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Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Solitude of Emperors

Reading David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors took me back to my journalism days.

If one is familiar with the print journalism scene in Mumbai over the last two decades, the characters of Mr. Sorabjee and Vijay from the novel will remind one of the legendary Russi Karanjia, founder editor of Blitz and his deputy P Sainath, now the internationally famous developmental journalist. Although, I think Davidar has based novel’s magazine The Indian Secularist on A. D. Gorwala’s Opinion.

Moreover, in 1994, which is when the Meham episode occurs in the novel, Sainath and Karanjia had parted ways, and Karanjia had become a BJP supporter.

Davidar was a reputed journalist in Bombay (Mumbai) before becoming an extremely powerful publisher in India and Canada.

On reading his second novel, it becomes immediately clear that his real vocation is writing. I haven’t read his first novel – The House of Blue Mangoes. I just finished reading The Solitude of Emperors. It is a simple book and its beauty is in its simplicity.

It raises a disturbing question: What should the secularists in India do to stem the rising tide of fundamentalism, and provides a difficult answer: Act.

Davidar seems to suggest to the secularists: Don’t fret if your numbers are too small. Don’t wait till it is too late. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t succeed. Try again.

Interwoven into the story are the profiles of three of India’s greatest leaders – Emperors Ashoka and Akbar, and Mahatma Gandhi. Davidar argues that the tide of communalism in India can only be countered by the combination of the qualities of these three legends who gave a new meaning to inclusiveness.

I was initially surprised at Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusion in the list; perhaps Jawaharlal Nehru would have been more appropriate, but I understood Davidar’s view when he lays emphasis that the future leader of India will necessarily have to be religious.

An atheist or an agnostic leader is not fully equipped to understand and appreciate the deep religiosity of the common Indian, and the complexity that poses in administering the vast land.

I want to narrate a personal experience that I think is quite pertinent in the context of the book. I have tutored students of print journalism for more than a decade on principles of journalism. At the beginning of each session I ask a simple question: What do you do if you see a person drowning? Do you take a photograph or do you try to rescue the person?

My answer that would normally cause uproar has remained unchanged in all these years. Take a photograph. A journalist’s duty to the society is to inform, not to be a life-guard.

Davidar’s protagonist in the novel – Vijay – is a journalist, who makes the cardinal mistake of getting involved beyond the call of his duty. Davidar justifies this by arguing that passive reportage may not be enough when a society needs more activism from people in public professions such as journalism, law, medicine.

The book also makes for disquieting reading because it brings one face-to-face with the patience of the communalist. The character of Rajan tells Vijay that he and his believers are willing to wait for a thousand years, or even two thousand years, for the resistance to a theocratic Hindu state to breakdown.

Thank you Myrna Freedman for lending me the book.

You care.

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