What We Talk About When We Talk About In­dia

Ananya Va­jpeyi’s first book, she tells SHOUGAT DAS­GUPTA, is about the in­tel­lec­tual tu­mult from which a na­tion emerged

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“of the search for the self. I be­came in­ter­ested in swaraj be­cause I started teach­ing mod­ern In­dian and South Asian his­tory in a his­tory de­part­ment for the first time, and one of the texts that I taught was Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. The more I read it, the more I was con­vinced of its im­por­tance and cu­ri­ous about the con­text of ideas from which it emerged and in which it had a role to play.”

What emerges from Right­eous Repub­lic is a sense of the in­tel­lec­tual fer­ment in In­dia from the turn of the 20th cen­tury up to In­de­pen­dence; the sense of men, not just the five in the book, think­ing up and imag­in­ing a coun­try, rather than just be­ing handed one by the Bri­tish. The book is as much lit­er­ary and art crit­i­cism as it is his­tory, re­quir­ing of Va­jpeyi some ag­ile read­ing. She makes con­nec­tions her five prin­ci­pals them­selves may not have made, par­tic­u­larly in her ex­cel­lent chap­ter on Abanin­dranath Tagore, mak­ing us con­sider afresh men and ideas to which we seem to have be­come in­ured.

Va­jpeyi tells me she moved back to Delhi to be “part of a con­ver­sa­tion”. It is con­ver­sa­tion, an im­mer­sion in ideas that viv­i­fies Right­eous Repub­lic and forces read­ers to ac­knowl­edge the mo­ral im­pulses that spurred the cre­ation of In­dia. Va­jpeyi won’t be drawn into a com­par­i­son with the present day, in­sist­ing that “alternative ideas con­tinue to thrive in small, ig­nored pock­ets”. The reader, de­spair­ing at ve­nal­ity and cyn­i­cism, must hope she’s right.

• Ex­am­in­ing the in­grained Ananya Va­jpeyi

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