Gandhi Jayanti Special: Art’s Alternative To History

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Under Mahatma Gandhi’s charismatic leadership, a large number of people coming from different social and religious backgrounds plunged themselves into the struggle against the British rule. In Odisha, the movement gathered momentum during 1921, when Gandhi visited the state for the first time, continued to ebb and flow till 1947, when India finally threw off the yoke of the British rule.

Fundamental changes in the outlook of an otherwise pliant population took place. People went to jail, students gave up their studies, and professionals gave up lucrative careers and took part in the national struggle in response to Gandhi’s call for non-co-operation. Some went into exile and some went underground. People experimented with different forms of protest. Quite a few made the supreme sacrifice, laying down their lives for the country. In short, ordinary and unremarkable people displayed extraordinary courage and transformed themselves into inspiring symbols of heroism. Although most of them came under the spell of Gandhi’s ideas and personality, some were inspired by other ideologies, especially communism, and offered violent resistance to the British rule. Many who lived in the feudatory states of Odisha found themselves ranged against despotic kings backed by the might of the British Empire. Although not given the attention they deserve, their struggle forms a vital part of the larger narrative of resistance to the British rule.

 

Odia autobiographies – more than a hundred – contain a mine of information about the freedom struggle in Odisha, which historians of modern India can ignore only at their own peril. More than forty of these autobiographies – some of them exist only as fragments – provide fascinating glimpses of the independence movement viewed from the perspectives of participants as well as witnesses. Some of these took an active part in the nationalist struggle, either as followers of charismatic leaders or as dedicated followers. Many more simply bore witness to the great events unfolding and transforming the social and political landscape during the period. Barring a few, nearly all of them were born in the first two decades of the twentieth century. They were all young men and women, even children, when the winds of change swept through their world and changed it for good. The period of the freedom struggle coincides with their youth and adolescence. Memories of the struggle, therefore, provide us with glimpses of young men and women growing up in a world being remade by forces of history, a world animated by millennial hopes. These memories derive a strange poignancy from the fact that they are recollected in old age.

The nature of participation in the freedom movement differed from person to person. To some, like Pandit Nilakantha Das, Dr Mahatab, Chintamani Mishra or Gobinda Chandra Mishra, it was a liberating experience, giving them an opportunity to rebuild their lives on radically new principles. To others, like Nanda Kishore Das, it was a destabilizing experience making them face moral and emotional dilemmas, extreme physical hardship, and as in the case of Alekh Das, even utter disillusionment. Some emerged as leaders; others simply carried out tasks allotted to them. Some allowed their participation in the freedom struggle to alter the course of their lives completely. Others stayed with it for a while, and then drifted away into obscurity. In each of these personal narratives, therefore, one finds the same events viewed from a shifting, subjective perspective.

The experiences recorded in these narratives revolve around a few familiar themes: Encounter with Gandhi, going to jail, which in a caste-ridden orthodox society was a traumatic experience, the emergence of women like Rama Devi, Sarala Devi and Godavari Devi, in the public sphere, and coming face to face with police brutality. However, these experiences are narrated from varying points of view; they elicit different responses from the narrators. Prison, for instance, strikes some as a degrading place; to others, like Binode Kanungo, it was a place of learning. In some narratives, the English appear cruel, unfeeling and heartless; in others, as they do in Godabarish Mishra’s autobiography; they seem perfectly reasonable and full of compassion. Even the police are not always oppressive. They, too, sometimes sympathise with the participants of the freedom struggle and help them surreptitiously when they could under the circumstances. The experiences narrated in these life-narratives are sometimes funny, and the attitude of the narrator to these is light-hearted and self-deprecating. Not all the narrators would like to project themselves as heroes. In fact, many of them encounter heroism in others in the course of their participation in the freedom struggle, the capacity for self-sacrifice of ordinary people who stood by them in their hour of need. They celebrate this quiet heroism of ordinary men and women in their accounts of the freedom struggle.

In the final analysis, however, these narratives are acts of memory. In these, participants in and witnesses of the freedom struggle seek to reconstruct the past through a process of recollecting it in the present. What they remember is as important as how they choose to remember it, how their location in the present alters their perception of the past. One wonders if they regretted their versions of the past, if they exaggerate their own role and belittle that of others, if they remember the past in order to celebrate it in the context of a drab, monochrome present, or do they recall the past simply to bear testimony?

The experiences recorded in these personal narratives relating to the freedom struggle take readers beyond the conventional sources of history. Recounted from the shifting, subjective perspectives of individuals, they tell us the fascinating story of great events unfolding and transforming the social and political landscape during the freedom movement in India. They celebrate the quiet and un-dramatic heroism of ordinary men and women and offer us a glimpse of a world on the cusp of radical change. They make use of memory, a resonant epithet, as art’s alternative to history. It is time we took these autobiographies off the dusty shelves of libraries and paid them the attention they eminently deserve.

(Jatindra Kumar Nayak is a retired professor of English, Utkal University and a renowned translator.)

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