in a way.Also,the persistence of the writings in the market place helps!
The more the propaganda machinery,the more is the fame?Yes,it looks like that.
Before we leave these thoughts,one or two observations on Tagore’s times.The poet says when he was born,the atmosphere in the household was one of new ideas coming forth.Ram Mohan Roy was a great fighter and that changed the very course of awakening in India.
It is a great pity,I thought,the later-day leaders,Gandhi in particular,didnt study in some depth the contribution of the Indian awakening to the shaping of India’s destiny.To that extent Gandhi’s great many ideas were found wanting.At least,we can say this at the present moment.
The current hardening of the religious fanaticism can be traced,in my opinion,to the faulty conception of Hinduism by Gandhiji himself.Others also contributed to the rise of religious militancy in the country,of course.
Tagore says of the Indian consciousness about” the indignities of an inferior status” suffered by Indians.This is one theme with which I am grappling for almost all my life.I hope I can contribute towards creating a more intellectual response to help to create a more self-confident Indian mind set for the current generation.Tagore is one,in my view,who canbe a sure guide,given his poetical vision and his progressive views on a wide variety of issues of modern concern.
One more insightful remark Tagore makes and that caught my attention.It is what I would call as the cultural component of life and living.”My grandfather belonged to that period when an amplitude of dress and courtesy and generous leisure were gradually clipped and curtailed into Victorian manners,economical in time,in ceremonies and in the dignity of personal appearance.A confluence of three cultures,Hindu,Mohammedan and the British”.
Anyone can write an autobiography.But all don’t become self-portraits as autobiographies are supposed to be.Most fall flat.Everyone doesn’t and cannot rise to become a Montaigne or Pascal or even lesser mortals.Truth is an autobiography,as I have now come to realise,is as good as what you are capable of deep introspection.This deep introspection doesnt come easy.It is a constant struggle and a striving.This is what we find from all gifted individuals,creative artists to great minds and great souls.A Tolstoy is born once in a millennium.
As for the arts and literature, we come across rare great classics,be it autobiographical or biographical or even creative writings of poetry or prose.
The life of Charlotte Bronte by Mrs.Elizabeth Gaskell is one biography that became a classic and a classic which was hailed by the father of the subject of the book as one that “will stand in the first rank till the end of time”.How true! I tried to give a glance recently to get a hang of it.I couldnt proceed after the first chapter that ,detailing the tombstones in the Haworth churchyard,held me in tears for long!So poignant,so tragic and so moving.
So,what difference it makes whether you write an autobiography or someone writes about you?It doesn’t.
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