The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna GandhiEdited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan
312 pages|₹ 699
Gopalkrishna Gandhi (Photo: Wikipedia)
Born to Mohandas K Gandhi’s youngest son, Devadas Gandhi, Gopalkrishna Gandhi has been a bit of a renaissance man in his attempt to live up to his grandfather’s legacy. He attended St Stephen’s College and soon passed the civil service exams. He served as an IAS officer till 1992, after which he occupied a string of grand offices that allowed him to be an ambassador of India to the wider world.
This included serving as founder-director of the Nehru Centre in London and being appointed as India’s ambassador to South Africa in 1996 as the country began to chart a new course amidst the ruins of the apartheid regime. He would eventually be appointed as the governor of West Bengal in 2004.
Gandhi was also able to fulfil the expectations of such high offices and high causes while pursuing multilingual literary endeavours, such as writing a play on Dara Shikoh and translating Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy to Hindi.
Now as a tasteful testimonial to his life a troupe of writers and academics, artists and aesthetes have come together to write essays for him. The 26 writers in The Fourth Lion, acollection of essays (edited by Professor Venu Madhav Govindu and historian Srinath Raghavan)range from the very well-known—such as the author Amitav Ghosh and the late American historian Isaac Kramnick—to those who have come into recent prominence—such as Dinyar Patel (who published a biography of Dadabhai Naoroji in 2020) and Keshav Guha (whose first novel was published in 2020). The list of contributors also includes artists, such as TM Krishna and fellow retired civil servants such as Nirupama Rao and Aruna Roy.
Most contributors seem to have known Gopalkrishna Gandhi quite intimately over the course of their lives. One may expect such a collection of essays to predominantly be a repertoire of anecdotes with him. But that is not the case, as memoirs occupy a minority of space within the collection. There is in fact a bit of everything and too much of nothing. Straightjacketed into categories such as ‘Literature and Culture’, ‘History’ or ‘Memoirs’, the topics are as varied as the background of the writers—with no overarching theme uniting them.
Within the ‘History’ segment, for instance, the Tamil historian AR Venkatachalapathy charts an interesting narrative on the tussle between the two titans of Tamil politics—K Kamaraj and C Rajagopalachari—against the backdrop of Dravidian mobilisation in newly independent India.
Alternatively, the section ‘Literature and Culture’ sees film director Feroz Abbas Khan write a short piece on his under-appreciated 2007 film Gandhi, My Father, starring Akshaye Khanna as Mahatma Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal Gandhi. Harilal proved to be the proverbial black sheep of his family, given his alcoholism and financial failure. Additionally, Khan seems to have struggled with the allure of sensationalism in his portrayal of Harilal.
The highlights of this collection, however, are pieces written by the most seasoned writers—Kramnick and historian Ramachandra Guha. Kramnick has written a deeply informed piece on the English socialist Harold Laski’s constant support for Indian Independence. Guha writes a detailed memoir of his interactions with Gopalkrishna Gandhi over a lifetime of writing books—which more than any other piece in the collection does justice to Gandhi’s varied and interesting life.
The chief drawback of this collection of essays is the lack of ideological diversity. Overwhelmingly, the essayists are writers with what may be called a deeply progressive bent. This means that the essayists routinely make assumptions that are in fact hotly contested in today’s political climate. Throughout the book we keep reading about the supposed reality of a ‘muscular’, ‘hyper-nationalist’ and ‘majoritarian’ India, mostly without any attempts at its justification.
An inclusion of conservative writers such as Vikram Sampath or Swapan Dasgupta would have made this collection far more interesting.
Nevertheless, while the reader may not find every essay matching the threshold of reasonable quality, The Fourth Lion abundantly attests to the goodwill Gopalkrishna Gandhi has generated after a lifetime of living illustriously. History will certainly remember him as a worthy inheritor of his family’s legacy.