The Burden Of The Past


The twenty-first month of my imprisonment is well on its way; the moon waxes and wanes and soon two years will have been completed. Another birthday will come round to remind me that I am getting older; my last four birthdays I have spent in prison, here and in Dehra Dun Jail, and many others in the course of my previous terms of imprisonment. I have lost count of their number.

During all these months I have often thought of writing, felt the urge to it and at the same time a reluctance. My friends took it for granted that I would write and produce another book, as I had done during previous terms of imprisonment. It had almost become a habit.

Yet I did not write. There was a certain distaste for just throwing out a book which had no particular significance. It was easy enough to write, but to write something that was worth while was another matter, something that would not grow stale while I sat in prison with my manuscript and the world went on changing. I would not be writing for today or tomorrow but for an unknown and possibly distant future. For whom would I write? and for when? Perhaps what I wrote would never be published, for the years I would spend in prison were likely to witness even greater convulsions and conflicts than the years of war that are already over. India herself might be a battleground or there might be civil commotion.

And, even if we escaped all these possible developments, it was a risky adventure to write now for a future date, when the problems of today might be dead and buried and new problems arisen in their place. I could not think of this World War as just another war, only bigger and greater. From the day it broke out, and even earlier, I was full of premonitions of vast and cataclysmic changes, of a new world arising for better or for worse. What would my poor writing of a past and vanished age be worth then?

All these thoughts troubled and restrained me, and behind them lay deeper questions in the recesses of my mind, to which I could find no easy answer.

Similar thoughts and difficulties came to me during my last term of imprisonment, from October, 1940, to December, 1941, mostly spent in my old cell of Dehra Dun Jail, where six years earlier I had begun writing my autobiography. For ten months there I could not develop the mood for writing, and, I spent” my time in reading or in digging and playing about with soil and flowers. Ultimately I did write: it was meant to be a continuation of my autobiography. For a few weeks I wrote rapidly and continuously, but before my task was finished I was suddenly discharged, long before the end of my four-year term of imprisonment.

It was fortunate that I had not finished what I had undertaken, for if I had done so I might have been induced to send it to a publisher. Looking at it now, I realize its little worth; how stale and uninteresting much of it seems. The incidents it deals with have lost all importance and have become the debris of a half-forgotten past, covered over by the lava of subsequent volcanic eruptions. I have lost interest in them. What stand out in my mind are personal experiences which had left their impress upon me; contacts with certain individuals and certain events; contacts with the crowd—the mass of the Indian people, in their infinite diversity and yet their amazing unity; some adventures of the mind; waves of unhappiness and the relief and joy that came from overcoming them; the exhilaration of the moment of action. About much of this one may not write. There is an intimacy about one’s inner life, one’s feelings and thoughts, which may not and cannot be conveyed to others. Yet those contacts, personal and impersonal, mean much; they affect the individual and mould him and change his reactions to life, to his own country, to other nations.

As in other prisons, here also in Ahmadnager Fort, I took to gardening and spent many hours daily, even when the sun was hot, in digging and preparing beds for flowers. The soil was very bad, stony, full of debris and remains of previous building operations, and even the ruins of ancient monuments. For this is a place of history, of many a battle and palace intrigue in the past. That history is not very old, as Indian history goes, nor is it very important in the larger scheme of things. But one incident stands out and is still remembered: the courage of a beautiful woman, Chand Bibi, who defended this fort and led her forces, sword in hand, against the imperial armies of Akbar. She was murdered by one of her own men.

Digging in this unfortunate soil, we have come across parts of ancient walls and the tops of domes and buildings buried far underneath the surface of the ground. We could not go far, as deep digging and archaeological explorations were not approved by authority, nor did we have the wherewithal to carry this on. Once we came across a lovely lotus carved in stone on the side of a wall, probably over a doorway.

I remembered another and a less happy discovery in Dehra Dun Jail. In the course of digging in my little yard, three years ago, I came across a curious relic of past days. Deep under the surface of the ground, the remains of two ancient piles were uncovered and we viewed them with some excitement. They were part of the old gallows that had functioned there thirty or forty years earlier. The jail had long ceased to be a place of execution and all visible signs of the old gallows-tree had been removed. We had discovered and uprooted its foundations, and all my fellow prisoners, who had helped in this process, rejoiced that we had put away at last this thing of ill omen.

Now I have put away my spade and taken to the pen instead. Possibly what I write now will meet the same fate as my unfinished manuscript of Dehra Dun Jail. I cannot write about the present so long as I am not free to experience it through action. It is the need for action in the present that brings it vividly to me, and then I can write about it with ease and a certain facility. In prison it is something vague, shadowy, something I cannot come to grips with, or experience as the sensation of the moment. It ceases to be the present for me in any real sense of the word, and yet it is not the past either, with the past’s immobility and statuesque calm.

Nor can I assume the role of a prophet and write about the future. My mind often thinks of it and tries to pierce its veil and clothe it in the garments of my choice. But these are vain imaginings and the future remains uncertain, unknown, and there is no assurance that it will not betray again our hopes and prove false to humanity’s dreams.

The past remains; but I cannot write academically of past events in the manner of a historian or scholar. I have not that knowledge or equipment or training; nor do I possess the mood for that kind of work. The past oppresses me or fills me sometimes with its warmth when it touches on the present, and becomes, as it were, an aspect of that living present. If it does not do so, then it is cold, barren, lifeless, uninteresting. I can only write about it, as I have previously done, by bringing it in some relation to my present-day thoughts and activities, and then this writing of history, as Goethe once said, brings some relief from the weight and burden of the past. It is, I suppose, a process similar to that of psychoanalysis, but applied to a race or to humanity itself instead of to an individual.

The burden of the past, the burden of both good and ill, is overpowering, and sometimes suffocating, more especially for those of us who belong to very ancient civilizations like those of India and China. As Nietzsche says: ‘Not only the wisdom of centuries—also their madness breaketh out in us. Dangerous is it to be an heir.’

What is my inheritance? To what am I an heir? To all that humanity has achieved during tens of thousands of years, to all that it has thought and felt and suffered and taken pleasure in, to its cries of triumph and its bitter agony of defeat, to that astonishing adventure of man who began so long ago and yet continues and beckons to us. To all this and more, in common with all men. But there is a special heritage for those of us of India, not an exclusive one, for none is exclusive and all are common to the race of man, one more especially applicable to us, something that is in our flesh and blood and bones, that has gone to make us what we are and what we are likely to be.

It is the thought of this particular heritage and its application to the present that has long filled my mind, and it is about this that I should like to write, though the difficulty and complexity of the subject appall me and I can only touch the surface of it. I cannot do justice to it, but in attempting it I might be able to do some justice to myself by clearing my own mind and preparing it for the next stages of thought and action.

Inevitably, my approach will often be a personal one; how the idea grew in my mind, what shapes it took, how it influenced me and affected my action. There will also be some entirely personal experiences which have nothing to do with the subject in its wider aspects, but which coloured my mind and influenced my approach to the whole problem. Our judgments of countries and people are based on many factors; among them our personal contacts, if there have been any, have a marked influence. If we do not personally know the people of a country we are apt to misjudge them even more than otherwise, and to consider them entirely alien and different.

In the case of our own country our personal contacts are innumerable, and through such contacts many pictures or some kind of composite picture of our countrymen form in our mind. So I have filled the picture gallery of my mind. There are some portraits, vivid, lifelike, looking down upon me and reminding me of some of life’s high points—and yet it all seems so long ago and like some story I have read. There are many other pictures round which are wrapped memories of old comradeship and the friendship that sweetens life. And there are innumerable pictures of the mass— Indian men and women and children, all crowded together, looking up at me, and I trying to fathom what lie behind those thousands of eyes of theirs.

I shall begin this story with an entirely personal chapter, for this gives the clue to my mood in the month immediately following the period I have written about towards the end of my autobiography. But this is not going to be another autobiography, though I am afraid the personal element will often be present.

The World War goes on. Sitting here in Ahmadnagar Fort, a prisoner perforce inactive when a fierce activity consumes the world, I fret a little sometimes and I think of the big things and brave ventures which have filled my mind these many years. I try to view the war impersonally as one would look at some elemental phenomenon, some catastrophe of nature, a great earthquake or a flood. I do not succeed of course. But there seems no other way if I am to protect myself from too much hurt and hatred and excitement. And in this mighty manifestation of savage and destructive nature my own troubles and self sink into insignificance.

I remember the words that Gandhiji said on that fateful evening of August 8th, 1942: ‘We must look the world in the face with calm and clear eyes even though the eyes of the world are bloodshot today.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

Bharat Ek Khoj – Doordarshan

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