Before the digital camera age, the venerable photo studios in most large Indian cities offered a tactful service for the recently bereaved.
Just as honeymooners were offered fake backgrounds – castle, Kashmir lake, eerily white Himalayas – portraits of the dead could be retouched to make the departed’s resemblance to a gargoyle less obvious. Mahatta’s, for instance, added a touch of actual paint to photographs to simulate rouge or lipstick; the paint slowly flaked off, gently ageing the dead as time passed.
One of the reasons why we have very little in the way of interesting contemporary Indian biographies of the famous stems from this need to garland the dead with metaphorical marigolds. The recent persecution of Peter Heehs, who has lived and worked in India for many years, for his biography of Sri Aurobindo, might be seen in this context.
His biography, a work of careful scholarship, is being attacked not because it is inaccurate, but because it interferes with the very Indian demand for a strictly sanitised version of the lives of the famous — as Heehs has said, his critics are “interested in establishing a Sri Aurobindo religion with themselves as popes, priests etc”.
There isn’t much point invoking Heehs’ right to free speech as a biographer — the right to independent, critical enquiry into the life of a public figure clashes with too many deep-rooted Indian beliefs. If you put two favourite North Indian admonishments together, they don’t leave much room for a cultural defence of free speech. Between “zubaan sambhal lo” (hold your tongue) and “aukat me raho” (stay within your bounds), it’s hard to argue that India today has a deep, abiding belief in the value of free speech.
This argument, extended, might also help us understand a fairly recent phenomenon: the persecution of scholars like Heehs, or before him, James Laine, Wendy Doniger and even Patrick French, on the grounds of their foreignness. The crude argument levelled against Doniger and Laine was a racist one that ignored the accuracy of their research into either Hinduism or Shivaji’s life, in favour of the reductive argument that being foreigners, they could not possibly understand the subjects of their study. French’s portrait of Gandhi in Liberty or Death drew thunderous indignation; he commented mildly that the British remained unmoved by his far more unflattering portrait of Churchill in the same book.
When the Passport Office begins to examine the papers of a scholar like Heehs, to see whether he should be allowed to stay in a country where he has lived or worked for years, we’re back with the widespread belief that “outsiders” have no right to write about us. This is paralleled by the fear that “foreign” scholars will not respect the Indian need to enshrine and embalm either the dead or the dead past.
Perhaps this is why so many arguments that are ostensibly over free speech issues lose their way in the murk, as one side invokes (Indian) culture and the other invokes a (Western) tradition of free speech. The defenders of free speech will always lose this version of the battle as these firangi principles are interrogated by the Indian thought control police.
But an issue that is often obscured is that Heehs and scholars like him are writing in exact accordance with the Indian tradition of biography and autobiography.
In 2007, for instance, Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri published Bangal-nama, his memoirs — reworked as The World In Our Time by HarperCollins recently. His memories of growing up in Barisal and Calcutta also include a thoughtful critique of Indian nationalism, and the slow erosion by which Muslims and the rural Indians stopped supporting or became invisible in the ranks of the Indian National Congress over time.
The freedom that Raychaudhuri accords himself when discussing national heroes or difficult subjects like bigotry is an old freedom. It can be seen, for instance, in Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s wonderful autobiography, In The Afternoon of Time, which in passing reveals that his sons, Amitabh and Ajitabh, were almost named Inquilab and Azad.
But it also includes a very amusing section on how the furore over his “Madhushala” poems grew to the point where he needed a certificate from Gandhi: “There’s no wine-glorifying in these verses!” said the Mahatma, rendering Bachchan’s poetry fit for mass consumption again. Nor does Bachchan hold back when it comes to describing his friend and fellow poet Nirala’s struggles with madness; he does this with compassion, but with the understanding that both biography and autobiography require truth, not elision.
The candour that Heehs and others like him claim is a very Indian quality, then. It can be seen in Mulk Raj Anand’s biography and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s letters, in the completely open letters and autobiography of Gandhi, and it might be glimpsed in Sri Aurobindo’s letters, too. “I am afraid I shall never be good for much in the way of domestic virtues,” Sri Aurobindo writes to his father-in-law. “I fear you must take me as I am with all my imperfections on my head.” It’s excellent advice, especially to those who seek to embalm his life, garlanding him with dead marigolds.