The Discovery of India is the one book you should read if you want to learn about India’s heritage and its journey through the last 5000 years. As the world has realized by now, this young Asian nation is much more than a land of snake charmers or Bengal tigers. Jawaharlal Nehru traces the path this country has taken since the ancient Indus valley civilization and talks of the challenges ahead post Independence. The writing is rich with plenty of references and it might surprise contemporary readers with the high erudition possessed by an Indian statesman of the 1940s.
Jawaharlal Nehru, fondly addressed as Panditji, was the first Prime Minister of independent India and was an idealist. Educated in England at Harrow and Cambridge, he returned to India in 1912 and plunged into the fight for independence from British rule. Nehru was Prime Minister for 17 years and largely instrumental in India’s emergence as a modern, secular and democratic state. His great command over the English language and knowledge of history, politics and a variety of topics on a global scale are in evidence throughout the book.
Having studied the history of India for several years as part of the school curriculum (K+12), it almost seems like The Discovery of India was used as a guide for setting the school syllabus. Some of the stories or occurences in history given here brought back memories, like having to remember when the Battle of Plassey was fought for those dreaded ‘fill in the blanks’ questions, or who raided India in the 11th century. The book has a far wider scope than I could have imagined.
The Discovery of India was written while Nehru was incarcerated in Ahmednagar Fort Prison. When you actually see this 1000+ page book, and read the level of detail, you will wonder how one man could write so much mostly from memory. He certainly did not have Google or any microfiches at hand. And I doubt that he was provided reference books for research by the British rulers?
Let’s try to delve a bit into the book itself, although I will be barely skimming the surface.
The narrative begins on April 13, 1944 in Ahmadnagar Fort prison. Nehru talks about the current state of the nation. Famine has ravaged India in Bengal, Orissa, Bijapur and the Malabar. The rich Western nations of England and America have ignored giving any help stating scarcity due to war time. The author talks about the recent political climate in the world and ponders about India’s heritage and what effect it has over the present.
The second chapter is about Kamala Nehru, the author’s wife who is recently deceased. Nehru talks about his wife’s illness and time spent with her in Switzerland in her last days. What struck me was air travel from India was possible in the 1930s because Nehru talks about the multiple hop flight he takes to Europe. Nehru turns down an ardent invitation to meet with the Duce in Italy.
In The Quest, the author speaks of his attachment to India and how he cannot but feel emotional about his country. He ponders over whether nationalism still has significance. Nehru tries to reconcile a glorious past with the reality of the present, and wonders over the diversity of the populace – several religions, castes and sects living in harmony, united by a common dream of freedom.
Chapter 4, The Discovery of India, is when we finally get to the meat of the book. The ancient Indus Valley civilization that was wiped out in some catastrophic event, the Aryans, the Vedic period that occurred in 2500BC, the coming of the Buddha, the caste systems, the Upanishads, the epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Alexander’s invasion, the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka’s reign bring the past alive in vivid detail. India was its own churning microcosm with a staggering cultural evolution. Traders from China and Central Asia or parts of Europe visited India and there was an exchange of knowledge.
In Through the Ages, we talk of a relatively recent period in time. Nehru traces India’s ancient ties with Persia, Greece, China and South East Asia. In New Problems we read about the Arabs and the Mongols, Sikhism, Akbar, the East India Company, the Maratha empire and Tipu Sultan from the South. He talks about how the British have vastly superior organizational skills, better weapons and trained forces. The reverse migration that led people to rural areas from cities is mentioned, perhaps leading to appalling poverty.
In the Last Phase, the author talks of more contemporary struggles like the Mutiny of 1857, the coming of Gandhi and his stress on non-violence, the World War and several other topics.
Throughout the book, Nehru talks about many parallel occurences in world history. It is amazing that he was so well read, and was in contact with notable personalities throughout the world. When I was younger, I never thought of any historic event on a larger global scale, but now I find it fascinating! When you think about what happenned in India or Europe when America fought for independence, the macro view makes you understand how many forces could have played a hand in one particular event in history.
Parts of the book contain Nehru’s own evaluation or opinion about historical or current events, and there is some speculative thought too. This is valuable to readers who are interested in getting a glimpse of the thoughts that largely shaped Indian policy. A lot of aspects about who we are, what we do and why we feel compelled to do it can gain clarity on reading this book.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India is a must read. It is a book every Indian needs on their bookshelf. So does any discerning individual who wants to go beneath the veneer and learn the true story of India’s heritage.
Like Panditji, I can’t help but feel emotional about India, my country, especially so as she celebrates her 68th Independence Day!
I am not sure if I have been able to do any justice to this book review. If you found this interesting, check out Reimagining India to see how India has tackled the challenges of a young country post independence.