Intimate portrait of a historic time

It is pure coincidence that around the time we are celebrating Independence Day, I am reading a memoir that is centered around India’s independence—Prison and Chocolate Cake by Nayantara Sahgal. Sahgal’s portrayal is an intimate one. The freedom struggle from the perspective from an extremely euphoric bystander. Someone who is watching the action and is only peripherally involved in it. It’s a vantage position. We get character portraits untainted by controversies that surround adults. Nehru is the idolized mamu (Don’t you dare think of Edwina Mountbatten now!). Other portraits include her complete family, mother Vijayalakshmi Pandit, father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit Pandit, sisters Chandralekha and Rita. Essentially the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty before it assumed legendary proportions as it does now. Walk-in parts (so far that is; I am yet to complete the book) include Gandhi himself and the dancer Uday Shankar. It’s also a portrait of a very innocent time even though people were killed and lives sacrificed for absolute ideals.

History seems like a strange metamorphosing creature. Sahgal lived through some of the most turbulent and historic times and yet sees nothing but optimism in it. While we who are so removed from this time, see only the hardships and deficiencies.

We have so much to learn about India’s independence. The history books are woefully inadequate. My best lesson in history about India comes not from a history book but a fictionalized account—Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I, now, add Sahgal’s book to this list.


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