The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

A unique look at a multifaceted India
Cookie Maini

Inside India
by Halide Edib; with an Introduction and notes by Mushirul Hasan; Oxford Press; Page 272,
Rs 395.

Inside IndiaAMIDST the varied versions of western images of India in the early twentieth century which can be typified as European, the book Inside India is truly unique. Halide Edib, a Turkish writer, does not imagine, inscribe or conjure an Indian image but rather presents a documentation of its multifaceted and multi-cultural persona, of course, with her personal perception. Its presentation as a slick reprint can be attributed to the efforts of Professor Mushirul Hasan, who has embellished it with notes and an eloquent introduction with scholarly finesse.

We are familiar with the modernisation of Turkey, which was the endeavour of Ataturk. The author lived through that momentous phase. Though she was later banished from Turkey yet she remains one of the most acclaimed figures in modern Turkey. She combined creativity with political activism. A prolific writer, she visited India in the 1930s and has recounted the historicall and sociological moments, her interaction with prominent players of the national movement and highlights of the period when history was being chalked out. She delivered eight extension lectures at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, yet, as Professor Hasan comments, her book has eluded standard accounts of Indian nationalism. "The neglect of so important a work is largely due to our dependence on intellectual resources from the West, our anxiety to adopt their frameworks and models, and, in some cases, to assiduously nurture the Orientalist vision and representation of India." Yet such books assume a relevance today when prejudices and preconceived notions cloud objectivity. Her statements are pithy, symbolic and relevant — "the hypocrisy and personal unworthiness of many of the world’s leaders, whether national or international, can lead to a complete and final destruction of all that has been the outcome of the infinite suffering and experience for thousands of years. The renaming of ideals, which is too often, a mere political game in the hands of scrupulous leaders, is not enough; it is the rules of the game that must be changed."


Edib’s perceptions on pan-Islamic religious identity and the role of Muslims in the national movement are extremely enriching as well as thought provoking. However, her perceptions seem to have been simply ignored because even in the 1930s she fired questions that did not fit in with conventional thought processes and established historical canons. Yet such an astonishing grasp of events and movements should not be overlooked as a primary source for resurrecting history. It may present an entirely new dimension or digression from the beaten track. Edib’s account of her encounter with Mahatma Gandhi is riveting. As she begins her narration, her inherent cultural mores are evident, but, after a personal interface, the spell of his personality influences her. For her Gandhi was "the Hindu of the Hindus...... the essence of the oldest India. The face might be that of any Hindu, I thought. Yet it had none of the mystery and closed- in- ness of Hindu faces." She concludes her account, "At this prayer meeting the crowd was of mixed faith. Before and after prayers, the individuality of each stood out, dominated always by the eagerly defined Hindu and the sharply defined Muslim. But, when the pandit sang, the audience were seated together, they seemed to have no differences not even to the eye." This contemporary account bespeaks of the spell the man cast on his onlookers. He could bridge religious chasms, as is evident in this contemporary version. She writes skillfully in firm, compelling strokes and even the curious unevenness in narration sometimes enhances the effectiveness of her statements.

The other personality who impacted her perhaps even more intensely than the Mahatma was that of Dr M.A. Ansari. She has discussed in an academic perspective the extent of the Indianness of India’s Muslims, a rather prickly subject in the present context. In her time spent with Mrs Ansari, she realised that her hostess did not appear to think that Muslims were a minority grafted on Indian soil and was herself Indian to the core. Ashoka was part of her history as much as Humayun. Likewise, she found Amina, wife of Sir Akbar Hydari, loved India. Blissfully unaware of the religious divide, she felt that the political pan-Islamism in India in the 1930s was a mere bogey. The commitment to India was a greater reality than solidarity with Muslims abroad.

Halide Edib’s book has facets which would hearten feminists and provide source material and significant cues for them to cull out feminist history. She has dealt with prominent Indian contemporaries of her own gender like Sarojini Naidu. She writes that an American remarked to her in New York about Sarojini Naidu, "I always believed India to have a meek and submissive spirit, but Mrs Naidu upset my notion." Her retort was even more promising. "I told him generalising was dangerous; besides, in this changing world, where even climates are not what they used to be, the spirit must be expected to change." She has mentioned several other prominent contemporaries like Begum Shah Nawaz and Aruna Asaf Ali.