Friday, January 23, 2009
Smokers Corner in Mumbai is an unusual bookshop. I don’t remember when I visited the place last. Many years ago.
But a couple of decades back, I was a regular visitor. It offered a good bargain, and very unusual books. Books difficult to find elsewhere.
One of the books that I bought from there was Andre Gide and Romain Rolland – Two Men Divided by Frederick Harris.
I was familiar with both Gide and Rolland, but had not read their writings. I haven’t even today. Rolland is much admired among a particular set of Indian history aficionados because of his biography of the Mahatma.
Gide was a major Marxist intellectual.
Both are Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Rolland in 1915 and Gide in 1947.
Rolland's book came to our house via a rather strange route. Meghnad had managed to get the book from N.J. Lakdawala. Lakdawala was the father of my father’s colleague at his workplace, and the entire
Lakdawala library came to us for reasons which I’m not familiar with. But it had incredible books. The six-volume history of World War II by Winston Churchill, for instance.
Gide's books came from Meghnad's uncle Prabodhchandra (Nanu-kaka; more about him a little later). Gide was a regular Marxist and a staunch supporter of Soviet Russia for a considerably long time.
Nearly two decades after Communism’s comprehensive failure, I often wonder what was it about this tendentious philosophy that so fascinated the French intellectual giants of the mid 20th century (1930-1970). Rolland, Gide, Sartre are names we are all familiar with.
Both Rolland and Gide were proud of their Marxist leanings, but developed differences in the manner in which the Soviet Union curbed personal freedom.
Harris’s book is an interesting account of the differences between them over this and other issues.
The thing about these giants of the last century was the erudition with which they expressed their views, and the civilized manner in which they engaged in a debate over differences.
Rolland and Gandhi correspondence is legendary, as is the correspondence between Tagore and Gandhi. Rolland's and Gide's differences are also of a similar nature.
We are in an age when leaders seem so diminished in comparison. Obama’s articulation seems so refreshing and all together old-worldly.