Under Western Eyes

Indira Gandhi By Dom Moraes Little, Brown and Co., $15.00

INDIAN HISTORY is much more the story of those who invaded the subcontinent than of the people native to its tropical and cultural climate. The record stands as a more than 3300-year struggle among a string of marauders, each Imperialist group seizing control over the nation's highly disjointed land and peoples while importing their own social and intellectual values. The imperialistic ventures of the British were preceded in the Middle Ages by the ravishings of Muslim invaders, who uprooted much of the political structure developed through Arayan and other Eastward migrations beginning more than 2000 years earlier.

The political independence gained after nearly 200 years of colonial experience has not rid India of cultural imperialism. Though far more subtly than the historical invasions of the subcontinent, a new wave, affecting the social and political conditions of the nation, has much more insidious repercussions on the country's social and political development.

The current problem is the attraction of India's ruling class to the ideas and values of the West. Although more pronounced today with the homogenous transportation of culture through electric media, this "Westernizing" trend has had impact on Indian culture and politics for much of the twentieth century. Much of the way India perceives itself depends on how it senses the West perceives India. For this reason, Indians raised and educated outside of the country have played the cornerstone role in modern life and politics, as their expression usually derives meaning from the translation of ideas between Indian and Western culture.

Jawharlal Nehru is reported to have said in private that independence did not remove British control over his country's politics as he would be the last Englishman to rule India. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, he took the reins of the nationalist movement following the death of Mohandas K. Gandhi, also educated in England. Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, educated at Oxford, became prime minister in 1966, two years after the death of her father. Dom Moraes, an Indian journalist based in London and also educated at Oxford, wrote Mrs. Gandhi's biography, while claiming to have little familiarity with his native country. This reviewer, who grew up in the United States, (educated at Harvard), reads the book with an appreciation for his Mother Land, which he knows much about but very little of.

This exemplifies the appropriation of India's native tradition and of its intellectual life from the needs of its own society to conform to English and American culture. This rape of India is more than just metaphorical or artistic; for example, the American inspired industrial development effort under Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi has achieved high growth rates while aggravating income inequality and entirely abandoning hopes of relieving India's poverty. Also, the infatuation of the elite Indian classes with America has drained India of its most significant human resources, as Indian scientists and engineers abound in Western research laboratories and hospitals.


BUT THIS TRAGEDY could find no clearer expression than in Moraes's biography. He relates the English attitudes of the Nehru dynasty and their involvement in the politics of liberation. Nehru's tenure as India's first prime minister is largely skipped over, while Moraes highlights the struggles that have marked Mrs. Gandhi's volatile career. Moraes's narrative of the British-educated hero and heroine is excessively British itself. His obtuse style includes so many allusions to English literature that one might think he were writing about Queen Victoria, not Indira Gandhi. And he might as well be. His presentation of her life is no more than a highly impressionistic collage of his own experience in India during her period of power. He is missing all of the ingredients--detailed research in documents and letters, sensitive and objective analysis, good knowledge of personality and culture--that make for a successful biography.

In fact, Moraes seems unsure if his book is about Indira Gandhi or whether he is writing his own autobiography. The story is related entirely from the first person; when he describes what little contact he had with the prime minister--very formal--he indulges in speculation of how she might have reacted to him. In describing her personality, he often cites himself as an example from which to make comparisons. What little perspective he includes could be gathered from casual reading of any of India's numerous English-language weekly magazines.

His egocentric approach speaks for the severe self-consciousness of many Indians, who see themselves through Western eyes. But, although Indira Gandhi remains an enigma to Western observers, Moraes's accounts of random conservations with Indians about their leader grasp the essential point of her power--her appeal to the purely Indian spirit.

People in the United States often look quizzically at her involvement in the Indian political scene and ask, "How can a democratic people accept and revere such a tyrant?" They see transgressions of civil liberties during the "emergency" she called in 1975 as violations that could find no forgiveness in the United States. Her autocratic control of the military, foreign and economic development would seem intolerable. These notions of democracy are inherently Western, however; the real impact they have in India exists only through the long-standing influence of the West on India's ascendent classes. But these classes have betrayed the country in their pandering to England, and more recently, to the United States.

In contrast, Moraes describes a conversation he often has with Indian peasants. They ask him, Oh, are you from Delhi? Do you know our empress? Have you seen her?" Perhaps through her authoritative wielding of power or her strongly maternal figure, Indira Gandhi has managed to fight back the unflinching appeal to the West and give something to India that might be its own.