Travel, identity and selfhood

Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity: Gandhi, Nehru and Iqbal by Javed Majeed.

The author, Javed Majeed, a professor in King’s College, London, in his introduction declares that his aim is to focus on the autobiographies of Gandhi, Nehru and Iqbal, as texts in which they articulate their notions of selfhood. In the first two chapters, with numerous quotes from well-known authors, he shows that these three protagonists emerge from, and write back to, a tradition of travelogues in the 19th century, in which there was conflict between the travelling identities of these Indians and the political and imperial frameworks in which they had to travel and represent themselves. With that as the background he assesses their philosophies and thinking processes through the writings of the selected three, where they engage in discovering their own selves that later gives them political self-empowerment. He shows that there are clear differences between these three and earlier Indian travellers in their very outlook.

With remarkable sensitivity, he notes the subtle difference between them: “sacredness of truth is made available to Gandhi, (though never fully so) through travel, to Nehru the travelling autobiography enacts a process of secularism in which he becomes at once a scientist as well, where the text is self-interrogating, while Iqbal seeks to appropriate modernity’s power for an emerging Islamic community”. To all three of them perception through travel was sacred and important to their reasoning, but in their own individualistic ways. A point he makes about Nehru’s readiness to interrogate himself counters the notion of Indians as unself-conscious insiders. In the case of Iqbal, not only a poet’s self-development can be seen but also his ability to interrogate others.

Travel as a means to understand

In the following chapters, Majeed guides the reader to show how in the 19th century Indian travellers had increasing awareness of the global extent of British power, while these three used travel to understand themselves and their mission clearly. Here again he quotes extensively from different authors how travel was used by different persons to mean different things. Especially, the Indian travelogue, according to him, “enacts a progressively self-conscious sense of inferiority as they plot their trajectories along the axis of a progressive modernity” whereas in Gandhi’s autobiography, travel becomes a way of contesting modern technology rather than a means of celebrating it. An extraordinary observation is his noting “the easy accessibility to pilgrimage sites afforded by the modern technology of transport undermines the difficulty of approach which is a necessary part of their sacredness”.

In the case of Nehru, Majeed argues that while biographers of Nehru focused more on the harsh conditions he had to endure, whereas, while in prison, the prison became a site for Nehru’s autobiography underpinned by the notion of travel as a mental activity. In the case of Iqbal, Majeed focuses on his Persian poem Javid Nama which is generally reckoned by literary critics to be his magnum opus. Here the nature of the poet’s identity is central to this text and his journey through the cosmos is the enactment of that identity as well as the quest for it.

After having shown how 19th century travelogues tended to view London in particular and Europe in general as showpiece of modernity, Majeed discusses many Indian travelogue writers and their treatment of geography having been rooted in both the awareness of an ‘Imperial global order centred in Europe and a sense of empire as a multi-centred web’. The difference between them and the three protagonists according to him is the way these men treated geography. They did not recognize merely the sense of London and Britain as the exclusive centre of power but suggest possibilities for other kinds of power.

Nehru’s doubting self

To bolster his theory, the author quotes Gandhi’s autobiography where Gandhi wants the reader to go through his Satyagraha in South Africa, a book-length account of his time in South Africa. Majeed notes, while “Gandhi’s quest for selfhood in his autobiography is enacted through a geography that is simultaneously local, regional and global”, Nehru’s cosmopolitan self constructs his regional identity as a starting point. In fact Nehru’s rendition combines antiquity with child-like playfulness when he describes the sight of Himalayas that at once evokes his sense of possible return to his own origins.

The author argues that ‘Nehru’s autobiographies articulate a doubting and confused self’. Though Nehru holds Britain in great esteem, as he owed too much to England in his mental make-up ever to feel alien to her, he had become an uncompromising opponent of British rule in India, in spite of himself.

The author asserts that after shift of the vertical axis of an autobiography from communication with deity to horizontal axis of inter-human communication, there is a marked change in expression through autobiographies. Gandhi’s vulnerability, the author says, is in his relationship between vow of celibacy and his identification of women. The chapter on Gandhi’s vulnerability makes compulsive reading.

The author takes pains to show how Nehru’s writing forms a striking contrast to that of Lajpat Rai. Here he says, “… the devices which Rai uses, and the paradoxical effects of this attempted re-fashioning, have similarities with Iqbal’s self-defeating articulation of a Muslim separatist nationalism”. On the other hand, Nehru stresses the cultural hybridity of his ancestry in order to make possible the representation of India as pan-Indian identity which is not exclusively Hindu.

Declaring that the Javid Nama of Iqbal being clearly an eclectic and cosmopolitan text, Majeed says there are however problems in this eclecticism becoming an end in itself rather than being a means to an end. Concluding in an elaborate reasoning of Iqbal’s thought process the author says, “What his work repeatedly uncovers then, and on multiple levels, is the impossibility of transcending plurality into a unity that is grounded and made possible by that plurality”. However, the pan-Islamic idea of Iqbal appears to a reader to have been glossed over.

Majeed concludes that what all three have in common is not just their fusion of the form of a travelogue, with the genre of autobiography, but their interiorisation of travel, to such an extent that, in case of Nehru and Iqbal, for different reasons, locations and time travel become independent of physical movement. In the case of Gandhi travel never can be an escape from body; they are configured together.

This is a refreshingly different book where the analyses of the writings of these three great men in depth show their political self-empowerment through realisation of self-hood.


Related posts