Words are the basic currency of human communication, and if in one enduring form words are worked into stories, into literature, then in another more immediate and practical form they take the shape of rhetoric, or speeches expressly designed to make arguments and persuade people. In the decades leading up to Indian independence and just after public speaking took on a special urgency and force, as revealed by the wealth of Indian speeches from this period anthologized in two recent collections, Rakesh Batabyal's The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches and Rudrangshu Mukherjee's Great Speeches of Modern India.
India is an orator's country. Traditionally we were an oral culture, passing on our heritage by word of mouth rather than written records. Even today, after nearly two centuries of modernization and the spread of literacy, India remains a resolutely oral and visual culture, now boosted by the new mass media. From the streetside incandescence of trade union leaders to the honeyed discourses and grim jeremiads of saints and godmen of all stripes, the intense and unflagging verbosity of characters in our movies to the ingenious pitches for magic pens and ginger drops by wandering salesmen on Mumbai locals, everywhere in India the art and practice of oratory is alive and well. We are a people who revel in garrulity and cannot countenance silence.
Neither Batabyal nor Mukherjee rove as widely as they could have, choosing, perhaps because of constraints of space, speeches made mostly in formal settings like parliaments and courtrooms and grouped around significant themes. There is, for instance, not a genuinely funny speech in either book. But both anthologies have their share of thrilling passages, some, like Jawaharlal Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech, familiar to all Indians, and others dredged out from the back-rooms of history. My selections here are intended to illustrate certain themes and patterns in these books and also some general aspects of the art of oratory.
For instance, the speech made by a man sentenced in a courtroom is a tradition that goes back to Socrates. Its appeal lies in the fact that justice is seen, by both the speaker and at least a part of the audience, to have been denied in the very house of justice. As the British government took to arresting and incarcerating large numbers of Indian protestors in the non-cooperation and independence movements, there naturally arose many occasions for condemned men to take the rule of law to task.
Two such speeches from the 1920s demonstrate the range of approaches used to discomfit the authorities. The more ingenious one was devised, not surprisingly, by Mahatma Gandhi, at his historic trial before Justice Robert Broomfield at Ahmedabad in 1922 after the suspension of the non-cooperation movement because of outbreaks of violence in parts of the country. After the prosecutor had made his case, Gandhi disarmed the judge completely by agreeing that he was guilty but at the same time arguing for the morality of his actions. Gandhi says:
I would like to state that I entirely endorse the learned advocate general's remarks in connection with my humble self. I think he was entirely fair to me in all the statements that he has made, because it is very true and I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me [...]
It is the most painful duty with me but I have to discharge that duty knowing the responsibility that rests upon me, and I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned advocate general has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay, the Madras and the Chauri Chaura occurrences [...]
I wanted to avoid violence. I want to avoid violence. Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. [...] I know that my people have sometimes gone mad; I am deeply sorry for it.
I am therefore here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not ask for any extenuating act of clemency. I am here to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law in a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the judge, is as I am just going to say in my statement, either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting to administer are good for the people of this country and that my activity is therefore injurious to the public weal.
The judge could not of course in good conscience believe this, and in sentencing Gandhi he remarked that if that sentence were later to be commuted, "no one will be better pleased than I". Here, as on many other occasions in the years to come, Gandhi's speeches were marked less by strident sloganeering or an appeal to emotions than by what the historian Simon Schama calls one of the elements indispensable to great oratory: "integrity of personal conviction, the sound of what Cicero, after the Greeks, called ethos".
A few months later the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam struck a more dramatic tone than Gandhi - even a melodramatic tone - in another courtroom of the Raj at his trial on charges of sedition. On the day of his hearing the Kazi, later the national poet of Bangladesh, emphasised the gulf between what he called the king's law and God's law, between justice and Justice. He thundered:
The message of the king is like bubbles; mine - the boundless ocean. I'm a poet, sent by God to speak the unspoken Truth, to give form to the formless creation. The message is the revelation of the Truth, the message of God. That message may be judged seditious in a state-court, but in the court of Justice, that message is not against Justice, not against Truth [...]
I'm the shower of Truth, tears of God. I have not rebelled against a mere king, I have rebelled against injustice.
I know and I have seen - I'm not alone standing convicted in this court today. Standing behind me is the beauteous Truth, God Himself. Throughout ages He stands quietly behind His soldiers of Truth turned political prisoners. Through farcical trials like this when Jesus was crucified, Gandhi was imprisoned, that day too God stood quietly behind them. The judge could not see Him. Between him and God stood the emperor.
I hear that my judge is a poet. I'm delighted! A rebel-poet is to be judged by a judge-poet! But the last boat at the day's end is calling this elderly judge whereas, red-dawn's naba shankha is here to greet my coming. Death is calling him, life is calling me. I can't tell whether our respective setting star and rising star will unite. Nah, I'm talking nonsense again.
It should not be seen as an aspersion on the justice of his cause when I say that the Kazi does here seem to enjoy the sound of his own voice, the messianic tone of which sometimes bubbles over into an unintentional comedy. If there is indubitably in the words of the good Kazi, as those of Gandhi, the sound of ethos, there is also mixed in with it the equally distinctive sound of bathos.
Speeches are often meant to rouse or inflame; they are what turn a group of individuals into a mob. A characteristic method of doing so is to draw upon history and myth, the sense of a past or an injury shared by the speaker and his audience. Where the speaker wants to argue for the legitimacy of his actions, the past supplies true or false precedents for his stance and helps him align himself within a tradition.
An example of this is a speech chosen by Mukherjee called "Why I Killed Gandhi", delivered by the assassin Nathuram Godse in a packed courtroom in Simla in May 1949. Godse advanced the injured pride of Indian Hindus as his reason for eliminating Gandhi, and declared his hostility towards what he saw as Gandhi's emasculating creed of nonviolence:
Since the year 1920, that is, after the demise of Lokamanya Tilak, Gandhiji's influence in the Congress first increased and then becam supreme. His activities for public awakening were phenomenal in their intensity and were reinforced by the slogan of truth and non-violence which he paraded ostentatiously before the country.
No sensible or enlightened person could object to those slogans. In fact there is nothing new or original in them. They are implicit in every constitutional public movement. But it is nothing but a mere dream if you imagine that the bulk of mankind is, or can ever become, capable of scrupulous adherence to these lofty principles in its normal life from day to day.
In fact, honour, duty and love of one's own kith and kin and country might often compel us to disregard non-violence and to use force. I could never concede that an armed resistance to an aggression is unjust. I would consider it a religious and moral duty to resist and, if possible, to overpower such an enemy by use of force.
Rama killed Ravana in a tumultuous fight and relieved Sita. Krishna killed Kansa to end his wickedness, and Arjuna had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations including the revered Bhishma because the latter was on the side of the aggressor.It is my firm belief that in dubbing Rama, Krishna and Arjuna as guilty of violence, the Mahatma betrayed a total ignorance of the springs of human action.
Note how, in the process of positing Gandhi as opposed to the glorious tradition of Rama, Krishna and Arjuna, Godse subliminally advances the idea that he himself has carried on the tradition of their heroism. There is something tragic about these words - tragic that a man should be shot because of his insistence on the nation's "scrupulous adherence to these lofty principles in its normal life" and his supposed ignorance of "the springs of human action", but tragic also that a man could kill for these reasons, genuinely believing himself to be in the right. But the springs of Godse's thought, the shape of his logic, have also undeniably run deep in India over the last sixty years, and especially since the early nineties
But if oratory often ends up appealing to chauvinist sentiments, then it can also be a force for broadening boundaries and forging connections. Among twentieth-century Indians who demonstrated and advocated an openness to, and not a distrust of, the wider world the most prominent are Jawaharlal Nehru, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen. If in many of his speeches Nehru spoke passionately of an independent and inclusive India, then he was also the first to warn that nationalism could be a straitjacket. And Ray, like Nehru, was a citizen of the world as much as he was a citizen of India.
Looking back at Ray's legacy in a speech given in 1995 called "Satyajit Ray and the art of Universalism: Our Culture, Their Culture", Sen remarked:
In Ray's films and in his writings, we find explorations of at least three general themes on cultures and their interrelations: the importance of distinctions between different local cultures and their respective individualities; the necessity of understanding the heterogeneous character of each local culture (even the culture of a common, not to mention a region or a country); and the great need for intercultural communication, attended by a recognition of the barriers that make intercultural communication a hard task.[...]
In emphasizing the need to honor the individuality of each culture, Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world. [At the same time] Ray appreciated the importance of heterogeneity within local communities. This perception contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians, religious and secular, who are willing to break up the nation into communities and then stop dead there: "thus far and no further." The great filmmaker's eagerness to seek the larger unit — to talk to the whole world — went well with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small — the individuality, ultimately, of each person. [...]
While Ray insists on retaining the real cultural features of the society that he portrays, his view of India — even his view of Bengal — recognizes a complex reality, with immense heterogeneity at every level. It is not the picture of a stylized East meeting a stereotypical West, which has been the
stock-in-trade of so many recent writings critical of "Westernization" and "modernity." Ray emphasized that the people who "inhabit" his films are complicated and extremely diverse. Take a single province: Bengal. Or, better still, take the city of Calcutta where I live and work. Accents here vary between one neighbourhood and another. Every educated Bengali peppers his native speech with a sprinkling of English words and phrases. Dress is not standardized. Although women generally prefer the sari, men wear clothes, which reflect the style of the thirteenth century or conform to the directives of the latest Esquire. The contrast between the rich and the poor is proverbial. Teenagers do the twist and drink Coke, while the devout Brahmin takes a dip in the Ganges and chants his mantras to the rising sun. It is important to note that the native culture which Ray stresses is not some pure vision of a tradition-bound society, but the heterogeneous lives and commitments of contemporary India. The recognition of this heterogeneity makes it immediately clear why Ray's focus on local culture cannot be readily seen as an "anti-modern" move. "Our culture" can draw on "their culture" and "their culture" can draw on "our culture".
This is a remarkably cogent and sophisticated series of insights, although, having heard Sen speak on several occasions, I can guess that despite the urgency of its critique of aspects of contemporary Indian thought it would have hardly been made in a lectern-thumping or hectoring fashion. This brings us to a valuable point made by Mukherjee, which is the distinction between great speakers and great speeches. "Great speakers do not always make great speeches," he writes. "The yardstick for judging the latter is whether the words retain their power with the passing of time. There is obviously a shadow between the power of oratory and the power of a text when it is read by subsequent generations."
And in a rare speech delivered in 1982 by the title "The Education of a Filmmaker", Ray himself demonstrated his universalism by speaking among other things of his love for the Italian neorealist filmmaker Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves. What is so wonderful about it? Ray says:
One quality which is sure to be found in a great work of cinema is the revelation of large truths in small details.[…] There is a scene in Bicycle Thieves where father and son go feverishly looking for a man they believe to have connections with the thief. In the process the two lose each other. Finding himself alone in a back street…Bruno is seen to approach a wall while unbuttoning his pants. But before he can do what he wishes to do, Ricci suddenly appears and calls out urgently. 'Bruno whirls around and runs to join his father, his urge unsatisfied.' This one detail brings home the implications of this desperate, daylong search more vividly than anything could have done.
[And] there's a scene towards the end where Ricci suddenly runs into the thief in front of the latter's house, pounces upon him, and demands that he hands back his bike. Hotly denying his guilt, the thief suddenly goes into an epileptic fit. As he sinks to the ground shaking and foaming at the mouth, his mother, who's been watching from an upstairs window, tosses pillows to put under his head. Meanwhile, Bruno has dragged along a policeman, whom Ricci now takes into the house to make a search. We see the miserable pigeonhole of a room where the mother cooks a meagre meal for the family of four. 'Instead of accusing him,' she says, 'why don't you find him a job?' The bike, however, is not found. As Ricci comes out of the house, he finds that the whole neighbourhood has turned against him....
Apart from adding dimension to the story, the film challenges our stock response of instant antipathy to a character who brings misery on the hero by an unsocial act. But so finely is the balance maintained that the incident doesn't lessen the calamity of the hero's loss. It merely makes the film a far richer experience than a conventional treatment would have done.
And finally, which of the two books to buy? Batabyal's is the longer and more comprehensive selection, Mukherjee's the more idiosyncratic and interesting - most of the work I've excerpted is from his anthology. I would be more partial to the Mukherjee were it not for the vexation provided by the text, which is littered with totally careless typos that a single diligent reading could have eliminated. Reading it I was often reminded of the highly flexible grammar and spelling of the competition success magazines I used to peruse in adolescence. So if you don't mind an error-strewn text then go for the Mukherjee; if you find these things annoying, as I do, then read the good bits of the Mukherjee in a bookshop and buy the Batabyal.
And here is a link to a splendid feature run several years ago by the Guardian: the text of, and commentary on, the greatest speeches of the twentieth century.