Getting to Know Gopalkrishna Gandhi

In an essay for the new book 'The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna Gandhi', historian Ramachandra Guha goes down memory lane.

I cannot remember where and how I first met Gopal Gandhi. But I clearly remember the impression he made on first meeting my wife, Sujata. This was at a party in South Delhi, at the home of a classmate of mine who had joined the Indian Administrative Service. The year was 1989; Gopal, like our host, was still in the IAS. At some stage that evening Sujata and Gopal struck up a conversation, without either catching the other person’s last name. Driving home afterwards, I told her he was the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. ‘That is not possible!’, she exclaimed, ‘he speaks such good Tamil’. I explained the lineage, adding that he was also the grandson of C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), and had served in the Tamil Nadu Government.

While Gopal spoke excellent Tamil, it was in fact only his third language. Hindi (or more accurately Hindustani) was the first; and English was the second (he had taken two degrees in English literature). When his parents Devadas and Lakshmi got married, they decided that their children would speak neither’s mother tongue, but Hindi, which was both the language of their locality, and of the nation. All four siblings grew up effortlessly bilingual; and because of his service in the Tamil country and through his marriage to a Tamil, Gopal spoke that language too. His father had longed to teach at least one of his children Gujarati; the privilege fell on Gopal, the youngest. So he learned to read, write and speak in this language, as well.

Gopal’s lovely wife, Tara, was a wildlife biologist, and we had things in common too. Our families had meals together every other week, and Gopal and I spoke on the phone more or less everyday. This was Delhi, in the early 1990s, so our conversations were mostly about the three raging controversies of the day: Mandal, Masjid and Market, as they were known. But from time to time we also spoke about Gandhi. As the youngest of four children, Gopal saw many associates of the Mahatma visit or stay in his parents’ home. He spent his summer holidays with Rajaji in Madras, where he met other freedom fighters.

On my part, I was meeting contemporary Gandhians such as the Chipko leaders Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, and encountering traces of Gopal’s own family in the archives. Thus Gopal had many things to tell me about Gandhi, and I had some things to say to him in return. I would spend the day working in the Manuscripts Division of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and afterwards walk over to his house (a cricket ball’s throw away) and tell him of what I had found; for instance, a letter written by Rajaji from Government House in Darjeeling in 1948, describing ‘little Gopu’, then aged three, as a ‘perfect gentleman at the dinner table’ (as he still was).

The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan
Aleph Book Company

For thirty years now, Gopal Gandhi has been a friend, but also a sounding board. No one I know knows more about the political history of modern India than he. I can consult him about caste, religion and community; Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and Kamaladevi. On all these subjects he has fresh information as well as original insights. Nor is his knowledge merely academic. He began life as a lowly civil servant in the districts of Tamil Nadu, before becoming Secretary to the President of India, High Commissioner in South Africa and Sri Lanka, and Governor of West Bengal. He has seen how the Constitution works (or does not work) at all levels of Government, and is thus well placed to correct or amplify the perspective of a historian who takes his own clues from the archives.

In 1991 Gopal Gandhi was appointed Founder Director of the Nehru Centre in London. I visited England several times a year, always staying with Gopal and Tara in Mayfair, every morning walking across Green Park and St. James’s Park and then over the Blackfriars Bridge to the India Office Library beyond. I would spend the day poring over unpublished letters and documents from the 1920s and 1930s, which I would discuss with Gopal over dinner.

One Sunday, when the archive was closed, I dragged Gopal along to Highgate Cemetery, to see the grave of Karl Marx. To reach our destination we had to change two tubes and walk up (by London standards) a steep hill. En route, we swapped stories. I told Gopal of how, at the insistence of some left-wing Congressmen, Gandhi was compelled to read Marx’s Das Kapital when in his seventies, but gave up after the daunting first chapter on commodity fetishism. Gopal told me, in turn, about a press conference conducted by Gandhi‘s so-called spiritual successor, Vinoba Bhave, at the height of his ‘Bhoodan’ movement. Asked the difference between Gandhism and Communism, Vinoba answered: ‘Communism is Gandhism plus Violence’. When Vinoba boasted of his witticism to his colleague Jayaprakash Narayan, JP acidly remarked: ‘In that case, is Gandhism merely Communism minus Violence?’

At Highgate, I had expected a modest memorial to Marx; what we found instead was a tombstone eight feet high with a polished bust of the revolutionary thinker on top. This had been erected quite recently, paid for by some wealthy Leftists or perhaps via the London Council’s Heritage Fund. Finely scrubbed and polished, the stone had etched on it the slogan, ‘Workers of the World Unite’, followed by a series of names. These were, Jenny von Westphalen, Karl Marx, Helen Demuth, and Eleanor Marx. At the foot of the memorial was a bunch of fresh flowers placed by an earlier visitor of the day.

Gopal asked me to identify the other names. I did. The company Marx kept in death was pretty much the company he kept while he was alive. Jenny was the wife, four years older, aristocratic in background but devoted to her husband. Helen was the housekeeper and sometime mistress, who bore a son by him (adopted, to save everybody’s face, by Marx’s best friend). Eleanor was the beautiful and gifted daughter, a feminist and socialist who died by her own hand. It was a poignant listing, but one name would have made it complete—Friedrich Engels.

After some minutes in silent contemplation, we turned away, heading, I thought, out of the cemetery and on to the tube station. ‘There is something I wanted to see’, said Gopal, revealing for the first time why he had agreed so readily to come with me. To the left of Marx‘s grave was a sort of Comrade’s Corner, graves of other Communists exiled from other lands. Here were buried revolutionaries who had sought refuge in England after being thrown out of Iraq, Syria, and the like. The gravestone Gopal was looking for was in the extreme righthand corner. It was in the name of ‘Dr Yusuf Dadoo, president of the South African Communist Party’. I asked Gopal for details. ‘He worked with Gandhi in India in the 1940s’, he answered, ‘and, back in South Africa, was an early influence on Mandela’. An Indian and a Communist, the one direct link between Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.

Yusuf Dadoo (L); grave of Dadoo at Highgae Cemmetery, London. Photo:

Gopal Gandhi’s services to our Republic are substantial; yet they could have been even greater had our political class not been so consumed by pettiness. In 2010, Kashmir was gripped by violence and unrest. An outreach from the Central Government was called for. It was suggested that an interlocutor be appointed by New Delhi to go to the Valley. Gopal’s name was proposed. He was of course, superbly qualified for the talk, having worked on conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, South Africa, and West Bengal. He had a winning personality, and spoke Hindustani (shading into Urdu) fluently, while carrying the name and lineage of the greatest modern Indian.

Gopal’s name was enthusiastically approved by the National Security Adviser and by several Cabinet Ministers. But the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, was ambivalent, and the President of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, opposed. In the event, a group of three writers from Delhi were appointed as interlocutors instead. The Kashmiri separatists declined to meet them, and the trouble smouldered on. When an even more savage round of violence broke out in the Valley in 2016, Gopal’s name once more did the rounds; but of course with the hardliner Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the proposal had no chance at all.

Gopal’s own closest friend is his fellow former I. A. S. officer Keshav Desiraju. I myself first met Keshav in 1989, in Almora, where he was then District Magistrate. In later years I have watched him closely at work in the fields of education and health, and can testify that he was an exemplary public servant, admired and respected by those he came in contact with. Keshav is also a scholar, the grandson of the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and the nephew of the historian Sarvepalli Gopal, and with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard himself. His deepest interest, however, is in Indian classical music (a subject on which he has often, and never patronizingly, instructed me over the years). After retirement he has spent his time researching what has turned out to be a definitive biography of the great singer M. S. Subbulakshmi.

File photo of Keshav Desiraju. Photo: US mission, Geneva/CC-BY-ND

The languages Keshav speaks fluently are English, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, in that order (he can also manage with Kannada). The languages Gopal has an absolute command over are Hindi, English, Tamil, and Gujarati, in that order (he can also manage with Bangla and Urdu). When Keshav and Gopal talk, the puns and allusions flow seamlessly in the three languages they share—English, Hindi, and Tamil– and range across culture, history, literature and much else.

I have spent many hours with Gopal and Keshav, separately, and much time with them together. Speaking excellent English and modest Hindi, I share but one-and-a-half of their languages, but to be with them is entirely pleasurable nonetheless. I remember with special warmth a bus journey that we took together from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai and back, since Gopal wanted to take the blessings of the sage Ramana Maharishi before a new assignment. En route he told me that I must write a column urging that M. S. Subbulakshmi be awarded India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, while Keshav added some details about her musical genius.

We reached Tiruvannamalai, visited the Ashram, before undertaking the obligatory parikrama of the hill. It was a hot day, and we needed water; but while Keshav and I  (as naturalized hillmen of Uttarakhand) could drink from a farmer’s hosepipe, Gopal, having lived the past five years in London, had to carry a plastic bottle. We teased him about this, so he returned to the subject of M. S. and why she deserved the country’s highest honour. Gopal cannily argued that a recommendation on M. S.’s behalf would be dismissed as elitist, so to make it work I must argue that the popular singer Lata Mangeshkar get the award too.

I wrote the article asked for by my friend, and followed it up with another. Meanwhile, with the proposal out in the open, Gopal lobbied patiently behind the scenes to get the idea approved by the President of the Republic. Some two years after that journey to Tiruvannamalai, Keshav travelled with me to the Narmada Valley, where I was in search of the first wife of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin. We found and spoke to the lady, and afterwards repaired for dinner at the Marwari Bhojnalaya in Amarkantak. There, in the Bilaspur edition of the Dainik Bhaskar newspaper, we discovered that our friend’s campaigning had succeeded, and that M. S. Subbulakshmi had, finally and belatedly, been awarded the Bharat Ratna. We raised a toast (with tea) to Gopal; later, on our long train journey back to Delhi, Keshav told me about all the M. S. concerts he had attended.

On one of my visits to London, Gopal and Tara had the Anglican Bishop and anti-apartheid campaigner, Trevor Huddleston, over for dinner. Here Huddleston said, in answer to a question about his health: ‘I hope to see apartheid dead before I am’. The regime in South Africa collapsed three years later. Huddleston made a brief trip back, and lived long enough to see his (comparatively) young friend, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, be asked to serve as India’s High Commissioner to South Africa.

Gopal Gandhi had been appointed for a three year term, but after eighteen months in the job was asked to return to Delhi, to serve as Secretary to the President of India. Gopal made many friends and a major impression in South Africa, and for the sake of both countries one wished he had stayed longer. Fortunately, when we heard he had been asked to return, Keshav Desiraju and I were able to make a quick trip to South Africa, my first trip to the land where Gandhi had become a Mahatma.

Helen Suzman, circa 1957. Photo: Wikipedia

With Gopal and Tara, Keshav and I drove along the glorious Garden Route, visited the fabulous Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town, and saw the shanty towns hidden away from the tree-lined suburbs of Johannesburg. Two memories of Gopal that remain vivid are, first, the care with which he introduced me to the great South African liberal Helen Suzman at a crowded reception in Pretoria (he wanted to make sure a historian met a person who had actually made history); and a moment in a long drive along the coast when we passed a statue of Vasco da Gama. This set Gopal off on a spontaneous show of his own, mimicking his philosopher-brother Ramchandra Gandhi’s voice and manner, imagining Ramu being confronted with the statue, and saying ‘This is an abomination, this cruel and crude triumphalism, this symbol of conquest and pillage and racism’, and then giving, as a teacher and Gandhian must, the other side of the picture as well, and so continuing, ‘On the other hand, Vasco was a seeker too, an explorer, even if his aims and methods were of his time, not ours’. A third recollection comes to me as I write; of Gopal at a dinner table in Cape Town, conversing in Gujarati to the person seated next to him, the Ugandan-American political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, each seizing, with equal relish, the chance to go back to a language of their childhood that they so rarely spoke any more.

Gopal’s formal training was in literature. He had published a novel, Refuge, based on his Sri Lankan experience; a play on the tragic, doomed, Mughal prince Dara Shukoh; and translated Vikram Seth’s magnum opus, A Suitable Boy, into Hindi. He had also written a few poems, including one on the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Although his services as a public servant have now eclipsed his other contributions, when we first met, in the late 1980s, Gopal was known in the literary circles of New Delhi as the Gandhi brother who wrote or translated novels, as distinct from the Gandhi brother (Ramu) who wrote or spoke about philosophy and the Gandhi brother (Rajmohan) who wrote or spoke about politics and history.

Professor K. Swaminathan. Photo:

In acknowledgment of my friend’s primary training and orientation, I’d like to end with three literary memories. Some years ago, I was sheafing through a bunch of papers in the home of Professor K. Swaminathan, the Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. I discovered here a letter that he had written Gopal Gandhi in June 1987. Swaminathan had just read Gopal’s novel, Saranam (Refuge), which is about the plight of the Tamil-speaking workers in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. Whereas the Tamils of the north had settled in the island centuries ago, these workers had been brought by the British in the 19th century. They were scorned by the Jaffna Tamils, and, even more, by the Sinhala majority. The latter pressurized the Indian Government to agree to repatriate these people back to a country their ancestors had been forcibly uprooted from.

When Swaminathan read Gopal Gandhi’s novel, he was ninety, and ailing. Yet was moved enough to write his friend (now also mine) a long, handwritten letter, where he observed:

Gandhiji (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, XC, p. 133)  says:

‘When someone commits a crime anywhere,

I feel I am the culprit.‘

The crime that you and I feel guilty of is the Indo-Ceylon Agreement of 1964, uprooting thousands of families from their habitat and rendering them stateless, vulnerable , insecure. When the Jaffna Tamils win an election the ‘Indian’ Tamils in the plantations (held as helpless hostages) are vicariously punished by the fanatic fury of the Sinhalese. By way of prayaschitta or atonement, you recognize and celebrate the moral outrage, the indefensible humanity, of these poor people who overcome evil by accepting their fate. In the result, aesthetic catharsis transforms an actual tragedy into an act of creation and this ‘documentation of an experience’ turns out to be a novel of classical quality and moving power which deserves repeated reading and clamours for filming and translation into Tamil.

A second memory is of a book Gopal translated, rather than wrote. In 2006 I was spending a term teaching at Yale. The day after I arrived, I went across to the University’s library, and looked at their holdings on Gandhi. I found in the stacks a little pamphlet, not more than sixty pages long, called ‘The End of an Epoch’. I had it issued and took it to my room. It had been written by Manubehn Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grand-niece and companion of his last days. The book was published in 1962, and it said on the title-page that it was ‘translated from the Gujarati by Gopalkrishna Gandhi’.

When I found this book in an American library, I had known Gopal for some fifteen years. He was absolutely one of my closest friends. We had discussed, to death, his lineage and mine, his writings and mine. He had all my books; and I thought I had all of his. Gandhi himself had been a pre-eminent subject of our conversations. It was in, of all places, the Sterling Memorial Library of Yale University, that I now discovered that my friend’s first literary production had been a translation, undertaken when he was merely seventeen, and from his fourth language, Gujarati, of a first-hand account of Gandhi’s last days on earth.

The last memory is of a book Gopal once owned.  In 1991, I was in Bombay, and visited the (now sadly extinct) New and Second-hand Bookshop in Kalbadevi. I bought a pile of books, among them a little biography of Gandhi, written by a white priest, Joseph Doke, and first published in 1907. Although my copy was a later reprint I was glad to have it, for the author had been a close associate of Gandhi’s in South Africa. I asked the shop to post it to me in Delhi, where I then lived. When the book arrived and I opened it again I noticed that the original owner’s name was written on the flyleaf: ‘Gopalkrishna Gandhi, July 1957’.

In the three decades since he wrote these words, my friend’s hand had scarcely changed. I went over to his place, with the book I had bought in Bombay. He had forgotten that he once owned it. However, he remembered that in the summer of 1957 he was in Bombay, for his father was critically ill. He thought that after his father had died, also in Bombay, the book got lost in the turmoil. I suggested that this copy of Doke’s biography of Gandhi was rightfully his. ‘No, you keep it’, said Gopal generously. He then pulled out a volume from his shelf, and remarked: ‘I have this, anyway’. ‘This’ was the first edition of the Doke book, laminated and bound for the owner by the National Archives. On the book’s flyleaf Devadas Gandhi—Gopal’s father and the Mahatma’s son— had written: ‘This is the finest biography of Bapu’. Gopal, naturally, was well pleased with his copy of Doke. And I remained more than moderately satisfied with mine.

Reprinted with permission from The Fourth Lion: Essays for Gopalkrishna Gandhi, edited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan and published by Aleph Book Company.