Inhaling the Mahatma - Review
REVIEW Inhaling the Mahatma by Christopher Kremmer
It's a catchy title, and there are clever little quotes - the back flap has "When a Gandhi dies, nobody is safe", while the title page has Gandhi's own "One has to dare to believe". And indeed, a sense of earnestness pervades Inhaling the Mahatma.
Written by Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer, who's done his time in India (from 1990 to 1993 and then 1997 to 2001), there is a certain wide-eyed wonder that you can't get away from throughout the book, because face it, well, that's pretty much the reaction India gets.
But in this case, it's wide-eyed wonder, tempered by the inklings of a deeper undercurrent of understanding...Or, at the very least, an author striving to understand. Which is a plus point, and not always a given, for any correspondent, foreign or otherwise.
A lot of this deeper insight, Kremmer admits, has to do with the grand family in Civil Lines that he becomes a part of, through his marriage to Indian wife, Janaki. A family life... so he writes about the political debates, the domestic help, the squabbles, and their worldview in just about the right amount.
And that helps, because it would be such a pity if this were just your typical wide-eyed, phirang visits India, writes book on India, and is just overwhelmed by India, book. This one actually works because Kremmer blends the personal with the political; the family anecdotes, with his stories from the ground. It's not a reader on India, so much as as a journal on India.
It takes in Babri Masjid, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the Bombay riots, nuclear tests...He writes of interviews with ex-PM VP Singh about Mandal (in Apollo Hospital of all places!). He meets up with Rajiv Gandhi on his campaign for a bit, just weeks before the assassination. He meets Gladys Staines after the brutal murders. He's even on a plane that is hijacked, delaying his own wedding! He makes it a point to meet the hijacker, Satish Chandra, later, and even forgives him, though he doesn't quite absolve him.
As a journalist, he's met Advani in the 90s, he's met Amar Singh in 2005, he's been there and certainly done that. As a journalist, India is quite the ride!
But when Kremmer comes back in 2004, he's on his own yatra. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, he says, but it's also to re-visit the old places, to meet the old faces. He goes back to Orissa, he meets Rahul Gandhi in UP, he checks up on his old Hindi tutor Hari Lal, he comes back and there's obviously a larger pull on him...hence the need to understand.
While this is a book largely meant for a foreign audience, it's one to recommend to the foreign-returned cousin or uncle. It's also not half-bad for desi readers - there are enough insights to justify the wide-eyed bits, and they will get you through some of the clichés.
Oh and the title - Kremmer literally did inhale the Mahatma, or his ashes at any rate, during the last immersion in 1997.
(Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma, published by HarperCollins India, is available in hardback for Rs 495/-)
More about Amrita Tripathi
Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.