A Gandhi of our times
Reviewed by
Uttam Sengupta

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself
Pan Macmillan.
Pages 454.
` 999.

IT is often the insignificant detail that provides illuminating insights about significant people like the time when Nelson Mandela was sent back to his hotel from a conference in New York. It was at the United Nations and far too many people wanted to shake hands with him. Each time Mandela would stand up politely and acknowledge their greeting. It was proving to be a distraction and Mandela was anxiously told to keep sitting. But he protested and said, "you stop these people from walking up to me; I will stand up if they want to shake my hands". It was eventually decided to send him back to the hotel so that the conference could continue.

The humility and the unfailing generosity, and the singular absence of arrogance, of a man, who could well afford to be both, stand out in this well-edited collection. The book’s format is inspired by something that was written in the second century AD by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Meditations, which was a collection of thoughts, musings and aphorisms, noted down meticulously by a man of action. This book also follows a similar pattern, flitting from notes to letters to short conversations and brief notes in a diary on a range of subjects.

Conversations with Myself also takes advantage of over 70 hours of taped conversations recorded before and after Mandela’s much-acclaimed book, Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela, it seems, had developed early the habit of putting down everything in notebooks. Even the letters he wrote, in prison and later, were first written in the notebook and then copied and sent out. Many of the letters were censored while some were taken away by a jailor who took them away in 1970 and preserved them for over 20 years before turning them into the rightful owner!

It was possibly his training as a lawyer which prompted him to keep such copious and careful notes of his travels, meetings and of his training in Algeria for ushering in a revolution. He also maintained a daily diary and this private archive is now carefully preserved at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue.

Conversations presents a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the most remarkable men of our times. It is not just his erudition (Mandela had learnt both Latin and Greek) but also his humility and his very understated sense of humour that come across. From his prison cell he wrote that he could not imagine himself writing an ‘autobiography’, which, he added, was a "sweet euphemism for self praise, where the shortcomings of others are frequently exploited to highlight the praiseworthy accomplishments of the author`85 (even)if I lived on cane spirit every day of my life, I still would not have the courage to attempt it"!

Reading Conversations is rewarding also because of the wisdom that the book manages to communicate ever so lightly. "Only armchair politicians are immune from committing mistakes," he reflected while recalling the mistakes he himself might have made. It is not just an analytical mind but a mind that can think of both the profound and the profane. From prison he wrote that while people no longer may need ‘memory’, in prison he had come to fully appreciate the capacity of memory, the string of information that the head can carry.

Every time one opens the book, one is bound to be caught by surprise. In a letter written in 1985, Mandela draws attention to a letter published in a Johannesburg newspaper about nine men who were condemned to death by Queen Victoria for treason. Protests all over the world finally persuaded the Crown to banish them from England. It was much later that the Queen learnt that one of these men had been elected Prime Minister of Australia, another rose to become Brigadier General in the US Army, the third became the Governor-General of Montana, the fourth became the Minister of Agriculture in Canada and so on! It is instructive, to say the least, to come across such nuggets at a time when xenophobia seems to be rising in India and indeed the Indian subcontinent. While Mandela’s Conversations has a lot to offer the lay reader, for politicians aspiring to become leaders, its reading should be made mandatory.

As in all conversations, this collection too includes much that is mundane like a conversation in which he speaks of his visit to the zoo and, much later, to the Kruger National Park. At the same time, the book includes such nuggets as the notes taken by Mandela while undergoing ‘revolutionary training’ in Algeria. One of the first lessons the aspiring revolutionaries were imparted was that the country’s elite must be made to realise that the masses of the people, however poor and illiterate they might be, are the country’s most important investment. This part of the notes is riveting because it could be lifted straight from Maoist guidelines.

Every action, for example, notes Mandela, had to have a military objective, a political objective and a psychological objective, his trainers stressed. "Your aim should be to destroy the legality of the government and to institute that of the people. There must be parallel authority in the administration of justice, in administration and in supplies". One just hopes the government does not ban the book!

In a sense it is a difficult book to read because of the stray strands of thought, almost as if the publishers wanted you to meditate and reflect after every page. On the other hand, it is an easy book to read because there is no compulsion to read it in one go. Like vintage wine, you can sip a little and reflect. All said, a delightful collection that makes you have a conversation with yourself.