Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity

The journalist and writer Krishna Kripalani is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for a biography of Rabindranath Tagore he published in 1962. I have not read this, but last week I happened to discover in a secondhand bookshop a collection of his essays, also published in 1962, called Faith and Frivolity. I must confess I bought it primarily because it was only thirty-five rupees, but now I have read it as well, and I have to report that it is a volume of almost boundless charm.

"Without faith it is difficult to live a good life," announces the blurb on the inside cover (which I have no doubt Kripalani wrote himself; would that more writers wrote their own jacket copy, and put an end to empty hyperbole and gratuitous phrasemaking), "but faith itself may become oppressive if not occasionally relieved by frivolity. Our ancestors understood this psychological need well, for they were adepts at mixing the divine with the obscene and had no compunction in making up most frivolous tales about the gods they worshipped."

Faith and Frivolity is divided into three sections: Personalities (with essays on Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, S.Radhakrishnan, Romain Rolland and others), Trivialities (a title proposed with a broad wink, for it has essays like "Who is a Gandhi-ite?" and "Does Civilisation make for Happiness?") and Frivolities, a collection of diary-style tidbits that Kripalani composed over 1950-51 while he was editing the political weekly Vigil. But whichever mode Kripalani is working in, he is almost evenly dashing, witty and perceptive. Every page of this book carries traces of what must have been a most forceful personality.

Kripalani had that priceless gift without which no essayist can do justice to his form: the gift of succinct and memorable expression, of a rhetorical power that can pack into a paragraph that for which others may require pages. Here, from an essay written in 1945, when the career of Jawaharlal Nehru had not yet reached its peak, is a portrait of the man in two paragraphs:

Nehru occupies a unique position in the world of Indian politics. As a leader he has achieved more eminence than power, and commands more adulation than allegiance. As a politician he is more admirable than effective. He dominates but does not direct events and is more the beloved of the people than their master. His strength lies in the strategic position he occupies between divergent forces. Though not a Gandhi-ite, he enjoys the love and confidence of the Mahatma as perhaps no one else does. The elder politicians value his loyalty, their younger rivals applaud his audacity. The Rightists find him indispensable, the Leftists amenable. He is aggressive enough for the nationalists and international enough for the communists, reasonable enough for the capitalists and radical enough for the socialists. He is identified with no group in Congress. All groups may therefore partially claim him as their own.

What is the secret of this popularity without power, this adoration without allegiance? The secret lies in his personality at once dynamic and stable, revolutionary and rational, rebellious and disciplined. He challenges Gandhism and follows Gandhi, he is aggressive in speech and restrained in action, critical in analysis and compromising in decision, radical in outlook and conservative in loyalties. His revolutionary ardour in challenged by none, his disinterestedness and the innate magmanimity of spirit are trusted by all. He is capable of indiscretion but incapable of meanness, of betraying the larger interest for the sake of a narrow, personal end. He may be betrayed but he will not betray. He thinks for himself, and though he may yield to the superior wisdom of Gandhi or to the discipline of corporate action, he will not use language not his own. He is ready to see another's point of view, a virtue rare in a revolutionary. He tolerates dissent and obliges enemies, virtues rare in a politician.
Note how every sentence builds upon the next by laying out opposing groups or qualities, and demonstrating gradually how Nehru not only seems to bridge them but himself embodies them. All kinds of precise distinctions are made (Nehru "commands more adulation than allegiance"; he is "critical in analysis but compromising in decision") and there is not a word which is superfluous - put together the two paragraphs amount to just about three hundred words, which is how much a person might just as easily take to describe how he was feeling at breakfast. A ringing close is supplied by the final two sentences in each paragraph.

The same powers of concentrated scrutiny and pellucid expression are seen everywhere in the book. Here we find Kripalani noting how science has so demystified the transcendent in human affairs that love is now viewed by serious men as mainly as "a mischief of the libido" and genius "a kind of neurosis". There he is poking gentle fun at intellectuals: "[A]n intellectual is not always one who has a finer intellect than others but one who, whatever his cerebral equipment, believes in it alone and strives to live by it, repudiating more or less the validity of the rest of his being" - an umimproveable formulation. Now we find him giving voice in a lighter vein to something all wives instinctively know: "All married men are envious of bachelors. Having halved their rights and doubled their obligations by marriage, they hate to see bachelors flaunting their freedom." And in another example of happy phrasing he notes in a diary item:
A public meeting in Shradhananda Park in Calcutta ended in a pandemonium following a quarrel between two sections of the followers of Subhas Bose as to whether Netaji is alive or dead. This proves that at any rate his followers are very much alive.
I struggle to articulate what exactly is so funny about that last sentence, but I laughed a great deal when I read it - there is something very droll about it. Of Indian columnists today I can think only of Ramachandra Guha who has the same facility for marrying wit to wisdom. And so I'd like to nominate Faith and Frivolity for republication as the second book of a Library of India series - which I imagine as a series of short, pithy works by both well-known and neglected Indian thinkers, expressing some original point of view but noteworthy also for their style, with introductions by contemporary Indian writers -, the first being a work by Minoo Masani which I wrote about last September.


Anirudh said...

Sounds interesting. Maybe through this book, I can finally learn something about Nehru. I have not read much writing on him since most of it is very dull.

Swar Thounaojam said...

Much as I loathe to wear my Camus' prose addiction on my sleeve, Kripalani's remark on married men reminds me of this one by the Algerian-born: "If I am to believe one of my friends, a man always has two characters: his own, and the one his wife thinks he has."

I remember that a biography of Tagore I read long time ago in school dwelt unusually on the different forms and levels of relationship that Tagore shared with the women in his life. Now, I can't recollect whether it was Krishna Kripalani's or Krishna Dutta's.

"empty hyperbole and gratuitous phrasemaking" is benign compared to misleading facts in blurbs.

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - I can't say I agree with that. There may be more good books about Nehru than on any other Indian personality other than Gandhi.

Swar - Yes, the book you are thinking of is the very good biography by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson.

Space Bar said...

What a wonderful two paragraphs! Nobody knows how to write with epigrammatic balance anymore. Such a pleasure to read.

On another note, I was wondering why the book was called Faith and Frivolity, since nothing you've said about the division of the book into its three sections appears to have anything to do with faith. Is there an explanation? Or is the matter of faith a continuous thread through the book?

Apropos of which, Kriplani says, "but faith itself may become oppressive if not occasionally relieved by frivolity" -- I wonder what he's have to say to our New Age gurus who are all frivolity and no oppression!

Anirudh said...

Suggest some?

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar: Epigrammatic balance - that's just the phrase I was looking for.

I think Kripalani uses the word faith in a loose sense, as faith in ideas and people. I imagine he'd have many amusing things to say about our New Age gurus.

Anirudh: I'm no expert, but I imagine that in two weeks concentrated reading you or I would want to go through Frank Moraes's excellent biography of Nehru, another political biography by Michael Brecher, the account of Nehru by the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, a sheaf of essays and articles by Ram Guha including one long piece in the Economic and Political Weekly last year, and Sunil Khilnani's *The Idea of India*. I'm sure there are at least three dozen other good books on the subject of Nehru's life, work and ideas.

shoummo from kolkata said...

What 'bout S.Gopal's biography of Nehru. I have not read it and I would love to read some comments on the book.

Anonymous said...

good stuff hash


Sundeep said...

Very nice.

For people crazy enough to read books online, Faith and Frivolity is at:

The Digital Library of India ( might have old/out of print/not easily available books that someone who knows their titles/authors can look up.

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - Thanks very much. That's a great resource that I knew nothing of. I'll be doing lots of searches on it now.