Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, A History Book Review

For those of you intimidated by reading History, I would encourage you to give it a chance. Yeah, history books are long, hundreds of pages; it at first appears that it can be dry. This is not the case when well written, and when reading History patience does have its rewards. Oh, now there might be a lot of names, places, dates and it might be tough to follow. Again if well written and presented, then it should be easy to follow, stay with it. From History you not only learn about the past, the past also teaches us about the present situation and what could potentially happen in the future. For me those little nuggets of historical trivia also excite me. Growing up I had learned a lot about India’s fight for independence and Gandhi. When I read the cover of this book about Gandhi and Churchill, I was immediately drawn in, and I had to read the book.

This brings me to the topic of this review, Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, written by Arthur Herman, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for 2008. Herman is a former professor of history from Georgetown University, Catholic University, George Mason University, and Smithsonian’s Campus. His interest in Indian History spawned as a youth from his father, who himself has written about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gandhi. As the author writes “I was in High School when I helped my father to correct proofs of his translation of the Bhagavad Gita”.

Arthur Herman provides a revealing accounting of the politics of the British Empire in India. While as the title indicates the major players in this author’s account of the colonial history are Gandhi and Churchill, the book also nicely pieces together the relationships between all the key political figures in India, England, and also world events like a puzzle. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the author’s fascinating recounting of World War II and also specifically Japan’s invasion of Asia and the impact of these events on the cause for India’s Independence. The author’s account of Japan’s invasion of Asia during World War II reads like a fast pace action novel, while also providing interesting historical facts. The following is a sample of the action from the book:

“After a year’s preparation, the Japanese attacked India. One thrust ran southward toward Imphal, less than fifty kilometers west of the Burmese border. The other stretched to Korma, as thousands of Japanese infantry poured through the thick jungle hoping to encircle the massive British base being built at Dimapur.”

The author paints Gandhi and Churchill as complex characters. Both men were characterized by discipline, determination for a cause, and strong principles. One way these characteristics were highlighted was through the author’s use of referencing primary sources of information throughout the book. The author described the seemingly parallel lives, yet integrally linked, of Churchill and Gandhi using fluid prose and nice transitions. It is fascinating how two great men, rivals, shaped the course of destiny for not only India, also the future of the World.

One feature of the book that I enjoyed was the footnotes that the author made along the way. The author at times would have relevant sidebar discussions on the footer, and I found that this provided a lot of interesting nuggets of historical facts. Overall the book provided a wealth of information on Indian History during the British Raj through Independence and also provided a view into the workings of the British Empire of the early 20th century.

I would highly recommend this book to all history aficionados. More specifically to those interested in India’s rise to Independence or the workings of the British Empire in India. This writing presents an objective and balanced view of Churchill and Gandhi. Also, as I commented at the start, if you are not sure about reading History, give it a chance; it can be fun and informative.