Over the last few years, I read two biographies published in India: “Gandhi Before India” by Dr. Ramachandra Guha and “Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet” by Akshay Manwani. Both were compelling because, as all good books (fiction or nonfiction) do, they reveal the inner life — doubts and motivations — of the subject and they show how all of those resulted in the person’s public stance.
In the Gandhi book, I loved the chapter on Gandhi’s gradual involvement with the Vegetarian Society in London. As for the Ludhianvi book, it confirmed my belief that the songs in old Hindi movies, the songs that were the soundtrack of my young adulthood, were pure poetry. Moreover, those songs were the only poetry that most of us had the luxury of having in our lives. Most amazingly, it was a poetry that resonated with people across classes, religions, castes, and even languages.
Your mind is a mirror. It observes and reveals the good and the bad actions….”
Unfortunately, not many biographies are written and published in India. At a speech that he gave recently, Dr. Guha identified some of the reasons for this. Among those reasons, he mentioned Indians’ indifference to record keeping.
The archives in the country, central and state, are in complete disarray.
I would also add university libraries and newspaper archives to this list.
My sense is that a couple of other reasons also contribute to the lack of interest in biography. One is the focus on the present — the hectic pace of everyday life — which leaves little room for contemplative immersion in a “serious” book. The other is a focus on the future — engagement with what’s around the corner for one’s children, one’s career, the Internet, etc. In comparison, a focus on the past can seem like a self-indulgent waste of time. “What does it matter what happened a long time ago?”
Of course, the same reasons probably come into play here in the U.S. and in other countries around the world as well.
In the same speech, Dr. Guha offered a way to break through this logjam.
Historical Biography is that part of history more allied to literature than any other parts of history.
In other words, the key to engaging readers is a writing style that is more like literature — providing insight and emotional satisfaction by making the reader curious about the past and making him/her care about the subject. The payoff is an answer to the “So what” question – a question that addresses the “present” and “future” preoccupations of readers.
For the present, a well-written biography can provide a sense of wholeness (like an adoptee getting to know her birth family), a new appreciation/understanding of one’s society’s journey to this point, that what seems like pre-ordained success occurred as a result of many small meandering steps and much striving. For those with an orientation towards the future, it can provide inspiration towards progress and courage to tackle the challenges of the present.
The present is the future’s past.
By seeing that past events and visionaries give us the present, reading a biography can inspire us to act in the present to “pay it forward” for a better future.