100 Great Indians

From the heroic spirit of Chandrashekhar Azad to the soulful music of Grammy winner A.R. Rahman, these short biographies are informative, inspiring and thought-provoking.

100 Great Indians

Casually ask any educated citizen to name a hundred Indians, men and women, who can legitimately be described as ‘great’ in the last one thousand years and one may be in for a surprise. No two persons – will probably provide names of the same candidates.

Actually, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. Indians, with their long and distinguished history, culture and tradition are among the truly great achievers in the World and their name is legion. But a thoughtful citizen will probably first ask how the word ‘great’ is defined.

100 Great Indians

This should have been the first task the publisher should have noted, but sadly the book carries no introduction and indulges in no interpretative exercise. Worse, the sort ‘biographies’ of each chosen character – none exceeds 1,600 words – are arranged in alphabetical order. Fancy Aamir Hussain Khan leading the list and ranked with Akhbar! It makes no sense.

If one is to make a few suggestions, one would be that there should have been an explanatory chapter stating the aim and objective of the book, the readership targeted and why the text has been kept short and non-controversial. One suspects that the book is primarily meant for students between the age of 13 and 16, not just for their guidance but for their education as well. A generation, which needs to be told who Mahatma Gandhi is needs to be informed of India’s great heritage.

100 Great Indians

In the second place it would have been a wise thing to do, to classify the candidates as belonging to different fields of human endeavour like rulers and rebels, saints and savants, politicians and progenitors, sportsmen and literatures and the like, so that comparison, odious at any time, between one group and another is avoided, and confusion less confounded.

Yes, Raja Ravi Varma is written about as a great artiste, just as Maqbool Fida Hussain is and G.D. Birla and Lakshmi Mittal are taken cognisance of because both have risen to great heights as industrialists. It should have been made clear in the explanatory chapter that the choice of individuals is purely arbitrary and no offence meant to others and there would be a sequential book on the same topic.

Surely, one might ask if Sankara can be recognised as a great philosopher activist why shouldn’t others like Madhwa and Ramanuja? If something, howsoever brief can be written about Sachin Tendulkar, why forget Sunil Gawaskar and even more importantly cricketers of another era like C.K. Nayudu, Vijay Merchant and Vinoo Mankad?

100 Great Indians

A historian who knows the past very well would have every right to ask why so much praise is heaped on Tipu Sultan, who, many believe, has been a tyrant of the worst order.

The so-called Tiger of Mysore is described as a “compe-tent and valiant soldier during whose regime “huge advances were made in agriculture, industry and trade” and whose  “multi-faceted personality continues to evoke awe and admiration among many”. Really?

Doesn’t whoever wrote the piece on Tipu – the author or authors of this work remain unrecognised – obvious know how he treated some 60,00 Catholics of Kanara or of Tipu’s zeal to convert some 40,000 Hindus into Islam in a fortnight? Placing Tipu Sultan in the same category as Ashoka not only shows ignorance but is an insult to the latter.

The chapter on Indira Gandhi is equally disappointing. The Emergency she introduced and its effects on the country are dismissed in one line. There is not a word either about Rajiv Gandhi or her more controversial son Sanjay whose name is in the mud.

Is it because the intention of the book is not to delineate a person’s character in all its multifacial aspects but more specifically focus only on what is good and notable? If that was the publisher’s intention, it should again have been specified. One can understand a desire not to confuse young people’s minds.

The piece on Kabir Das (or on Kabir, as he is generally known) provides no background to the social ethos of his time. What was the political and social atmosphere in India in his time (1440-1518) that if there was no Kabir, one would have had to invent one? Where was he born? The claim is made that “some believe that he was abandoned as an infant by a Brahmin widow and discovered floating on a lotus leaf by a Muslim weaver from Banaras. Could a mere leaf have been able to carry a child, howsoever small?

Kabir in his lifetime had written several dohas; if even one was reproduced in his brief biography it would have provided the reader some flavour of Kabir’s greatness. After all, in the piece on Mirabai, the author has reproduced an extract from one of her many devotional songs: mere tho giridhara gopala dussara na koi.

The choice of candidates is frustrating in the extreme. Bal Gangadhar Tilak is an obvious choice, but what about Gopala Krishna Gokhale? Film stars are covered, so are musicians and so, of course, are sports people, economists, administrators and social activists. Aurobindo is not forgotten, but why, may one ask, have Ramana Mhaharshi and Sai Baba of Shirdi been forgotten? Among ‘fearless revolutionaries’ Chandrashekhar Tiwari is mentioned but why has Bhagat Singh been ignored? Questions, questions, questions.

There is a sense of frustration while reading this book which was surely put together with the best of intentions to inform, educate and entertain, only to make the reader feel terribly let down. Sure, in a work of this kind there is no way in which everybody can be satisfied.

For all that, perhaps one should accept what is offered in a spirit of detachment and take it as a good beginning to be replicated with a greater sense of detachment in the years ahead. There is scope for a dozen more books of this kind, rich in content, appealing in style and above all inspirational in objective.

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