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.