Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason – Chidanand Rajghatta

LankeshI saw this book in my list of recommendations but did not know the face on the cover.  However, the high rating caused my interest to raise and I decided to see why it is so highly rated.  The name Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017) did not sound familiar but I thought to myself that she must have been someone unique to have a memoir written about her life by ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta.  As he explains, they had been divorced for more than twenty-five years but had remained close friends to the day she died.  On September 5, 2017, Lankesh was shot and killed at her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore. She was fifty-five years old.  Her death marked a very dark turn in the ongoing battle between extremism and rationalism. And as Rajghatta points out throughout the book, Lankesh was never one to hold her tongue.  She stood by her beliefs and gave her life for what she believed in.  This book is his tribute to his former wife, close friend and pioneer for a more tolerate and diverse India. 

India truly is one of the most fascinating countries on earth and I do believe many of us fail to appreciate just how diverse it is. There are hundreds if not thousands of languages and faiths spread across the country sometimes with large variations in practices. Growing up, the people I encountered here in New York from India subscribed to the Hindu belief system. Former classmates whose families had emigrated from India explained as best they could what Hinduism was. As a result, my friends and I had to come to associate Hinduism with India and remained unaware that it is only one of the many system of belief. Now that I have aged, I see how much we did not know and I am proud to say that I am no longer young enough to know everything. Hinduism is indeed a fascination belief system and the author addresses the confusion surrounding Hinduism, relaying it in layman’s terms with this statement:

“Hinduism itself is not considered a dogmatic religion and not strictly a religion of any one book. Some would say it is not even a religion but a loose set of beliefs constructed around many books—the Vedas, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata) and the Ramayana.” 

Here, the author steps deep inside the topic of faith in India, allowing us to see how extremist and rationalist have been set on a collision course that shows no signs of changing direction. And while I read through the book, I began to see that there is much about religion in India that I still did not yet know. However, the author did not write a book solely on that topic but rather an account of his memories of Gauri. Religion is central to the story but certainly not its basis. Readers who are not well versed in Indian may find the discussion on faith to be slightly overwhelming. The main focus is on Lingayatism, a Shaivite Hindu tradition which both the author and Lankesh know intimately. However, neither are religious and the author admits that he is in fact agnostic. And others who are a part of the story are of the same mindset and even atheistic. This may surprise some readers who expect to find dedication to a strict belief system but I feel that the book shows without question that within India, faith has no set standard.

By the author’s account, Gauri Lankesh was truly one of a kind. And it is admirable that the two remained friends for so many years after divorcing. But it does show that what existed between was genuine love, not necessarily entirely romantic, but simply between one person and another. Rajghatta truly misses her and her rhetoric which even he had to admit was nothing short of challenging. I felt that this statement about her sets the tone for the book:

“Gauri Lankesh was disputatious to a fault. I should know. We argued relentlessly, mostly good-naturedly, in our exuberant youth when India was so full of promise and problems, as it still is. But she was also a large-hearted and fair-minded woman, a trait that extended our friendship beyond marriage.”

It is not always common to receive such words of praise from a former spouse but it is a testament to her influence on those who knew her best. As Rajghatta gets into the story, what develops is a picture of a changing India once known as a place for liberal and progressive expression, into one that does not tolerate dissent from ideology. Lankesh was appalled at this shift and throughout her life crusaded against fundamentalism taking over Indian society. She paid the ultimate price but her spirit shall always remain present. Disturbingly, her death was one in a series of murders of those who spoke out against the shift to the religious right. The murders are brutal and following the deaths of each, Rajghatta and Gauri ponder what is happening to the India they called home. Gauri never left India but Rajghatta moved to the United States in the years that followed their divorce. And when taking a look at India, he makes this keen observation:

“A word about the title: as an Indian who has worked abroad for nearly twenty-five years, I’ve often felt it is only when you reside outside India you understand India better. Distance lends perspective. Living in India tends to desensitise us to both its good and bad.”

To help us understand the sharp divisions surrounding faith, Rajghatta focuses on the scriptures that have formed part of Indian culture. The most famous are the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He discusses them but not in extensive detail as that would have required another and much longer book. But they are relevant to the story at hand so that we can see their influence of dogma and its development. I believe that it may help readers to look up each book independently for further reading as there is a good story to be found within both.

What I liked the most about the book is that it did not read like a standard biography but felt more like a discussion about a friendship that was unique. It is clear that Gauri Lankesh was unorthodox in mainstream India (she never had children and abhorred religious customs) and because of her free spirit nature, she had earned the wrath of those committed to fundamentalism. She continued the Lankesh Patrike, the publication that was created by her father P. Lankesh and backed legislation opposed to funamentalist expansion. Her position was not an easy one to take but her courage shines brightly in the memories of Rajghatta. As India continues to change, we can only wonder which direction it will go and what Lankesh would think if she were still alive. Those in the west may not know her story but I do recommend this book to learn who she was and why she matters in India. Further, it should remind Americans of the value in freedom and why extremist ideology poses a constant threat to our way of life. Lankesh is gone but her work is far from done and others are proudly carrying the torch.

In old India, it was a badge of honour to be called a radical, a liberal, a progressive—labels that conveyed a readiness to shed one’s selfish concerns to fight for a better world. Today, they are words of abuse and any action that questions the status quo or seeks to alter it can be deemed extremist, or worse, anti-national.” – Chidanand Rajghatta

Highly recommended.




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