Two interesting quotes

By and far, the English are a pretty interesting lot though some tend to be the pompous variety and I can assure you there are still many of them around, prone to making grandiose statements or silly remarks. This little note is about two such comments from history, but with an attempt to understand the basis and perspectives behind them.

Churchill’s oft quoted sentence: It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir, well-known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace….

This was stated on 23rd Feb 1931 by Churchill, at Winchester House Epping following the Labor government’s proposal of Dominion status to India. Now Churchill himself had spent many years in India as a war correspondent and was a staunch believer that the British withdrawal from India would weaken Britain as well as create huge turmoil in India due to all kinds of violence and bloodshed. He was proved somewhat right, but his rude utterance above alienated even conservatives from his policies. Read an interesting piece here. In his diary, Wavell concluded that the British Prime Minister "has a curious complex about India and is always loath to hear good of it and apt to believe the worst".

The full text of what he stated was - “Now I come to the administration of India. In my opinion we ought to disassociate ourselves in the most public and formal manner from any complicity in the weak, wrong headed and most unfortunate administration of India by the socialists and by the viceroy acting upon their responsibility. It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer now posing as a fakir, of a type well-known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king emperor. Such a spectacle can only increase the unrest in India.”

Seditious middle temple lawyer - The subversive nature related to the civil disobedience campaign arrangement by Gandhiji explained the sedition part. The Honorable Society of the Middle Temple is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers; the others being the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn. It appears that Gandhiji was actually enrolled at the Inner temple.

In April 1919, a group of soldiers led by Gen Dyer fired at a crowd of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Speaking in the House of Commons, the same Winston Churchill described this as "a monstrous event", a "great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorizing not merely, the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country". Vikas Kamat puts it succinctly – Winston Churchill loathed Gandhi. Gandhi loathed none.

After 75 years the latest British Prime Minister - Gordon Brown stated in 2007 that Mahatma Gandhi would inspire him as prime minister. “I could never compare myself to Gandhi or those other heroes of mine but I do take inspiration from the way that they dealt with the challenges they faced when I think about how I will deal with the challenges the country and the world faces, including the security challenge," he said. "That means especially having the strength of belief and willpower to do what is difficult and right for the long-term, even when there are easier short-term options on offer."

Charles Dickens telling one of his friends on 4th Oct 1857 that, if he were the Commander in Chief of the British army in India, he would "do my utmost to exterminate the Indian Race" and "with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth."

What he actually said was – ‘I wish I were Commander in chief there. I would address that Oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard, which should be vigorously translated into all native dialects, I’ the inimitable, holding this office of mine and firmly believing that I hold it by the permission of heaven and not by the appointment of the Satan have the honor to inform you Hindoo gentry that it is my intention with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution to exterminate the race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with the late abominable atrocities’.

The reason why Dickens, well known for his sympathy for the downtrodden and the poor in his own country, had this outburst was due to the many highly exaggerated reports of the atrocities on the British especially their women and children by Indian rebels during The Sepoy Mutiny which started on 10th May 1857, reaching their shores. AJ Mohammed states It is certain that Dickens empathized and had strong links with both Victorian concepts of family, duty and honor both at home and in India: his son Walter had left for military service in India in July 1857 (who died in India 1863), shortly after the Mutiny. What followed from him was a novella ‘The perils of certain English prisoners’ and commenced on the ‘The tale of two cities’ both books influenced by the said revolts.

The British press exaggerated, describing the rebels as tossing British babies into the air and bayoneting them for sport. By September, Queen Victoria was writing about the horrors committed on women and children making "one's blood run cold." She wrote that ‘Altogether, the whole is so much more distressing than [the war in] the Crimea - where there was glory and honourable warfare, and where the poor women and children were safe.’ Read even more flagrant quotes here and the article detailing the resulting repression by the British, one that is considered by Amaresh Mishra to be of holocaustic proportions with 10 million Indians killed over 10 years.

For those interested – why did the 1857 riots take place? Many explanations have been given for this uprising against the Company rule in northern India, but the East India Company's increasing racial and administrative arrogance lay at the root. Anglo-Indians were excluded from senior positions in the Company; non-European wives of the Company were forbidden to follow their husbands back to Britain. Verbal abuse mounted, with 'nigger' becoming a common expression for Indians. This slide into separatism also affected the Company's relations with its Indian soldiers, the sepoys. One by one, ties between the army and local communities were cut: Hindu and Muslim holy men were barred from blessing the sepoy regimental colours, and troops were stopped from participating in festival parades. As missionary presence grew, fears mounted that the Company was planning forcible conversion to Christianity.

Tail note – What did the Karl Marx have to say in 1853? "The question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton."

Ah! The English……

Additional References - Charles Dickens’s Indian dispatches

Poor Ivar Kreuger

My interest in Ivar perked up after I finished reading Ayn Rand’s famous play Night of January 16th. Like most other Rand books, it was inspiring and this one was based on Ivar Kreuger. I guess those who read some of my earlier blogs would have found me a big-time admirer of Ayn Rand and her powerful writing style & ideology. For me she presents a perfect example of what one can achieve if one wanted to. As a Russian √©migr√© who spoke not a word of English, she became a master of English writing, words, plots & sub plots, movie scripts & what not…But then, this is not about her, this is about Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish Match King.

Sweden has always been a fascination for me. A small country that virtually made its fortune, trading in the rest of the world, be it Japan, China, India, Germany or USA…they made their name & fame with Ingrid Bergman, Alfred Nobel, ABBA, Bjorn Borg (and the other tennis stars that followed like Wilander, Edberg, Bjorkman….) and companies like SKF, IKEA, ASEA (now ABB) and Ericsson.

Ivan Kreuger got the name ‘match king’, selling matches (our old theepatti) and holding the world monopoly for matches for a long time. His organization Swedish match owned & owns WIMCO today…I used to have a friend Theepatti (that was what he was called, since he worked for WIMCO) Nair who worked in WIMCO, that BTW is another story, how Nair joined WIMCO, will hold it for some other day, maybe..
Now why did Kreuger & Swedish match strike it big? And what happened to him?

Ivar Kreuger killed himself on March 12th, firing a bullet through his heart, as media puts it, to escape creditors following the NYSE crash. The story of his death was reported by Time with some background material to boot and titled aptly ‘Poor Kreuger’. His rise to richness is simply mind boggling; even Kreuger did not know how much he made. Schooled in Sweden (double engineering degrees by age 20), he left Sweden when his girlfriend’s guardian refused to let him marry her as he was not financially sound (like a Bollywood movie eh?)!! Moving across the Atlantic and working as an engineer in the US, he picks up an award for saving a drowning girl in New Orleans!! He goes on to Mexico and South Africa, hears that his old flame is dead and returns back to Europe, after visiting India.

Kreuger then moved to Sweden and virtually took over the match industry (hesitantly at first), starting out actually to help his father’s ailing match factory. The Swedish match used the revolutionary non toxic red phosphorous safety match (required to be struck on a special surface compared to the more dangerous Lucifer match) and was thus the most popular. He was one of the first to effectively use the concept of mergers to grow, creating the merged Swedish Match company, and grow he did to control a capitalization of over a billion dollars (30Billion SEK in the 1930’s is roughly equivalent to ~150 BUSD today!!). Diversifying into all kinds of areas, he even owned LM Ericsson, the great communications company at one time. He made his fortune at a time when there were no big accounting rules, forming large pyramid & holding companies (~ 400 subsidiaries!).

Ivar grew to become larger than the state and then started to decide destinies of many a European state with his magnanimous personal loans (75-350M$ at that time!!), effectively undermining governments and politics. And then, he died. The larger problem (as an individual larger than powerful states) was solved eventually, though millions lost money due to it!! Today much of US financial reporting system owes itself to laws passed after the analysis of Kreuger’s clever methods of manipulation.

Kreuger was an interesting guy. A very clever chap from childhood days, he purportedly even made money selling exam question papers to students. During his heydays, presidents, politicians and movie stars like Garbo hobnobbed with him. He lived a high life, penthouses wherever he went, and the best luxury money could buy. He could be quite cunning when he decided to acquire something, indulging in industrial espionage, secret agents, cross purchases of competitors stock and the such. Most amazing was the fact that he committed little to paper, relying on his superb memory. Kreuger himself maintained all the while: "I've built my enterprise on the firmest ground”...Time does not concur though!

'Throughout his bizarre career,' wrote Robert Shaplen, author of the 1960 biography Kreuger, 'Kreuger alone supplied the figures for the books of his various companies, and he mostly kept them in his head. A former secretary of Kreuger's claimed that Kreuger once dictated the text of the annual reports for his four companies in a single afternoon. To Kreuger's credit, he was a highly intelligent businessman and financier. Many of his defenders contend that, although his dealings may appear shady in retrospect, at that time many of his activities represented the norm.

Well let us now get back to the death – Kreuger fires a 9mm bullet into his heart, as subsequent reports state. Many thousands who lost their life savings wanted to hear no more of the high profile villain, and the case was quickly closed. There are a few others who point out that - No bullet is ever found, no shot was ever heard and the gun disappeared during investigations. The body was found with a gun in the right hand, even though Kreuger was left handed. Somebody had purchased the gun in Krueger’s name, while Kreuger was apparently in a meeting elsewhere! No autopsy was held & his body was quickly cremated!

The bankruptcy that followed Kreuger's suicide in 1932 led to numerous changes in financial reporting. The media coverage made it politically expedient to pass laws to prevent such schemes. The result was mandatory audits, by CPAs, of all companies with listed securities. The US security market became a regulated market after Kreuger’s death…

Rumors were a plenty even after Ivar died – One was that he had actually faked his death and fled to Indonesia. Supposedly Kreuger's tobacconist later received a large order from Sumatra for custom-made Havana cigars. The tobacconist said that Kreuger was the only person who would have known how to place that order.

Whatever happened to Swedish match, the owner of WIMCO matches? The Wallenberg family of Sweden came to the rescue of Swedish Match. In an agreement that involved a transfer of $15 million from Stockholm to New York, Jacob Wallenberg was able to gain control of the injured enterprise. Swedish Match was sold to Volvo in 1990. Volvo eventually spun Swedish Match off to its shareholders in 1996, in a deal worth SKr 10.1 billion
Kreuger’s - Three of a match story
Three on a Match (also known as Third on a match) was a superstition among soldiers during the First World War. The superstition is that if three soldiers lit their cigarettes from the same match, one of the three would be killed or that the man who was third using the lit match would be shot. Since then it has been considered bad luck for three people to share a light from the same match. The reasoning was that when the first soldier lit his cigarette the enemy would see the light, when the second soldier lit his cigarette the enemy would take aim, and when the third soldier lit his cigarette the enemy would fire. The superstition was alleged to have been invented about a decade later by the Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger in an attempt to get people to use more matches but it appears he merely made very shrewd use of the already existing belief which may date to the Boer War.

Two contradicting accounts terming it a murder
Time articles & Kreuger - A complete study

Authors Note: I wrote this more than a year ago, but looking at the situation with the markets today thought it a good idea to post it!!

Shelley, Nair and Lawrence

An occasional reader with little time to peruse this further, but with some imagination would assume that this title is about a firm of lawyers (into which an Indian lawyer strayed or some such thing) for lawyers are wont to naming their companies thus, in what I would term a singularly unimaginative fashion. But this short article is not about a lawyer’s firm, but about two people and their relation to the Nair’s of Malabar.

The Malabar community, Nair’s in particular has been a subject of great curiosity from Roman times and a number of legends have been attributed to them in traveler’s tales. Many of them are far fetched and meant for the only purpose of evoking extreme reactions. Books have been written about them, notably by Fawcett and Forbes. Their customs and traditions until the turn of the century, especially the matrilineal and matriarchal lineage was the object of much study by the travelers, for it was a rare place where women were sometimes considered more important in the family system though mainly from an inheritance point of view. This particular (matrilineal) aspect has been the subject of a huge book by anthropologist Kathleen Gough, which I am incidentally in the process of perusing.

Nayar (or Nair) society was reputed in those days to be harmonious and productive, without property disputes and sexual jealousies, enlightened and spiritually favored (Indian renaissance – Pg 89 Almeida and Gilpin). Of course this did raise a lot of questions about polyandry and free love amongst a group of people in Europe. Cameo’s Lusiad’s even tried to portray how idyllic the life style in Calicut was compared to the cheap and gaudy lifestyle of the Portuguese and the Dutch in Cochin. Forbes wrote about the stillness of nature in Malabar and the softness of life, providing a soothing effect without the using of drugs like Opium (!!). Forbe’s account of the encounter with the bathing lady and the Nair temple and his flight are fascinating for a reader. He called the people handsome, fair and the women well made, sometimes tall but very graceful (in his 1813 version he changes this graceful to ‘masculine’). In short he equated the place to the mythical ‘garden of Eden’ till the next version of 1813.

James Henry Lawrence (a.k.a Chevalier Lawrence – Knight of Malta) living in Jamaica was fascinated by the original (privately circulated) Forbes account and many others. After studying the Nair race, he wrote an essay ‘Nair marriage traditions’ in 1793 and then a romantic novel originally in German as ‘Das Paradies der Liebe’ later reprinted as Das Reich der Nairen. According to him, Nair customs were based on the Freedom of nature. In the book, a British ‘Nairess’ known as the Countess Camilla is brought up in Malabar and goes back to London topropogate her ideas.

The novel was read by Friedrich Schiller the famous German writer (a friend of Goethe) who recommended to Lawrence that he publish it. Lawrence himself translated the book into English as ‘The Empire of the Nair’s’ (Rights of women – An utopian romance) in 1811. Alas, the book is not easily available today except for some parts here & there (Unless you want to spend a fortune and buy Modern British Utopias, 1700–1850 edited by Gregory Clayes). Lawrence in his longish and apparently ‘dull’ work entreated Europe to advocate the customs of Nair’s when it came to marriage.

It got some recognition after the famous but unconventional (from a lifestyle point of view) writer and romantic poet Percy Shelley read it. He wrote to Lawrence stating himself a complete convert to Lawrence’s ideas and advocating the abolition of marriage, calling marriage as licensed prostitution. Shelley then referred to these ideas in his Queen Mab (others roundly condemned him for bringing Nair domestic governance to Europe)

Unfortunately a lot of things happened between 1792 when Lawrence first wrote the book and 1811 when he published it. The relations between the Malabar Zamorin’s, the Mysore rulers and the English changed. Political factors came into play and the English saw a chance of subjugating the weakened Malabar Nair’s. Malabar had by then been annexed by the EIC and the British crown. Nair men were soon seen as threatening to the British interests (after various revolts by the Zamorin’s relatives and the Pazhassi raja). The writing about Nair’s soon changed their tone and the once touted customs soon changed to uncultured and barbaric, adulterous and demeaning (Buchanan accounts). Lawrence’s book was no longer the ‘in thing’…

Even the published Forbes version about travels to Malabar (1813) played down the original glowing comments and took a more cautious tone.

Strangely Lawrence and Shelley never visited India though Lawrence had a number of contacts with East India Company personnel. Schiller (read his play The Indian Exiles) too was intrigued by the Nair’s and was probably influenced by Lawrence’s writings about Malabar. German writer Cristoph Wieland and Richard Carlile often quoted these customs. Mary Shelly was however not enchanted with the book and parodied it in ‘Frankenstein’. At times, Lawrence was even called Nair Lawrence (W St Clair – Godwins and Shelleys pg 471)

Shelley’s interesting letter to Lawrence about the book and his opinion about Nair’s can be read here. At that time Shelly was married to Harriet Westbrook and feeling miserable about the ‘jail’ institution of marriage. Later he married Mary Godwin only for legal reasons (SL Gladden – Shelley’s textual seductions Pg 127)

Dr Prof Robin Jeffrey (An Aussie academic and keen follower of Nayar society & Kerala) in his essay on the Legacies of Matrliny states thus – Why is Kerala different from the rest of India? It is a question asked for over 30 years. He states the answer right at the beginning of his essay - The place of women in their society is, he believes, the key to the puzzle of the “Kerala model”. In his lovely essay he covers the path taken by the Nair matrilineal society in Kerala till it was finally abolished in 1976. He summarizes - Matriliny did not make women rulers of their families, but it did allow some of them a remarkable latitude unknown elsewhere in India.

Indian Renaissance - Hermione De Almeida, George H. Gilpin
Lion Magazine 1828 – Pages 653-672

Shelley pic from Shelley resource pages

Roxane and the Rakhi

If you look around the legends surrounding the tying of a “Rakhi’, you will chance upon mentions of Alexander (known to Indians as Iskandar or Sikandar), Porus his nemesis, friend and enemy (all in one!!!), and Alexander’s wife Roxane. Very interesting, I thought as my original plan was to study the real story behind the Elephant medallions. Now, why did I have to do that? Because I was reading the latest book by Steve Berry, titled ‘Venetian betrayal’, which actually takes you close to the secret within those elephant medallions…

So it is common knowledge that Alexander after a campaign sweeping across 10,000 miles and covering Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan & Persia reached Multan near Jhelum to take on the local king Porus. A valiant fight took place between the two armies where Alexander’s soldiers got terrified by the elephant army of Porus. Now the story drifts to two versions, one which says Alexander lost and his soldiers mutinied to go back home to Macedonia and the second where he won, but impressed by Porus’s valor becomes his good friend (the established popular version) after which he allows Porus to continue as king and a favored Hellenistic satrap at that.

But Alexander proved to be an enigma and is still hotly researched by scholars. A grand soldier, titled ordinary or great depending on where the writer or historian is located, he achieved what he did in all of 32 tumultuous years. In those 32 years, he had a number of male and female liaisons, and on the female side he had three wives and apparently two mistresses. The three wives were Roxane, Stateira, Parysatis and perhaps two mistresses Barsine and Pankaste/Kampaspe. It is also suggested in the annals of history that he had other casual involvements as well.

Two of the wives gave him children, but they together with their mothers were killed. His favorite wife, the one he met in 327BC and married while in the Afghan region of Balkh- Soghdia in Bactria (modern day Afghanistan - Mazar-i-Sharif) was Ruk Sana, Roshanak or Roxane. Again there are three versions, one that says he fell in love with her at first sight (she sang in her dad’s – the local king’s mehfil, it appears) and another where the father - king Oxyartes in order to stave off Alexander’s advance through his country got her married to him. A third version states that the girls were hiding in a cave to escape Alexander when he found them and promptly fell in love with her beauty & poise. Here again the story is suspect as Alexander was not too keen on women. Secondly even if it was all done to be seen as a local amongst Persians (he learnt their language and even assumed religious formalities according to some) and accepted Roxane, why would he choose the daughter of a lesser king? Well, let us leave the study to historians who have made Alexander their cause.

Alexander died on the way back from India, in 323 BC. His dead body was never found and even today there are only theories on how he died, one of them being poisoning by Strychnine at the hands of his beloved Roxane…Other theories are West Nile virus, Typhoid, Malaria….So now you know why this enigma is a historians favorite and typical of Greek drama, can stretch for years if a soap opera on it was ever attempted…

Now why should Roxane kill Iskender as Historian Graham Phillips contends? Because she was upset that he was spending quality time with Hephaestion his deputy, his childhood friend and also because he married around that time two other Persian sisters (Some time earlier, Alexander married another woman, named Statiera (Alexander set an example by taking his second and third wives, first Parysatis (dates unknown) and then Stateira, Darius's daughter in a Persian mass marriage ceremony). Roxane was pregnant (their first child died during the Indian campaign) when Alexander died and the generals of Alexander who heard from the emperor that the strongest should rule after him, were all out to clear the tables. When Alexander died, Roxane and child had to flee, to Babylon and later to Macedonia.

After Alexander's death Roxane sent a letter to the Persian princess in Alexander's name, bidding Statiera to come at once to Babylon. When Statiera and her sister Drypetis arrived in Babylon, Roxane had them murdered and their bodies cast into a well. Roxane gave birth to a son, Alexander Aegus, who became King Alexander IV. For many war-filled years after Alexander's death, she successfully maneuvered to protect the child's future with help from Alexander’s mother. In the end, she and her son were victims of the power that the very name of Alexander evoked, the year was 311.

A little bit about Porus, the fight, the relation with Alexander & Roxane. Porus was actually Raja Puru or Parvatha - King of Paurava located between Jhelum and Chenab around today’s Lahore. Indian sources record that Parvata was killed by mistake by the Indian ruler Rakshasa, who was trying to assassinate Chandragupta instead. Greek historians, however, record that he was assassinated, sometime between 321 and 315 BC, by the Thracian general Eudemus, who had remained in charge of the Macedonian armies in the Punjab and who coveted his elephants.

Alexander fared badly enough with Porus in the Punjab. In the Ethiopic texts, Mr E.A.W. Badge has included an account of "The Life and Exploits of Alexander" where he writes inter alia the following: "In the battle of Jhelum a large majority of Alexander`s cavalry was killed. Alexander realized that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined. He requested Porus to stop fighting. Porus true to Indian traditions did not kill the surrendered enemy. After this both signed a treaty, Alexander then helped him in annexing other territories to his kingdom".

Now how did Porus chance upon Roxane? Alexander feared Porus’s elephants, heroism and valor so much so that he became worried about his war and invasion and had pre war sacrifices conducted much against his norm. His soldiers were also very scared facing the magnificent elephant army in the pouring rains and muddy grounds (This linked account is exhaustive). At this point of time, Roxane apparently approached Porus with the sacred thread of Rakhi. She proclaimed him her brother and requested the great Porus to safeguard her husband’s life at any cost, which he did the next day. The king accepted the bond of protection and love and then cooperated with Alexander in his Indian ventures. This apparently led to the popularization of tying Rakhi, which is still prevalent in India.

But well the story also goes the other way, that Porus’s wife met Alexander and tied a Rakhi in his hand with a promise to spare her husband’s life. So, if Roxane who was upset with Alexander, did get friendly with Porus, could she have schemed with him to get rid of the Sikandar with strychnine? Ha ha! now I am thinking like our soap opera queen – jumping jack jeetu’s daughter… But well who knows??

Writes Plutarch, the great Greek historian: ``This last combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians' courage and stayed their further progress in India.... Alexander not only offered Porus to govern his own kingdom as satrap under himself but gave him also the additional territory of various independent tribes whom he had subdued.'' Porus emerged from his war with Alexander, with his territory doubled and his gold stock augmented. Victory in defeat?

And some trivia - However, Alexander's Indian adventure was not entirely unproductive. He had introduced the Indian elephant to the West. He was so much impressed by the broad-bottomed boats carrying grain up and down the Indus that he had them introduced in Greece. The Greeks now introduced five times more spices in the West. Sissoo (Sheesham) wood of the Punjab was used to build pillars for the Susa Palace in imperial Iran. He would, no doubt, have carried the mango also, but for the fact that its over-eating had given the ``God-king'' no end of loose bowel movements. And it was thus Alexander forbade mango-eating in his camp.

Now I started to wonder how the folklore of Roxane meeting Porus came about – The answer probably lay in the story of the famous movie 'Sikandar' released in 1941. Here they have scenes of Roxane meeting Porus and ensuring an agreement that Porus would not kill Alexander. Pretty interesting screen play for those who want to read the words. Incidentally Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi acted in the movie.
So when you tie the next rakhi on a boy’s wrist or somebody ties one on yours, remember Alexander, the lovely Roxanne and Porus with his elephants…

Mahatma Gandhi & William Shirer

Gandiji is coming back to Indian conversation in many ways; it was through Gandhi the movie in 1982, ‘Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara’ in 2005, ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ in 2006, then it was through Gandhi My father that hit the screens some months ago. As the father of our nation, he will remain in our hearts and minds, no doubt about that.

Many years ago a team of HR managers from a famed car company came to our office to determine opinion & feelings of expatriate managers in a third country. We talked about this and that till one of them asked me ‘Tell me what you think was Gandhi’s greatest asset’. I was actually taken aback, and floundered for a few minutes before getting into things like humility, dedication, perseverance, concept of Satyagraha and so on. The questioner, an Italian, said at the end, I don’t think so; I think he was the greatest mass communicator, ever. This happened in 1996 and I guess he was right.

Remember the brilliant ‘Telecom Italia’ Gandhi ad, below from 2006?

And I wondered, did it require an Italian to teach me this attribute of Gandhi? Today he is exemplified in MBA & communications courses. We all revered him, but many of the masses never understood much of what he said when he traveled in India, for example the rural masses of South India!!

All this took me back to a book I read about Gandhiji. Though ‘My experiments with truth’ sounded sermonizing to me when I read it during my teens, the book I read much later was a classic. It was in 1980, that Chicago born William Shirer wrote the book ‘Gandhi – A memoir’. It is not very well known or easily available in India (because of the last chapters I guess), and I was fortunate to find it at the vast Milwaukee airport second hand bookstore (one & only used book store in an airport). As I got my teeth into it, I found it fascinating, covering many facets of Gandhi not previously talked about. It was truly enjoyable and well worth the read. It was far easier than the dense but classic ‘Rise and fall of the third Reich’ by Shirer.

The layman would equate Shirer to the tall Gora (played by Martin Sheen) who accompanied Kingsley Gandhi in the 1982 movie. In reality Shirer spent only a few years of his life with Gandhiji (1930-32) and he said in the book "I count the days with Gandhi the most fruitful of my life. No other experience was as inspiring and as meaningful and as lasting. No other shook me out of the rut of banal existence and opened my ordinary mind and spirit to some conception of the meaning of life on this perplexing Earth."

Shirer went on to say - William L. Shirer, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, observed both Hitler and Gandhi. In Hitler he saw a great orator using staged settings to move captive audiences to his will. Gandhi on the other hand was somehow “the manifestation of their [Indians] collective conscience.” He often led them without speaking, using only his fellowship. He explained, “They felt in the presence of this great man that something immense was suddenly happening in their drab lives, that this saintly man in his loincloth cared about them, understood their wretched plight and somehow had the power, to do something about it.” Gandhi—A Memoir, Shirer pp. 68-69

Shirer explained that Gandhi understood two-way communication as part of effective representation and demonstrated it in an interview with a college teacher, who said: “For these masses Gandhi holds out the only light, the only hope there is. They want to see the man who, they are told, goes around half naked like themselves and yet who dares to present their grievances to the mighty, bemedaled white Viceroy himself.” Gandhi—A Memoir, Shirer pp. 70-71.

For those interested, even though the book is out of print, Amazon still has some second hand copies at $1.00 plus shipping. It is a good read, pick it up…

Vaikom Satyagraha, for the right of the untouchable Hindus to use the roads round the temple at Vaikom tested his principles of Satyagraha together with Sree Narayana Guru (Here was where Vaikom Mohd Basheer the famous writer & Gandhian mentions having received his blessings & managed to touch Gandhiji’s hand) .

Gandhi’s intervention on March 10th 1925 secured the victory. He later visited Payyanur on 12th Jan 1934.

Many years ago, while I used to visit N Delhi on business, I used to stay at Hotel Marina in Connaught place, just across the famous Madras restaurant. It was a nicely placed hotel and after a tough day, the perfect place to be. Walking to Janpath and other places was easy and the rooms though not 5 star, acceptable. Much later, I read that Nathuram Godse and his team stayed in this very hotel preparing and planning Gandhi’s assassination, ten days before it was finally done. Check out the marina link above to read more about the plot…

I hope the younger generations will continue to remember this leading light….