Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Doris Lessing

“We are free... I can say what I think. We are lucky, privileged, so why not make use of it?”

Doris Lessing, who died last month, was a formidable writer of astonishing fecundity. In a career spanning almost six decades Lessing produced more than fifty works of fiction and non-fiction (not including poetry, drama and opera).

I remember watching on the BBC Lessing’s reaction when, in 2007, she became only the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize of Literature in its history.  She had returned from doing her shopping and was ambushed on the doorsteps of her house by reporters.  The news apparently took Lessing by surprise. Her reaction was one of nonchalance (without being arrogant), almost as if she was accepting the chair of a local committee for organizing Christmas fete, at the insistence of church members, who, she knew, were offering her the position for no reason other than the deference to her great age. Lessing was 88 when she won the Nobel and became the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize. If I remember correctly, she even made a tongue in cheek reference to her age, speculating that the committee probably decided to award her the prize because they were afraid that she was not long for this world.

Lessing’s parents were English—her father’s name was Alfred Taylor while her mother’s maiden name was Emily McVeagh. In her last published book—part fiction and part memoir—entitled Alfred and Emily, which, I thought, was very moving in parts, Lessing drew vivid portraits of both her parents, whose lives, she believed, were indelibly scarred by the First World War. In the first half of the book Lessing imagined her parents’ lives as they might have been had the Great War had not happened. The second half depicted their lives as they were, in Southern Rhodesia where Lessing grew up. In this book Lessing gives a list of books she read while growing up, which makes an interesting read: Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty, Greek Myths for Children, Kipling’s novels and short stories, Beatrix Potter’s  books, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Women were some of the books which were on young Lessing’s reading list.

Lessing pursued different themes and experimented with different genres in her writing: from grim realism to fantasy and paranormal to science fiction.

I have not read as many of Lessing’s novels as I have been meaning to over the years. Below is a list of five of my favourite Lessing books.

The Grass is Singing

Lessing described it once as her first real novel. It is also my most favourite Lessing novel, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century in my view. It tells the harrowing story of an obsessive love affair between a lonely white farm-owner’s wife in the apartheid era South Africa and her black servant, with fatal consequences. Not a word is otiose in this novel, which, when it finishes, leaves the reader feeling great sadness for the human condition.

The Golden Notebook

Lessing’s greatest novel according to many. (An obituary said that even if Lessing had written nothing else Golden Notebook would have ensured her place in the history of literature.) Divided into four ‘notebooks’ (or sections) the novel tells the story of Anna Wulf, a novelist struggling with a writer’s block, and her breakdown. The novel was hailed by many as a feminist manifesto, (an epithet with which Lessing was reportedly uncomfortable).

The Good Terrorist

The novel was published in the mid-1980s, and told the story of a well-intentioned and idealistic, if misguided, squatter, who, along with other, similarly well-intentioned and dysfunctional, people wants to destroy the society she lives in. The plot is simple as is Lessing’s prose style, but it drew me in totally when I first read this novel a few years after it first came out. It seems to me that what Lessing is doing here is obliquely portraying the evils of the society or system.

London Observed

I don’t read short-stories very often (I had attempted to read many years ago a collection of short stories of the 2013 Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, which put me in a philosophical mood, with particular emphasis on tedium), but I like this collection of short-stories, even though some of the “stories” are best described as sketches. It is an astutely observed and insightful book on contemporary London, which, by itself, would have been of interest to me; but in the hands of a great writer, it also becomes a commentary on the human experience.

In Pursuit of the English

It’s a non-fiction work. First published more than fifty years ago, the book—probably best described as a memoir—describes the first few years in Lessing’s life after she arrived in England, the land of her parents. This is a wry, unsentimental, and at times very funny look at the years Lessing spent in working class environs. The prose is full of vigour and the book reads like a novel. Very, very enjoyable.

Always one to speak her mind, Lessing, upon her arrival in England, declared that the contemporary English literature was “small, well-shaped, and with too much left out.” She was one of the many post-war writers who injected the much needed vitality, colour and life into English writing, broadened its canvas, and made it richer. May her soul rest in peace.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Book of the Month: The Men who Killed Gandhi (Manohar Malgaonkar)

“I came alone in this world, I have walked alone in the valley of the shadow of death, and I shall quit alone when the time comes.”
                                                                                                        Mahatma Gandhi

“There was no legal machinery by which [Gandhi] could be brought to book. I felt that he should not be allowed to meet a natural death. . . As regards non-violence, it was absurd to expect 400 million people to regulate their lives on such a lofty plane.”
                                                                              Nathuram Godse (the man who killed Gandhi)

In August 1947 more than 150 years of British Raj in India came to an end. The day before the Union Jack was finally lowered and India achieved its independence, another nation, the Muslim majority Pakistan, was carved out of undivided India. In (very) simplistic terms, as Great Britain, greatly weakened at the end of the Second World War, finally acknowledged that it was going to be impossible to hold on to the “jewel in the crown”, the Muslim League, spearheaded by the charismatic Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared that Muslims, of whom it had appointed itself as the sole representative, were unwilling to live in India dominated by the majority Hindus. The other political party the colonialists had allowed to function, the Indian National Congress, which, unlike the Muslim League, had a pan-Indian presence, and which viewed itself as representing all Indians, was, initially, unwilling for the partition of the country; however in the face of Jinah’s intransigence (or determination, depending on your view) the congress leaders buckled and agreed to the suggestion of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, who was tasked with winding up the more than hundred years of British rule as speedily as possible, that partition of India was inevitable. This was like, as Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India’s first prime-minister, described, cutting off the head to get rid of the headache; but that’s what Nehru and his colleagues in Congress agreed. The biggest leader in Congress, who enjoyed an unprecedented sway over Indian public, was Mohandas Gandhi, the “Father” of the Indian nation and the driving force behind the movement for independence for the best part of thirty years before India achieved its independence. Whether Gandhi, too, like his colleagues in Congress, agreed for India’s partition is a matter of opinion. What is undeniable is that, if he was against the partition, he was unable to prevent it. The months leading to and after the partition of India saw unprecedented levels of bloodshed and brutality, as the region was engulfed in an inferno of communal frenzy. The Hindus and Sikhs, uprooted from Pakistan, and Muslims exiled from India, along with their brethrens in their respective homelands, inflicted unspeakable savagery on the other community. In India, which, even after the partition, remained a huge country, the communal violence was restricted to the Northern and Eastern parts which bordered the newly formed (West and East) Pakistan; indeed, when the madness of partition finally came to an end, more Muslims chose to stay in India than migrate to Pakistan, a victory of sorts for the secular principles the Mahatma (the honorific—meaning great soul—by which Gandhi is still affectionately referred to in India) had held dear all his life. That said the partition of India saw tens of thousands killed, millions uprooted and the biggest forced mass-migration in the recorded history of twentieth century.

Once Gandhi accepted the reality of partition he worked tirelessly to promote communal harmony in the independent India. His aim was to make the Muslims feel secure in the country; not an easy task, and one which made him very unpopular in certain sections of the Hindus, as the refugees from Pakistan poured into India, bringing with them tales of unspeakable horrors wreaked on them by the Muslim fanatics in Pakistan. Showing supreme courage the 77 year old Gandhi, in frail physical health, undertook ‘peace pilgrimages’ in very hostile terrains, rejecting any kind of security, even as the rest of the Congress leaders busied themselves hacking out terms and conditions of the partition and division of resources of undivided India. Delhi, which was going to be the capital of independent India, was deluged within weeks of partition with more than a million refugees. The refugees, all Hindus and Sikhs, were herded into camps in subhuman conditions. The ruling Congress party (and its leaders, Gandhi included), perhaps unprepared for the sheer scale of the refugee ‘problem’, did little to ease their travails.  It was amongst the refugees that the hostility towards Gandhi was at its highest. When the refugees, who had lost everything, arrived in India and saw the Muslims (those who had chosen to stay back in India) enjoying what they (the refugees) saw as easy and comfortable lives, they were filled with a great sense of injustice and rage. The person they blamed most  for this perverse state of affairs was Gandhi, who, in what can only be described, in the circumstances, as an insane gesture of idealism, suggested that the refugees, whose houses were burned, properties looted, women raped, and children mutilated and killed, should go back to Pakistan and resume their lives (as if nothing had happened)! This, the Mahatma felt, would encourage those Muslims who had been subjected to a similar fate in Northern & Eastern India, and had fled to Pakistan, to return to India. Gandhi, once described by Lord Casey, the governor of (undivided) Bengal, as a saint among statesmen and a statesman amongst saints, seems to have a very scrupulous sense of fair play. This, combined with a determined notion to not take cognisance of reality, meant that the Mahatma’s actions and views came to be viewed, increasingly, as eccentric at best and pernicious and detrimental to India’s interests at worst by those who had never found it possible, even before the madness of partition, to warm up to Gandhi’s methods. These, mostly right wing Hindu ideologues, believed that Gandhi’s ahimsa (non-violence) had made Hindus spineless and incapable of standing up to what they chose to view as the terror of the Muslims and manipulations of the foxy British. (The British were viewed as, not without reason, unfairly partial towards the Muslims). Gandhi had chosen not to accept any position in the first government of independent India; however, as the whole nation knew, such was Gandhi’s hold over the Congress leaders that they dared not go against the great man’s wishes. Refusing to acknowledge Mohammad Ali Jinah’s ideology that had led to the dismemberment of India and formation of Pakistan (Hindus and Muslims are “separate nations” and can’t live together), Gandhi chose to see Pakistan as India’s younger brother. It then followed, logically, that the elder brother should do everything possible to make life easier for the younger brother; which included meticulous division of the resources of undivided India.

Within two months of the independence of India and formation of Pakistan, the first Indo-Pak war, over the disputed territory of Kashmir, had erupted. In light of this the highly ranked members of the Indian government, in particular Patel, the home minister (referred to in India as the Iron Man), were not in a mood to hand over to Pakistan its share of money in the reserve Bank of India. This irked Mountbatten, who had been invited to stay back by the Indian government as the “Governor General” of the independent country. Mountbatten prided himself in his sense of fair play (so long as it did not harm British interests). He, however, knew that he would have little joy in convincing Patel and Nehru that Pakistan should be given its share of money; but he knew the man who would convince the Indian government. Mountbatten met Gandhi, and had little trouble in convincing the Mahatma that handing over 1/3rd of the wealth to Pakistan was a just thing to do, although it was clear as daylight that it was not in India’s interest to do so, seeing as the first Kashmir war was raging. The day after Gandhi’s meeting with Mountbatten, the Indian newspapers announced that Gandhi was embarking on a fast in Delhi to persuade the Indian government to hand over to Pakistan its share of money.

Hundreds of miles away from Delhi, in the city of Pune (then known as Poona), in the Western part of India, a region untouched by the barbarity of partition in the Northern and Eastern parts, two men read this news on the teleprinter of the small Marathi language daily of which they were (respectively) editor and manager. The two men—Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte—came simultaneously to the same decision: Gandhi must be killed.

Manohar Malgaonkar’s brilliant and unputdownable The Men who Killed Gandhi, first published thirty years after Gandhi’s assassination, tells the story of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi.

                                                                  Nathuram Godse

The man who pulled the trigger that extinguished the Mahatma’s life was Nathuram Godse, a 38 year old Brahmin from the Western part of India. Godse, who after killing Gandhi, made no efforts to escape, and pleaded guilty, maintained all along that he acted on his own and no one else was involved in the conspiracy; indeed there was no conspiracy. However, he was not alone. Godse belonged to a group, the members of which were subsequently tried for their involvement in the plot, one of them his younger brother, Gopal Godse, “a gentle, soft-spoken and self-effacing man” who had fought for the British in the Second World War in Iran and Iraq. Gopal Godse, much influenced by his elder brother’s fanaticism, played a peripheral part in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, and, for his troubles, was handed down a life-sentence when the plotters were apprehended.

The scope of The Men who Killed Gandhi is clear yet limited. The book aims to disentangle the plot that Godse and his co-conspirator hatched to kill Gandhi. It also sets forth (very vividly) the extraordinary times that surrounded the independence and partition of India, at the centre of which was Gandhi. It is not the author’s intention to expound any theories of his own, and for the most part he refrains from giving his own interpretation of the events, except to point out the glaring and the obvious. In meticulous details the book traces the events that led to Gandhi’s murder. It also elucidates, in measured language and tone, the ideology and the belief systems that motivated the these men.

                                                                     Narayan Apte

What motivated these men was the concept of Hindu nationalism. It is interesting to know that they considered themselves to be fervent patriots. The two ringleaders (Nathuram Godse & Narayan Apte) were educated, middle class, men who pursued journalistic profession. Their spiritual guru was the charismatic right wing ideologue and intellectual, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, or Veer (Indian word, meaning a great warrior) Savarkar. Savarkar was the guiding light of the right wing political party called Hindu Mahasabha (literal meaning the great gathering of the Hindus, although Savarkar appears to have used the words Hindu and Indian interchangeably). Both the ring-leaders and some of the other plotters were active  members of Hindu Mahasabha. The views of Savarkar, a barrister trained in England, like Gandhi, on what would bring a speedy end to the iniquitous British rule in India couldn’t have been more removed from those of Gandhi. Savarkar belonged to the group of Indian freedom-fighters who called themselves revolutionaries and were not averse to using violent methods and killing to bring an end to the British rule in India. The British called them terrorists, and dealt with them far more viciously and harshly than they did with the followers of Gandhi’s non-violent methods. Savarkar, who was a thorn in the British flesh, was shown no mercy when he was caught, and was sent to the cellular jail in the Andaman islands for 50 years’ imprisonment in 1910, where he was subjected to extraordinary hardships. He was twenty-seven at the time. Ten years later, “his health wrecked and on the verge of mental breakdown”, he was brought back to India and made to spend four more years in Indian jails. He was then released and kept under virtual house-arrest for 13 more years in the district of Ratnagiri. He was allowed to travel in the district on the strict condition that he undertook no political activity. His every move was monitored by the British secret police. All in all Savarkar spent twenty-seven years in jail or house arrest, the best part of his life, a tall ordeal by any yardstick, under the British rule. It was during the 13 years in Ratnagiri when he was prohibited from undertaking any political activity that Savarkar busied himself with the Hindu cause. This included amongst other laudable projects (such as abolishing of untouchability) making Hindus strong and stand up for themselves; which meant standing up to Muslims with whom the Hindus had centuries of enmity and who were seen (with good reason) as receiving preferential treatment from the British in keeping with colonialists’ policy of divide and rule. 

                                                                      Veer Savarkar

The Men who Killed Gandhi  does not go into the minutiae of Savarkar’s doctrine; such information as is provided suggests that his was a bizarre mixture of secularism and religious intolerance, the latter probably driven by a sense of historical injustice meted out to Hindus in their own land by Muslim rulers. Savarkar believed that “India should essentially be a secular country in which all citizens should have equal rights and duties irrespective of religion, caste and creed.” He also held the view—without any apparent internal contradiction— that Hindus should not be “robbed to enable the Muslims to get more than their due simply because they were Muslims and would not otherwise behave as loyal citizens.” In Ratnagiri, one of the many admirers of the magnetic revolutionary (or a terrorist; take your pick) was Nathuram Godse, whose family had shifted to the same district. Godse came under the spell of Savarkar’s doctrine. This was in the mid-1920s. For the remainder of his life, which ended in at the gallows in a jail in Northern India, Godse saw no reason to deviate from the path he decided to follow when he first met Veer Savarkar.

Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte, whom the book describes as the “principals”, were close friends. The book depicts vivid portraits of Godse and Apte, who appear to be like chalk and cheese. Indeed for the best part of the month that led to the murder it was not Godse but Apte who was the ring-leader, and hatched plots of outstanding ineptitude to finish off Gandhi. The book shows these two men for what they were: one (Godse) an awkward, intense, introverted man, who probably had never had a relationship; the other (Apte) a flamboyant fantasist. Before he alighted on the idea of killing Gandhi—simultaneously with Godse—Apte had cooked up plans to launch a mortar attack on the newly formed Pakistani assembly (Apte had never fired a revolver in his life, the reader is told), blowing up trains carrying goods from India to Pakistan etcetera.  Incredible as it may seem, Apte was able to sell these improbable ideas to wealthy men who had sympathies towards the Hindu cause and who gave him large sums of money. Apte emerges from these descriptions not so much a determined revolutionary (or a manipulative psychopath) as a Walter Mitty character; but this fantastist, thanks to the astonishing incompetence of Indian police, managed to concoct a plot—every bit as cack-handed as his other plots—that ended the life of Gandhi. 

What bound Godse and Apte together was their fervid devotion to the Hindu cause and unwavering faith in the doctrine of Veer Savarkar. Godse was a confirmed bachelor while Apte—a married man—was a philanderer. In the hectic month before Gandhi’s killing during which Apte was buzzing to different parts of West, North and Central India, he still found time to sleep with a Christian ex- student with whom he had been carrying on, unbeknown to his wife, for three years. The rest of the cast included Vishnu Karkare—a successful hotelier who rose from a very humble start (he was an orphan and lived on the streets as a child) to a position of success; Digambar Badge—a wheeler-dealer who earned his living by selling “legitimate arms” and who became an “approver” for the prosecution during the trial, a man so caricaturesque it is difficult to believe he even existed (the book narrates an incident when Badge, while travelling from Bombay to Delhi, decided to travel in a disguise as a sadhu (a holy man), and wore a garb of such florid saffron colour that he probably attracted attention of the whole compartment in which he was travelling)—and his servant Shankar Kistayya—an illiterate man who apparently did not even know who Gandhi was; Gopal Godse—Nathuram’s younger brother, another educated man in the group but of average abilities, who, in a brief seizure of madness, aligned himself with his fanatic brother a week before the killing; and Madanlal Pahwa—a refugee from Pakistan, the only one amongst the conspirators who had a firsthand experience of the horrors of partition and who was taken under his wing by Karkare, long before either of them got entangled in the conspiracy.

What also becomes clear, as the book progresses, is that these men were rank amateurs. They might have been many things, but professional killers they were not. Both Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte—the book informs—were lovers of detective novels: Godse was a fan of Earl Stanly Gardner’s novels, while Apte was an Agataha Christie fan; however, neither seems to have picked up any tips from the novels of their favourite detective writers. The plans Apte cooked up to finish off Gandhi were juvenile in the extreme. What is even more remarkable is that the men not only made no efforts to cover their tracks, they seemed to have gone out of their way to blaze a trail of their movements and activities, so that when they were eventually caught, the prosecution had no difficulty in lining up witnesses who confirmed their movements. The rest of the conspirators were equally inept; Madanlal Pahwa, for example, even boasted a couple of weeks before the murder that he was planning to go to Delhi along with some others to kill a “big leader”.

To call what this gang of bungling, bumbling readers of detective novels plotted a conspiracy would be a hyperbole. The plot, such as it was, was not thought of until three weeks before Gandhi was killed. The initial plan was to throw grenades indiscriminately at Gandhi’s prayer meeting on the spacious grounds of Birla House in Delhi (where Gandhi stayed for the last 144 days of his life), followed by shooting bullets at Gandhi (in case he didn’t die with the grenades). According to this plan, the only two persons who would mastermind the operation but not take any part in the actual grenade throwing and shooting were Nathuram Godse and Apte. The date set was 20 January 1948. As it happened the plan did not work. Madanlal  Pahwa was the only one who exploded a bomb in the congregation (which did not kill anyone); those who were supposed to shoot at Gandhi didn’t, either because they developed cold feet (Badge), or had not actually checked whether Gandhi could be shot at from the hiding place, a servant’s room behind Gandhi’s prayer meeting (Gopal Godse). Following the bomb blast Madanlal Pahwa was arrested (he had not bothered to make himself familiar with the geography of the grounds of the Birla House and—even though he could have easily made himself scarce in the commotion that ensued following the blast—ran straight in the direction of the police!) By all accounts Gandhi remained supremely serene and unperturbed throughout the commotion, and, the next day, even praised the “young man” for his bravery! The Delhi police were not in the same benevolent mood as the Mahatma, and used special methods (i.e. torture) to find out whether Pahwa was acting alone or had accomplices. Years later Pahwa claimed to the author that no one would have survived the torture; still he did not tell them all. But he talked enough: he told the Delhi police that one of the principle plotters was the editor of a Marathi language daily called Hindu Rashtra, published from Pune. He also revealed the name of his mentor and benefactor, Karkare. With this information members of Delhi police arrived in Bombay. There then followed petty, at times comical, but ultimately exceedingly harmful, bureaucracy and interdepartmental rivalry, which resulted in very obvious clues being ignored. It didn’t help that the man in charge of the investigation in Bombay, Jimmy Nagarvala,the deputy commissioner of police, had a crackpot theory of his own: Nagarvala didn’t believe that there was a plot to murder Gandhi at all; the plot was—Nagarvala believed with the tenacity of the deluded—to kidnap Gandhi, and at least 20 to 30 people were involved! In the meanwhile, one of the persons—a professor of language—whose books Madnalal Pahwa had sold and to whom he had boasted that a big leader was going to be bumped off in Delhi, sought a meeting with the then Home Minister of the Bombay Province, Morarji Desai (who decades later became India’s prime minister), and informed him of what he had been told by Madanlal. Incredibly, Morarji (a Gandhian of impeccable credential) failed to act on this information. Ten vital days were wasted in these shenanigans even though Pahwa had told his interrogators that they (the conspirators) would come again. And come again they did. Nathuram, the quiet man, who, until then, had allowed Apte to take the lead, probably had had enough of the harebrained ideas of his close friend. He declared that he was going to kill Gandhi himself; there was not going to be anyone else involved; he was going to shoot Gandhi at point blank range; and then he was going to give himself up. Such was apparently the determination of Godse that Apte and Karkare did not dare to make him change his mind. Godse urged both of them to go back to Pune, but the two decided to stay by his side till the end. Apte, true to his nature, tried to create an alibi (with Godse’s knowledge) for himself, which was so unconvincing that even he must have known that it would fool no one. The conspirators however, still, did not have a reliable revolver. While the Bombay and Delhi police were busy scoring petty bureaucratic points over each other (how difficult would it have been to apprehend Godse, seeing as Pahwa had told the police the city and the name of the daily Godse edited?), the conspirators finally managed to get an automatic, this time from a Central Indian state, from another sympathizer to their cause, and returned to Delhi on 29 January 1948. Gandhi had once said that if somebody fired at him point blank and he faced his bullet with a smile, repeating the name of Rama in his heart, he should be deserving of congratulations. The time of Gandhi’s ultimate test had arrived. On the evening of 30 January Gandhi arrived on the grounds of Birla House for his evening prayer meeting. The crowd was slightly larger than usual on the day. One of the men in the crowd was Nathuram Godse, who was wearing a brown coloured shirt and half-pants. As Gandhi neared, Godse pushed his way forward towards the great man. He performed the Indian greeting—Namaste—which is also a way of showing respect; with his left hand he pushed aside a girl who might have come in his line of fire; and then, as he much later told his younger brother, Gopal, the shots went off, almost on their own. Gandhi gave a gasp and collapsed. The still very popular story in India about Gandhi’s last moments, apparently, is that his last words were “Hey Ram”. This can be traced to an account given by a Sikh devotee of Gandhi who was standing very close when Gandhi died. However, according to Karkare, to whom the author spoke after his release from prison, and who, too, was standing very close when Gandhi fell, Gandhi did not say anything as he collapsed; he just gave a gasp—“Aah”—as he died.

Nathuram Godse accepted full responsibility for Gandhi’s murder and pleaded guilty. He maintained till the end that he acted alone and no one other than him was responsible for the murder of the Mahatma. He also made it clear that he did not desire that any mercy be shown to him. Nevertheless the prosecution charged Nathuram and all the co-conspirators in the conspiracy to kill Gandhi. Plus one more. Veer Savarkar. Savarkar, the prosecution claimed, was in the know right from the beginning; Nathuram and Apte had met him frequently in the months and weeks leading to Gandhi’s murder; and the murderers had Savarkar’s blessings. The first thing Jimmy Nagarvala, the Bombay Deputy Commissioner in charge of the investigation, who had wasted crucial time pursuing his crackpot theory of kidnapping, did after Gandhi’s murder was raid Savarkar’s house. With great alacrity the party in power, Congress, the leader of which (Jawaharlal Nehru) had a known antipathy to Savarkar and his brand of right wing Hindu nationalistic politics, zeroed on Savarkar. In a final twist of what was, by then, already a remarkable life, Savarkar, who had spent 27 years in jail fighting for India’s independence, 11 of which in extremely harsh conditions in Andaman none of the leaders of Congress, Gandhi included, had been subjected to, was arrested, this time round by the first government of Independent India, and kept in prison for several months without a charge “under the draconian Preventive Detention Act, a malignant piece of legislation the British had armed themselves when they ruled India” to suppress India’s freedom fighters. Savarkar was depicted by the prosecution as the organizer of the plot to kill Gandhi. There was no direct evidence, of course, to link Savarkar to the murder. The rest of the accused, including Godse and Apte, maintained till the end that the conspiracy to kill Gandhi had nothing to do with Savarkar. The only person who provided evidence—albeit indirect—linking Savarkar to the conspiracy was the “approver”, Digambar Badge. The case of the prosecution against savarkar was a straw-man, and, in the lower session court, he was found not guilty, and acquitted. However, his health was ruined, reputation tarnished and he withdrew more or less completely from the public life. You get the impression after reading some of the evidence quaoted that the case against Savarkar was politically motivated, and the person who had a vendetta against Savarkar was none other than Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Barring Savarkar the rest of the accused were found guilty. Nathuram Godse (who accepted his guilt) and Apte (who claimed he wasn’t involved, fully supported in this assertion by Godse, till the end) were hanged. The rest, Karkare, Pahwa, Gopal Godse and the unfortunate Shanakr Kistayya, Badge’s minion were sentenced to life imprisonment. The author spoke separately to all except Kistayya after they were released from prison having served lengthy life sentences; and all three—Karkare, Pahwa and Gopal Godse— were unanimous that they had absolutely no regrets for what they had done and that killing Gandhi was in the best interest of the nation. Almost fifty years after Gandhi’s murder and two years before his own death Madanlal Pahwa said: “In my opinion Gandhi ruined this country. I regret I wasn’t the man who killed him.” Such are the beliefs of the truly fanatics.

A great pleasure of reading The Men who Killed Gandhi is Malgaonkar’s dry sense of humour and his ability to take the reader to the searing truth effortlessly. Malgaonkar clearly has great respect for Gandhi, but he avoids falling into the trap of blind veneration of the great man. The book has a pronounced tone of neutrality which slips only occasionally. This is a non-fiction book written in a reportage style, but such is the ease and mastery of Malgaonkar’s prose that the book reads like a thriller, a real page turner. This is without doubt the best book I have read this year.

Manohar Malgaonkar, the author of The Men who Killed Gandhi, was born 100 years ago (and died, after a long life, only three years ago). Malgaonkar, I learned, was one of the first generations of Indian writers who wrote in English. He wrote a number of novels and non-fiction books He is an author who ought to be known more widely.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Booker Prize 2013: the Winner and Some Short-listed Novels

Until she won the Man Booker Prize last month I had not heard of Eleanor Catton. That does not mean anything. There are many things I am ignorant of. That I had not heard of a Canadian born talented author from New Zealand is more a reflection of the limited bounds of the fiction landscape in which I roam than the worldwide popularity (or lack thereof) of Eleanor Catton. It might also be a reflection of the thorny path that lies ahead when one takes the decision of striking it out as an author of literary fiction. When you are a young author embarking on a writing career and tell people that you are going to write literary fiction they are likely to snigger as if they have been told a really good blonde joke. Writing literary fiction might bring you respect, but chances are eight out of ten that you’d need to find a day time job to keep the body and soul together. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro in a literary event in which he expressed incredulity (not very convincingly) that almost twenty five years after he published his first novel he found himself a prestigious writer festooned with more awards than I have fingers on my hand and also a popular writer. This apparently is very unusual. When Ishiguro did an MA in literature he was taught by Angela Carter, most of whose books were out of print; they didn’t sell. She was therefore obliged to do additional jobs such as writing columns for magazines and correcting essays of people who had the money to pay the fees of a literature course but not the sense to realize that they did not have talent.

Anyway, I would not have heard of Catton if she had not won the Man Booker Prize. I would not have bothered to read her novel, the size of a one storey house, either, if she had not won the award. I make no apology for this. Life is too short to read unknown authors, however talented, who are fortunate enough to be short-listed for prestigious awards but not fortunate enough to win it. This is the other thing about the literary prizes, as far as I am concerned. Once in a while they reward a relatively unknown novelist who, after bagging the prize, gets the much required (and deserving) publicity. When she won the Man Booker Prize Catton set some records. At 27 she is the youngest Booker winner. At 834 pages, The Luminaries is the longest novel to have won the prize; and she is the last winner of the prize before it opens up to the Americans.

After I read that Catton had won the Booker, I had a look at the short-listed novels and their authors. I recognized three names (not including Catton): Jhumpa Lahiri, Jim Crace and Colm Toibin. I had become aware of Jhumpa Lahiri years ago the same way I heard of Eleanor Catton, when Lahiri bagged the Pulitzer for her debut collection of stories. I then read her first full length novel, The Namesake, which was first rate. Jim Crace is a British novelist, who is difficult to categorize. I have read a few of his novels some of which I liked and others I found intolerable. Finally there was Colm Toibin. I have read one of his novels; I think it was entitled Brooklyn, which, I remember, was a decent novel although it progressed at a speed so sedate that in comparison a stoned sloth would be like Usain Bolt.

I read three of the six short-listed novels this month: The Luminaries, which won the award; The Lowland (Jhumpa Lahiri); and Harvest (Jim Crace).  I would have read The Lowland even if it was not short-listed, as Jhumpa Lahiri is a favourite author. I read the The Luminaries solely because it won the prize. I decided to read Harvest because it was the bookies’ favourite. (I have always wondered what makes the bookies zero on one particular book as a likely winner. I can’t imagine the bookies having arrived at their decision based on the literary merit of Jim Crace’s novel. A bookie with literary inclination is a contradiction in terms, a bit like—I don’t know—imaginative porn. The whole point of porn is that it makes no demands on your imagination; it lays everything you can think of (and some more you don’t have the imagination to think of) right in front of you. The bookies made Jim Crace the favourite to win the Booker, I suspect, for no reason other than that he is English, generally considered to be unfairly underrated, and is nearing the end of his writer career. In recent years Hilary Mantel, Howard Jacobson, and Julian Barnes, all of them (certainly the last two) in the twilight of their distinguished careers and cruelly overlooked in the past for the prize, were rewarded for—I don’t know—not giving up and publishing novels year in year out. It was, thus, not unreasonable to suppose that Crace would be similarly rewarded. It was a clever guess; except that it was not all that clever, because Crace didn’t win.)

I don’t really know what to make of Harvest; but I know this much: I didn’t like it. The novel is set in an indeterminate time in the past. If you are the kind of geek who leads a sad life so bereft of worthwhile interests that he actually spends time learning English history, you’d place the time of the novel as mediaeval, starting with the Tudors, when arable land was forcibly closed and converted into pasture for sheep. If you do not possess this useless piece of information, I am afraid, it won’t make any difference; you are still likely to find the novel slightly less riveting than an Argos catalogue.  The novel tells the story of the destruction of an insignificant nameless village through the eyes of one of the village’s inhabitants who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of weeds, flowers and plants, and an obsession with the geography of the imaginary village that—no matter how much you try to be understanding and sympathetic—is not healthy. He talks too much; you get him talking and he will flog a dead horse into a dog burger. The medieval hicks of the village are happy growing barley and, left to them, would have carried on growing it for the rest of their sorry lives when they are faced with the prospect that, they fear, will make their sorry lives sorrier. The new master of the land announces his intention to convert the land into a pasture for sheep; which means that a significant proportion of the 58 villagers would not have jobs. The new master of the village has obviously not taken communication lessons which are mandatory for the non-job managers in public services in the UK; so he makes no attempt to soften the blow by telling the villagers that what he is doing is efficiency savings, trying to get more for less and, even though the villagers can’t appreciate this— just because they are going to lose their livelihood; very selfish of them—it is actually—in the big scheme of things—for everyone’s benefit. The novel describes the responses of the villagers and the eventual destruction of the village, brought about by a couple of outsiders who are unjustly punished by the old master of the village. Jim Carce’s prose is polished, and manages the rare feat of being precise and pedantic at the same time. Harvest is a frustrating novel, however: there are many mysteries, but Crace does not provide any answers. As I read the novel I kept on thinking that surely there will be a twist; perhaps the narrator is unreliable, and I’d learn at the end that the whole thing is perhaps a dream; or, maybe, it is not the outsiders but the narrator himself who has wreaked havoc on the village for some long-forgotten slight. Alas! There are no twists; nothing that will make you shake your head and say, admiringly, “I didn’t see this coming. Isn’t Crace clever?” Crace has announced that Harvest is his last novel; he won’t publish more novels. After reading Harvest you are forced to conclude that it is the right decision.

 Eleanor Catton: I am sure she was a swatter in school and irritated everyone by being Little Miss Perfect

The novel that tries hard—so hard, in fact, that it is heart-wrenching—to be clever is the Booker winner The Luminaries. It is a novel that is very Dickensanian in its scope and ambition. Set in the 19th century New Zealand towards the dying days of its gold rush, the novel has, at its heart, a mystery. The novel pullulates with characters, so many, in fact, that you find yourself going back and forth when a character making its appearance on page 324 leaves you with the uneasy feeling that you have met him before, perhaps in the first hundred pages. Catton employs the technique of looking at and describing the same event from the eyes of different characters. After a while it gets a tad wearisome. Many of the interesting characters that dominate the first section of the novel fizzle out (disappointingly) as the novel progresses. The novel is also a love-story between two of the characters. The trouble is none of the characters is engaging enough, and you don’t really care what happens to them.  The Luminaries is an intricately plotted novel with more twists than a Russian contortionist giving a private performance to Vladimir Putin. The novel goes to and fro in time and Catton has structured the narrative in a manner that makes the plot obfuscating (as if it is not confusing enough already). Reams of pages are devoted to describing external appearances of the characters, the dresses they wear etcetera, but their inner lives remain opaque to the reader. The main cast is rather neatly divided into good eggs and bad eggs; there is little subtlety. That said the mystery of the plot makes it an interesting read for the best part. There are some other clever things Catton has done in the novel (so I read in some reviews). For example, each successive section has exactly half the number of words of the preceding section. (What purpose, if any, this gimmick serves is difficult to fathom; it also means that the last few chapters in the last section of the novel have less words than those in the introduction to those chapters.) At 834 pages the novel is too long and, I dare say, the last 150 pages or so do not really add much to the story as Catton covers the same ground she has covered fifty times in the preceding 700 pages. The Chair of the Man Booker Prize, probably aware that many readers would find the length of the novel daunting, urged them to persevere with the novel. If they did, he promised they would find rewarding. He is probably right. If you are on the lookout for a smashing good read set in the Victorian era, I would unhesitatingly recommend Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I. At more than 600 pages Gillespie and I is not exactly short, either, but it is a deeply satisfying read. Cunningly plotted, full of mysteries, and boasting of gorgeous prose, the novel, unlike The Luminaries, offers oblique psychological insight into the working of the mind of its remarkable protagonist.

              Jhumpa Lahiri: has she considered an alternative career as a catwalk model?

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is set in two continents: India and America. It tells the story of two brothers and their wife. Yes, you read it correctly; the two brothers have the same wife, though not, I should hasten to clarify, at the same time. One of the brothers dies in the first quarter of the novel and the surviving brother marries his widow who is pregnant with the dead brother’s child, except that the dead brother dies without knowing that he has impregnated his wife; moreover, the dead brother, when he was alive, was not exactly a child-friendly person and did not want a child. The novel traces the lives of the brothers, the wife and the child. The Lowland is a tragedy. In simple, unostentatious prose Lahiri lays bare how a single catastrophic event—the death of one of the brothers—has a devastating effect on the lives of the surviving protagonists of the novel. Lahiri weaves her story with real-life, if little known (at least to me), historical events in India, such as the ultra-left wing Naxalite  movement in Eastern India, inspired by Mao Tse Tung’s Communist revolution in China, that attempted to subvert the parliamentary democracy by terrorism.  The Lowland is a profoundly affecting novel that tells the story of truncated, unfulfilled lives. A satisfying read.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Book of the Month: Mao: the Unknown Story (Jung Chang & Jon Halliday)

“Mao Tse-tung [sometimes called Mao Zedong in the West], who for decades, held absolute power over the lives of one quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader.”

Thus begins Mao: The Unknown Story, the biography of Mao, written by Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, and her historian husband, Jon Halliday. The opening also leaves little doubt in readers’ minds what is going to follow. Hitler and Stalin, the two dictators of the twentieth century, have long since fallen from grace, both within their countries as well as outside. It was only a matter of time before someone did a hatchet job on the reputation of the founder of the People’s Republic of China. Almost thirty years after his death, Chang and Halliday have done just that. And it is not a Cook’s Tour of the life of one of the extraordinary men of the twentieth century: it is a liberally referenced and painstakingly assembled eight hundred pages behemoth.

In seventy seven chapters this biography, which the Communist Party of China dare not allow to be published in that country, traces Mao’s life from his birth to his death, and, in the process, attempts to shatter every legend and myth associated with his life.

Born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, in the Shaoshan valley in Hunan, Mao was the eldest of three children. He apparently had a close and intense relationship with his mother—probably the only person whom he genuinely loved in his life—and a very uneasy relationship with his father. The father and son hated each other and frequently clashed. Many years later, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Mao remarked, “My father was a bad man. If he were alive today he should be ‘jet-planed’ (an agonising position in which the subject’s arms were wrenched behind his back and head pushed downwards)”. Mao was a rebellious student and was expelled from a few schools for being headstrong and disobedient. At the age of fourteen he was married to a woman—this was an arranged marriage—four years older than him. This was the first of his four marriages, and his wife, who had no name—she was called ‘woman Luo’, Luo being her family name—died within a year. This early marriage turned Mao into a fierce opponent of arranged marriages. Mao mentioned his first wife only once, at least in official interviews, in his life.

After the death of his wife Mao left the valley and arrived in Changsha, in 1911, on the eve of the Republican Revolution that was to bring an end to the rule of the Manchu dynasty, also ending, in the process, two thousand years of Imperial rule in China. Mao’s early writings, quoted in the biography, during this period, give an inkling of the course he was to follow. “The nature of the people of this country is inertia,” he wrote. “They worship hypocrisy, are content with being slaves, and are narrow minded.” He then went on to propose that all the collection of prose and poetry in China after the Tang and Sung dynasty should be burned in one go. Uttermost proclamations of a hotheaded youngster? Chang and Halliday try to show that these remarks of Mao, made when he was barely twenty, harbingered the theme that epitomised his rule that lasted for more than quarter of a century: complete destruction of the Chinese culture.

These early speeches and writings also throw into sharp relief Mao’s views on morality. “I do not agree with the view that to be moral, the motive of one’s action has to be benefiting others,” he wrote. “Morality does not have to be defined in relation to others. . . People like me want to. . . satisfy our hearts to the full. . . Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me. People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we do not have duty to other people. I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I do not know about the past, I do not know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self.”

As regards history, this is what Mao had to say: “Some say one has a responsibility for history. I don’t believe it. I am only concerned about developing myself. . . I have my own desire and act on it. I am responsible for no one.”

Throughout his long life Mao saw no reason to deviate from the position he had explicated in his younger years.

Mao also revealed his fascination in upheaval and destruction early on. Upheavals and destruction, for him, were desiderata of the world. “Giant wars”, he believed, “will. . never become extinct.” He firmly believed that enduring peace was “unendurable to human beings.” “Tidal waves of destruction will have to be created”, he warned, “to end this state of peace.” He readily admitted that when he read history, he “adored the times of war”, and when he got to the periods of peace and prosperity, he was bored. Like Hitler, Mao did not do anything, when he finally wrested control of China from Chiang-Kai-Shek, that he said he would not do.

Chang and Halliday try to lay to rest other myths associated with Mao. Contrary to the official version of the Chinese government, Mao was not a founding member of the Communist Party of China (CPP). The formation of CPP, Chang and Halliday claim, was engineered by one Gregory Voltinsky, a representative the Comintern sent after the Bolsheviks took Central Siberia, in cahoots with some Chinese Marxists, most notable amongst them Chen Tu-hsiu, the undisputed leader of the Chinese communists. Mao, at this time, had become close to the charismatic Tu-hsiu, and was himself known as a radical. He opened a bookshop which had the following declaration which he had penned himself: “There is no new culture in the entire world. Only a little flower of new culture has been discovered in Russia on the shores of Arctic ocean.” It was around this time that Mao formally expressed his communist beliefs. In a letter written to a friend he declared that he “deeply agreed” with the idea of using the “Russian model to reform China and the world.”

The Communist Partyof China (CPP) was formed by Moscow as a Trojan horse to manipulate the much bigger Nationalist party (founded in 1912 by the merger of a number of Republican groups). Stalin ordered the local communists to join the Nationalist party, but all the senior leader refused, having very little regard for Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Nationalist party. It was at this stage that Mao, who until then had found it impossible to reach the higher echelons in the CPP, mostly, the authors say, because of his ineffectiveness at organising labour and recruiting, was brought by the Russians to the party HQ. Mao, who at that stage, did not believe in the prospects of the CPP, promptly joined the Nationalist party. The outward enthusiasm shown by the pragmatic Mao for the Moscow line of cooperating with the Nationalists shot him into the core of the party. Mao became very active in the Nationalist party which drew fire from the ideological purists in the CPP. He was criticised as ‘opportunistic’ and ‘right wing’ and kicked out of the CPP. He returned to his home village of Shaoshan equipped with over 50 kg of books, claiming he was ‘convalescing’. He became more active in the Nationalist party after his friend Wang Ching-wei became the leader of the Nationalist party following the death of Sun Yat-sen, although he (Mao) still remained essentially a member of the CPP. At the top of the Nationalists’ agenda was anti-imperialism, so this became the theme of Mao’s activity. At this time Mao showed, for the first time, an interest in the question of Chinese peasantry, which, Chang and Halliday claim, came on the heels of an urgent order from Moscow and not out of any personal conviction or inclination. His position in respect of the peasants, when the Russians had first ordered the CPP a few years earlier to pay attention to this question was: “On the peasant question, the class line must not be abandoned, there is nothing to be done among the poor peasants and it is necessary to establish ties with landowners and ‘shenshih’ [gentry]. . .”  Mao was appointed by the Nationalists as a founding member of the Nationalists’ Peasant Movement Committee. When, two years later, the Nationalists tried to bring about a Russian style revolution in the Hunan region, violence and total mayhem erupted. Mao was invited by the Nationalists to his home province to give guidance. It was during his stay in Hunan that Mao discovered in himself a love for violence and bloodthirsty thuggery. He said, later, “Not until I stayed in Hunan for over thirty days till I completely changed my attitude.” This enjoyment which bordered on sadism preceded his affinity for Leninist violence and sprang from his character. He mentioned in his reports to the Nationalists at the time that he experienced “a kind of ecstasy never experienced before. . . it is wonderful!” Mao, in later years, went out of his way to cover the fact that in the initial years of the CPP he was extremely keen on the Nationalist party (albeit at the behest of his Russian masters) which became the chief enemy of the CPP.

Many in the Nationalist party were unhappy at their leaders’ decision to become bedfellows with the communists. In 1927 the Peking government raided Russian premises and seized a large cache of documents which showed the close links between the CPP and the Soviets. It was at this stage Chiang Kai-shek, the commander of the Nationalist army broke links with the communists: he began ‘cleansing’ the Nationalist party of communist links, and issued a ‘Wanted’ list of 197 communists in which Mao’s name was second. The chief of the Nationalist party, Wang Ching-wei, Mao’s mentor in the Nationalist party, decided to sever ties with the Communists. Mao was faced with a choice; and he decided to stay with the Communists. This was his political coming of age.

When Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Communists, Stalin decided to pull out all the ‘Communist units’ out of the Nationalist army which were to move to the South coast of China to collect arms shipped in from Russia and set up a base. He also ‘ordered’ peasant uprising in Hunan and adjacent provinces with the goal of taking power in these regions. Mao wholeheartedly agreed with the Russian scheme, and, in the emergency party meeting, made a statement, which was to acquire international fame: “power comes out of the barrel of the gun.” The ‘Autumn Harvest Uprising’ in Hunan, which, according to the official Communist party version, was a peasant uprising led by Chairman Mao, was thus not an authentic peasant uprising, orchestrated as it was by the Russians. Over the next several months Mao manoeuvred to take control of the ‘Red Army’ and set his base in the outlaw ‘Bandit’ country, in the Jinggang Mountain range, so called because it was out of reach of the authorities because of difficult terrain and was mostly controlled by outlaws. From here Mao organized looting sorties into neighbouring counties, grandly called ‘du tu-hao’, literally ‘smash landed tyrants’. The term ‘rich’ was very relative and ‘smash’ covered a range of activities from robbery to ransom to killings. At this stage Mao requested the CPP mandate as the supreme of the Red Army. The request reached Stalin in the middle of CPP’s sixth Congress, which, in keeping with the Communist obsession with secrecy, was taking place in secret just outside Moscow. Mao fitted Stalin’s bill: he had a base and an army at his disposal. Stalin, the old bank robber, probably saw his younger self in Mao: he (Mao), according to Stalin, was “insubordinate but a winner”. All of Mao’s demands were met. When fifteen months later Mao left the ‘Outlaw’ land—Chiang Kai-shek, having brought most of China under his control, setting his capital in Nanjing, had turned his attention to the Communists and was preparing to attack Mao’s base—he left behind a trail of destruction. A party inspector wrote to Shanghai: “Before the Red Army came. . . there was quite an atmosphere of peaceful and happy existence. . . since the Red army came, things were totally changed.  . . because after great destruction no attention was paid to construction the countryside is totally bankrupt and collapsing by the day.”

Mao then set his base in the province of Jiangxi, near Hunan. The local Reds revolted and, not for the first time, Mao resorted to terror, ordering public executions, to achieve his ends. Around this time Stalin gave him the ultimate promotion and declared him the head of the future state. Mao then embarked upon large scale purge, the first of the many he carried out in his bloody reign, getting rid of all those who opposed him, labelling them ‘Anti-Bolshevik’. A circular sent by the local Reds to Shanghai, the headquarters of the CPP, describes Mao’s style of functioning that changed not a jot over the next few decades: “He is extremely devious, and sly, selfish, and full of megalomania. To his comrades, he orders them around, frightens them with charges of crimes, and victimises them. He rarely holds discussions on party matters. . . Whenever he expresses a view everyone must agree, otherwise he uses the party organization to clamp down on you, or invents some trumped-up theories to make life absolutely dreadful for you. . . . Mao always uses political accusations to strike at his comrades. To sum up. . . not only he is not a revolutionary leader, he is not a. . . Bolshevik.”

Chiang Kai-shek, in the meanwhile, was slowly strangulating Mao’s new base, and was preparing to attack Jiangxi when a stroke of luck, yet again, saved Mao: Japan invaded Manchuria and occupied its many cities, including the capital Shenyang. Chiang suspended his plan of ‘annihilating the Communists’ and appealed for a United Front against a common enemy, an offer Mao wasted no time in rejecting—for him the Nationalists and not the Japanese were the real enemies. When Chaing pulled out his troops to fight the Japanese, the Reds, like vultures, attacked and recovered the lost territory.

The most startling part of Chang and Halliday’s discovery, made possible no doubt after the secret Soviet archives and files were made available to public after 1994, is the sustained role Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin to be more precise, played in fomenting Communism in China. Communist Party of China and its leadership were, for decades, parasites of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Without the generous help of the Soviets—involving astronomical sums of money and weapons— which continued well into the first decade of Mao’s rule, Chang and Halliday would have us believe, CPP would not have been able to survive. For years, the CPP and Mao did the bidding of the Russians who bank-rolled the Red army. Indeed, it was Stalin himself who singled out Mao as the leader of the Chinese communists. It is probable that the ‘Red Tsar’ saw in Mao’s drive, ruthlessness, and lust for power glimpses of himself, but there were other pressing reasons, which had to do with Stalin’s vision of expanding the Soviet empire into China—he had decided to invade Manchuria and wanted the CPP to create diversionary military pressure on the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek— as well as his desire to have a leader in China who had no connection with his bete noire, Trotsky, whom he had just exiled, behind Stalin’s decision. Mao, of course, was aware of his (and CPP’s) utility and milked the Russians relentlessly, promoting, on the sly, at the same time his agenda of personal aggrandizement. And he was prepared to sacrifice the sovereignty of China in order to achieve his goals. In 1937 Japan, whom Stalin had publicly identified as the principle menace, attacked and occupied Northern China. This posed a very real threat to Russia as Tokiyo’s huge armies were now in a position to turn North and attack Russia anywhere along a border thousands of kilometre long. With newly available evidence Chang and Halliday show that Stalin activated a ‘sleeper’ in Chiang’s army and triggered an all out war between China and Japan, which the Japanese, apparently, were not aiming for at this stage, and which Chiang wanted to avoid as he wanted to concentrate his forces on wiping out Communists. Stalin’s aim was primarily to get Japan entrenched in a war involving large parts of China. When an all out war broke out, Stalin moved with alacrity, signed a non-aggression pact with Chiang and supplied him with money and weapons, the aim of which was to sustain the war and delay, if not completely neutralize, the threat Japan posed for Russia. Mao reaped immediate benefits when all out war broke out between China and Japan: Chiang was forced to accede to the Communists’ principle demand—that the Red army could keep its autonomy. The CPP were allowed to open offices in key cities and publish its own papers. This was the beginning of the end of Chiang’s grip over China. Mao treated the war not as a conflict in which all Chinese fought together, irrespective of their political and ideological differences against an external aggressor, but as an opportunity to drive further his own agenda. And he was prepared to be belligerent and deviate from the command of his Soviet masters. Stalin wanted a united China to fight against the Japanese and bog them down. Mao repeatedly found ways to sabotage Stalin’s command that the CPP should join hands with Chiang. His ploy was to use the war as an opportunity to expand his own base while Chiang, with the help of the Russians, fought the Japanese and got weakened in the process. The war, for Mao, was an opportunity to destroy Chaing, which he was incapable of doing himself. At the same time he knew very well that he had no capacity (or strategy, even) to drive the Japanese out of China. For this he depended on the Russians, as he knew that Stalin would never allow the Japanese conquer China, as the Japanese would pose, with the whole of China under their control, even greater threat to the Russians. This is exactly what happened. The Sino-Japanese war lasted eight years, cost 20 millions Chinese lives and weakened Chiang enormously, both politically and militarily. Within five years of the war ending Communists drove Chiang out and Mao had achieved his ambition. Years later he remarked to his inner circle that he had always regarded the war as a three-way affair: “Chiang, Japan and us.”

The picture of Mao that emerges is, to say the least, not endearing. Devoid of emotions such as empathy and affection he treated those near him, including his wives children and brothers appallingly. Yang Kai-hui, the daughter of Mao’s erstwhile teacher, became his second wife. The two married in 1920, and within months Mao was having an affair with her cousin. Kai-hui, a remarkable woman (judging from the diaries she left behind), a feminist who wrote an essay on women’s right, nevertheless remained faithful to Mao. She wrote: “Anyone who has no physical handicap must have two attributes. One is the sex drive, and the other is the emotional need for love. My attitude was to let him [Mao] be, and let it be.” Incredible as it may seem she must have been madly in love with him. Mao had three sons from his second marriage. Beyond giving his first son a grandiose name, An-ying, meaning ‘an outstanding person’, Mao did not involve himself in any way, as, indeed, he did not in respect of any of his other children from future wives, in their upbringing. Seven years later he left Yang Kai-hui for Gui-yuan, who became his wife number three. Three years after the abandonment, Mao’s political machinations brought tragedy to Kai-hui. By this time Chiang Kai-shek had formed the Nationalistic government, based in Nanjing, with a nominal authority over China. Mao, who had formed a rag-tag Red Army, all of whose ammunition came from Stalin, led siege to Changsha, where Kai-hui was still living with their three children. The siege was unsuccessful; the fiercely anti-Communist governor of Changsha arrested Kai-hui and offered her a deal: her freedom if she made a public announcement divorcing and denouncing Mao. Kai-hui, whom Mao, in the previous three years since leaving her and their three young children, had not written so much as a letter, refused, and was executed by a firing squad. Mao could easily have saved her during his assault on and retreat from Changsha, as her house was on his route to the city where he stayed for three weeks. He did nothing to extricate her and their children. Tse-min, Mao’s younger brother, arranged for the three children to travel to Shanghai where they entered a secret CPP kindergarten. Mao took no interest in what happened to them. Gui-yuan, Mao’s third wife, fared no better. She worked for Mao as his interpreter after he decided to make the ‘bandit country’, south of Jinggang Mountain range on which Chiang Kai-shek had no control, as his base. Mao did not know, and never bothered to learn, the local dialect. The beautiful Gui-yuan, with ‘large eyes, high cheekbones, and an almond-shaped face’ fancied Tse-tan, Mao’s ‘handsome and lively’ youngest brother, but married Mao for ‘political protection’. As events in subsequent years showed, she was mistaken in this belief. Gui-yuan had several pregnancies during the ten years she and Mao were together. She had to leave most of her children behind as Mao fled from Chiang’s army. The second of these was a boy named Little Mao whom she entrusted to the care of her sister who was married to Mao’s brother, Tse-tan, whom Mao had ordered to stay behind and defend the Red territory, which, as he himself knew  to be a hopeless task (that’s why he fled). Mao had essentially condemned his own brother and son to a certain death. Soon Nationalists took the Red territory, and Tse-tan moved Little Mao secretly. However Tse-tan was killed in the battle in 1935 before he could tell his wife where he had moved Little Mao. For years, long after she had ceased to be his wife, Gui-Yuan searched for Little Mao. In the 1950s a young man was found who Gui-yuan was convinced was Little Mao. However another Red Army widow identified him as her missing son. Mao, who had complete control of China, having driven out Chiang Kai-shake in 1949 and declaring China a Communist state, refused to intervene; indeed he never showed any interest in what might have happened to his own flesh and blood. Gui-yuan was Mao’s companion, albeit a reluctant one—she had become disillusioned within a year of their marriage, and had tried various ways to separate, all of which were thwarted by Mao—during the Long March. During the Long March Gui-yuan gave birth to their fourth child, a daughter, whom, like her other children, she was forced to leave behind with a family as Mao fled southwards. Mao’s response, when Gui-yuan informed him of what she had had to do was: “You were right, we had to do this.” Not only did he show indifference to Gui-Yuan’s plight, Mao also cracked jokes about her painful pregnancies with other women, saying giving birth for her [Gui-yuan] was as easy as dropping an egg. Gui-yuan was to have two more children with Mao. By this time the marriage, for all practical purposes, was over, and Mao was openly sleeping with other women. This, however, did not stop him from repeatedly impregnating Gui-yuan. Their fifth child was a girl, Chiao-Chiao, the only one to survive to adulthood. When, a year later, she fell pregnant for the sixth time, Gui-yuan plunged into depression. Mao arranged for her to go to Russia, in 1937, in the middle of Stalin’s purge, ostensibly to get rid of painful shrapnel lodged in her body from the time of the Long March. In Moscow, in the middle of a harsh winter, Gui-yuan gave birth to their sixth child, a boy whom she named Lyova and who died (without Mao ever having laid his eyes on him) six months later of pneumonia. Mao, who by this time had married for the fourth time, to Jiang Quing, the notorious ‘Madam Mao’, sent her a letter declaring the dissolution of their marriage in one sentence: “From now on we are only comrades.” Mao specifically prohibited Gui-yuan’s return to China. Their daughter, Chaio-Chiao, lived full-time in the elite’s nursery, as Mao never came to see her. A grown up Chiao-Chiao remarked that in those days she was an orphan who was not exactly an orphan. At the age of four Chiao-Chioa was sent to Russia to live with her mother, who, by this time, was beginning to lose her grip on reality. Young Chiao-Chiao suffered the brunt of her mother’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour and irrational rages. Soon Gui-yuan was ‘committed’ to an asylum in Moscow and Chiao-Chiao became an orphan yet again. Mao met Gui-yuan only once more in their lives, in 1959. By this time both Gui-yuan and Chiao-Chioa had returned to China, and Mao occasionally allowed his daughter to see him. He was seized with a whim to see Gui-yuan, who, he was warned by their daughter, was in a fragile state of mind and could well ‘collapse mentally if she got too excited.’  After they met briefly Mao ‘promised’ to see Gui-yuan again ‘tomorrow’. However, the next day, Gui-yuan was forcibly taken away on Mao’ orders and suffered a severe relapse of her mental condition. Jiang Quing, Mao’s fourth and last wife, remained married to him for the remainder of his life, albeit only in name. She became notorious as the leader of what Mao referred to as the ‘Gang of four’ during the Cultural Revolution. When arrested after Mao’s death for her crimes during the cultural revolution Jiang Quing said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. Whoever Chairman Mao asked me to bite, I bit.” Madam Mao was most probably telling the truth—it was Mao, and Mao alone, who unleashed the Cultural Revolution; Madam Mao simply did his bidding—and her comment summarises the nature of their relationship. Chang and Halliday suggest that an increasingly insecure, politically weak, and moribund Mao bartered ‘Mme Mao’ and the others in the Gang to his would be successors for his own safety, telling them they could do what they wished to her after he died

Chang and Halliday next go about destroying the myth (as they see it) surrounding Mao’s Long March on which the historical  legitimacy of the communist rule in China rests. Did Mao and his comrades showed incredible courage and inventiveness in escaping the Nationalist army that was threatening to close in on them? No, say Chang and Halliday. Mao was allowed to escape by the Chiang (no doubt an error of judgement by the generalissimo for which he paid a few years later). Chaing’s control on the Southwestern province was very shaky at this time and he was not keen on antagonizing the warlords who controlled the region. The Long March of the communist was in fact facilitated by the Nationalist. When the warlords, unsettled by the entry of the Reds into their province, appealed to Chiang for help, the Nationalists, at the invitation of the warlords, entered the region to drive the communists out. Mao did not even walk through the Long March. Years later he remarked (as per Chuang & Halliday):  “On the march, I was lying in a litter. So what did I do? I read. I read a lot.”

Chang and Halliday are reluctant to see anything that Mao did that was not out of his desire of personal aggrandizement. Thus, when Mao, in 1927, facing political crossroads, decided to stay with the Communists (and in effect put his life at risk, as Chiang had begun to kill Communists), it was not because he had the courage of conviction but because he had developed a taste for brutality in Hunan which he was loath to give up by joining the Natioanlists. He used the Korean War essentially as an opportunity to kill the soldiers belonging formerly to the Nationalist army. Some of it is familiar grounds. Most (at least in the West) now acknowledge that Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ was an unmitigated disaster for the Chinese population and millions perished. Chang and Halliday quote Mao instructing the officials to “educate” the starving peasants that they eat less. The State, Mao advised, should try its hardest to prevent peasants eating too much. At another time Mao is supposed to have remarked that while working on all of his projects “half of China may well have to die.” Chilling words.

Mao, according to the biography, was utterly ruthless and unforgiving towards those who he felt threatened his control over the CPP and China. The biography is awash with examples of political rivals, several —so Chang and Halliday would have the readers belive—more moralistic and worthy than Mao, who were murdered by Mao. Even those who stayed loyal to him, such as his long serving prime minister, Zhou Enlie. In the 1970s when Zhou was suffering from cancer, Mao blocked the treatment that might have prolonged Zhou’s life. Zhou himself is portrayed as Mao’s slavish lackey and not the erudite world leader and diplomat he was known to be in his life time.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Chang and Halliday have spared no effort to portray the founder of the communist China as a murdering, machinating, power-hungry psychopath who had absolutely no regard for human life and spent most of his long, wicked life heaping misery on the benighted populace of the country he ruled for more than twenty-five years. He was not a particularly impressive orator, nor did he have the charisma of some of the other dictators of the twentieth century whom he matched, probably even surpassed in craziness. He was vicious; he had low-level cunning; he utterly lacked empathy; and was prepared to go to any length to stay in power. That’s what Chang and Halliday would like their readers to believe.

Is it true, though? There seems something inherently imbalanced about this humongous biography. Chang is of course the author of Wild Swan, a chronicle of the three generation of her family that suffered under Mao’s rule. Mao: the Unknown Story seems to have been written out of an intense revulsion, bordering on hatred, for its subject. Almost every chapter of the biography is devoted to demolishing some or the other ‘myths’ related to Mao. If you hold the view that historical biographies should have an element of neutrality then Mao: the Unknown Story might rankle. That is as may be. It might be argued that it is difficult to write a neutral biography of someone whose list of crimes runs longer than the treaty of Versailles.  

The point the reader might wish to satisfy himself about is: how well researched is the biography? Are the sources quoted authentic? This question becomes all the more important if the biography is making startling claims—as this one does—about its subject. If you are going to make startling revelations about the treasured recent  history of a country that is  viewed by many as the real superpower, such as the Long March, you’d better back it up with bulletproof evidence. I of course lack the expertise to critically analyse the sources quoted by Chang and Halliday. It has to be said, though, that on the face of it the list is impressive. The biography was allegedly in the making for more than ten years. Chang and Halliday painstakingly interviewed hundreds of subjects in more than 30 countries. Some of the interviewees are well known personalities such as former US presidents, a former African dictator etc. But there are many others who, even to my unprofessional eye, seem difficult to check. The same goes for at least some of the sources quoted by Chang and Halliday, which apparently cannot be verified and therefore must be considered as highly speculative. One of the more detailed criticisms of the methodological issues of the biography can be found here.

Mao Tse Tung—who led a long and remarkable life and who undeniably came to exert influence not only on the country he ruled but also the world— may well have been the brutal and sadistic monster Chang and Halliday accuse him of being, but when you come to the end of this long and very readable biography, you may be excused if you have hesitation in sharing the conviction of its authors.