Signs of The Times!

By Humra Quraishi

I heaved a sigh of relief when the Opposition came up with the name of Gopalkrishna Gandhi as their vice presidential candidate. As I’d mentioned in one of my earlier columns, this grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has been a former civil servant turned diplomat and now an academic commentator -writer. I talked to him after his book- Dara Shukoh: A Play (Tranquebar Press) was launched.  I’m putting excerpts from that chit-chat with Gopalkrishna Gandhi; enough to relay details to the man and his personality-

After you took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service in 1992, you had a long phase of public life before settling down as a well-known columnist and author. Looking back, which phase has been of the greatest significance to you?

Each one of my positions in India’s diplomatic missions has been defining and, in a way, different from the other. London was a huge education in cross-currents, Pretoria an unparalleled experience in the witnessing of living history, Colombo a training in faith and fortitude, and Oslo a much-needed embrace of oxygen. But serving former President K. R. Narayanan and then working in West Bengal were invaluable to me in that they showed that fair-dealing, not size, is meant to be our or any democracy’s true signature. If it is not, it will be a flawed and guilt-burdened democracy. Certain offices and functionaries more than others are meant to ensure that such a debasement does not take place or does not remain un-rectified.

All these years, was there always an urge to write on a regular basis?

I did not then and do not now feel I have anything particularly important to say. My experience of my slice of life’s sweet, bitter and tastelessness has been far less memorable than that of most people. But, yes, some things I have chanced upon as a wayfarer have seemed worth putting down, in the impression that some hamsafar might find them to be of passing interest. …Occasions for public speaking (except when I was Secretary to the President) gave me opportunities for sharing such evolving thoughts, in a way that substituted the need to ‘write regularly’.

Your columns seem to concentrate on the uncomplicated and lesser-known aspects to everyday life. Comment.

Lesser known, perhaps. But uncomplicated? I am not sure…

In your opinion, why is it that today we have no Munshi Premchand — in terms of the basic simplicity which that legendary writer was equipped with?

Writers are not outside of society. What is ‘simple’ now? But I think we should not despair. A new simplicity, quite different from Munshiji’s, will arise in all our language and writing traditions, which will be direct if not rustic, frank if not plain and honest in an altogether new register of experiences that will hold up an old mirror to our newly changed faces.

Your book Dara Shukoh — Play was released sometime back. What drew you to focus on this bygone Mughal prince?

It was his story which was, in fact, history. Where do you find failure trouncing success, defeat making victory counterfeit, as in the life of Shahjahan’s eldest-born?

Some bureaucrats have taken voluntary retirement to take to full-time writing. Does creativity get choked in the midst of those workplaces?

‘Bureaucrats’ are not a different species of humanity, any more than any other class of people. We are all ‘types’ and ‘persons’ in varying alternation.

Being Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, do you carry memories/faint recollections of him?

Alas, no. But that is my loss, not that of anyone else.

In your opinion, why is it that none of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandchildren have taken to active politics?

That is factually incorrect. My cousin Sumitra Kulkarni, the eldest of Gandhiji’s grandchildren now living, was a member of the Rajya Sabha from the Indian National Congress for several years. And my esteemed elder brother Rajmohan Gandhi was also in the same House, from the Janata Dal. Neither of them is in active politics now, but their interest in public affairs remains strong and contemporary, from different political vantages.


It seems unbelievable that in this day and age we seem to be bypassing the jailed. Tell me, what’s been happening inside those caged interiors? Why don’t we talk in terms of the living conditions of the prisoned lot? Where can the prisoners go to lodge complaints? What is the aftermath, that is, if they pick up adequate guts to raise their voice? What are the nexus at work in those interiors? What good are jails when they are ruin the very mental and physical health of the prisoners? Why are jails associated with inhuman treatment meted out to the jailed out? Where are the supposed reforms? Where is the concept of ‘open jails’ where the inmates can at least survive like human beings?

I’m throwing these queries in the backdrop of several news reports that all’s not well inside our prisons and jails. Last month a convict died in Mumbai’s Byculla jail after prison staff assaulted her in the most horrifying way by pushing rods into her private parts. Mind you,  the  prime  four assaulters were women cops, so lets not come up with those  hackneyed  theories that lets  increase the  number of women cops and then all’s going to be okay! Nothing is going to be okay until there comes about some level of transparency in the very functioning of jails.

Right now the flow of information is via the released prisoners – who have been fortunate enough to have survived the jailed ordeal. Or through prisoners who have written volumes on their prison terms. I have read at least ten such volumes and each one of them is laced with details of torture and inhuman treatment meted out to the prisoned lot. In fact, so horrifying are those details that the read gets difficult.

Why don’t we talk of the concept of open jails! For God’s sake don’t cage these men and women as though they are wild animals, good enough to be caged! They need to live and live with dignity!