Reading and writing my grandfather’s story has been somewhat of a surreal experience for me, as many narratives that unfolded through his pages were also playing out in front of me in real time. A plethora of issues – cow slaughter, religious conversions, linguistic autonomy, Hindi as a national language, minority appeasement and majority dominance; charges of sedition, public safety, treachery and defamation; allegations that the nation is in danger from its own proselytising or assertive minorities, or from “Macaulay’s Liberals”; sinister divide-and-rule policies of those in power – eerily resonated and flitted between the two time-frames.

On one occasion, as charges of sedition were slapped with indiscriminate alacrity for punishing dissent under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), I was reading about Jagat Narain Lal being charged under the same sedition law, the same section of the same penal code, a century ago.

In another instance, when the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was being imposed on dissenting citizens with predatory zeal, I was reading about Jagat Babu being hauled up for unlawful activities.

In many other instances when puritanical notions of culture, and “bhartiya sanskriti”, of what is obscene and profane were playing out in real time (“offensive” depictions of godly characters and deified historical-cum-mythical characters; censorship of films on grounds of “obscenity”; dress-code prescriptions, etc), I was simultaneously reading about how Jagat Narain Lal was charged for obscenity because he, as the editor of Mahavir magazine, allowed the publication of an advertisement of Kok Shastra (translated on Amazon as Hindu Secrets of Love ) on Mahavir’s back-cover.

It is quite astonishing that despite so much movement in the fortunes of a nation, there is a part, maybe the very core itself, that seems stuck in an unyielding past.

We are a large family, larger when all my ten aunts and uncles were alive and we had not lost three of our forty-strong contingent of cousins. Considering Jagat Narain Lal was a freedom fighter who spent many years in jail, his tryst with law and the British government should have been a fertile ground for many family stories. But it was not so.

Perhaps it was because we (my parents and us siblings) never stayed in Patna where many of my aunts and uncles lived, in or around his house in Kadam Kuan on the present-day Jagat Narain Lal Road. Perhaps the physical distance separated us from collective invocations of memories, stories, secrets that are shared with abandon only amongst people who share ties of time or place.

But perhaps the absence of stories, and the disinterest in Jagat Narain Lal’s legacy, was also because of the uncommonness and oddities of his family, about which I heard in bits from the older generation that remains – my father, my chacha and phupha (uncle and uncle-in-law, respectively) and two phuas.

My grandmother, Ram Pyari Devi, also took part in the freedom movement and was jailed during the Quit India Movement. In fact, Pratima phua, who as a little child stayed with her mother in the jail, tells me that my dadi was in the late stages of pregnancy then and my youngest phua was born in the jail. After independence, my grandmother remained a member of the Bihar Legislative Council for more than a decade, with one term as the Speaker of the house.

So here was a household of ten children, and a few grandchildren, living with parents who had active political careers, in a family where the main breadwinner had sacrificed his legal career responding to Gandhi’s call for Non-cooperation and subsequently spent long periods in jail. Means were meagre and “parenting” time was sporadic and unpredictable.

The children at best thrived on benign neglect though emphasis on their steady education remained a steady component. There is a college he founded in Khagaul, Patna, Bihar – Jagat Narain Lal College – that bears testimony to his abiding interest in education and pedagogy. But pride in their parents’ careers and achievements took a backseat to stories of negligence and penury.

My phua, Pratima Verma, recounts her memories of her mother’s meetings and association with many big names of the Indian national movement. She writes: “We got an opportunity to see and interact with many influential leaders, social workers, stalwarts, but we remained bereft of the security, bonding and the feeling of being nurtured that ‘ordinary’ parents were able to give to their children...It also meant that for me I had kind of lost my parents. They belonged more to the nation than to us children.”

This is a feeling echoed by Jagat Babu’s other children too. The experience of paucity and neglect is a thread that runs through their memories. So, as a granddaughter, I heard more stories of inattention, grievances and hurt from his children, rather than stories of their parents’ role in nation-building.

In these stories of neglect, perhaps there is a need for memory – personal and historical – to remember a man with more affection and more credence than has been given to him. It is only when I coaxed my aunts and uncles, during the writing of the book that a few stories emerged out of the recesses of their memories, sometimes with a smile and pride that was reassuring.

My father, Shrish Chandra, narrates this story about the Quit India Movement: Jagat Babu, carrying a reward of Rs 10,000, was fleeing arrest, making his way, in hiding, from Patna to his constituency in Arrah with the Bihar regiment close on his heels. Surrounded from both sides on the Koilvar bridge, he dived into the Son river below, was able to hold his breath for a long time underwater and escaped arrest.

Such was his mastery over pranayama and yoga, my father tells us with pride, that he could hold his breath for unusually long periods of time. The story goes that he swam over three kilometres before he came aground, eluding arrest and making his way to Arrah. On reaching Arrah, he carried out his mission, handed over charge, gave instructions to members of the local Congress and then surrendered voluntarily.

An elder cousin of mine, Amit Kumar, narrated another detail, possibly of the same incident, and with the flourish that stories gather as they roll along generations. Apparently, Jagat Narain Lal was not fleeing alone. He and his compatriot banked on a secluded shore of the Ganga (the Son is a tributary of the Ganga but note that the river has changed to a holier avatar in my cousin’s memory). One day, they climbed a tree to stay in hiding and escape attention. Soon it was dusk and Jagat Babu decided it was time for his sandhya puja (evening prayers).

His compatriot warned him that this was not a good time for him to come out in the open, but he did – his evening prayers were part of a daily religious ritual that could not be compromised with under any circumstances, even an impending arrest. He got down from the tree, went to the shore of the Ganga, washed his feet and face, spread his gamchha under a tree and began his meditation and prayers.

As expected, he caught the attention of a British patrol, and a soldier mounted on a horse came up to him and inquired, “Tum Jagat Babu ko dekha hai?” (in his anglicised Hindi, my cousin impersonated: “Have you seen Jagat Babu?”). My grandfather shook his head in denial, with his eyes closed and still in meditative pose. The troops left, after which Jagat Babu must have made his way to Arrah.

Another story narrated by Jagat Narain Lal’s daughter, Asha Sinha, was about how during the 1947 riots he disguised himself as a Muslim and tried to calm the community and douse the communal fires.

But my favourite story is the one my chacha Sushil Chandra Lal, the youngest of Jagat Narain Lal’s offsprings, narrated. As a young boy, he was accompanying his father from Patna to Ranchi (then the summer capital of Bihar and now the capital of Jharkhand state) sometime in the early years after Independence. Travelling along with Jagat Narain were Syed Mahmud (senior Congress leader and member of Krishna Sinha’s Bihar Cabinet) and BN Azad (the editor of The Indian Nation) among a few others that my uncle could not recall.

The proximate environs of a train compartment led to many a conversation, one such being between Syed Mahmud and Jagat Babu that turned out to be an exegetical commentary on the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. Interestingly, the expository roles were not as you would expect. It was Jagat Babu with his knowledge of Persian who expounded on the Quran, and it was Syed Mahmud with his knowledge of Sanskrit who held forth on the Bhagavad Gita. Much of the conversation was lost on the young child, but my chacha remembered a headline in the Indian Nation the next morning: “Maulana Jagat Narain Lal debates with Pandit Syed Mahmud”.

Jagat Narain Lal’s command over both Sanskrit and Persian was legendary. In his own memoir, Light unto a Cell, he narrates an incident from the first session of the Bihar Provincial Hindu Conference in Darbhanga in 1927. Swami Bharti Krishna Tirtha of Shardapith was addressing a large gathering in fluent Sanskrit. A Maharashtrian, who went by the name Barheji, known to have an intimate knowledge of Sanskrit, was translating the speech into Hindi.

Jagat Babu found Barheji struggling with the translation and helped him out. He writes: “My effort impressed the Pandits deeply; they appeared to be overawed by my erudition until I protested that it had only been god’s infinite mercy that had carried me through, not any proficiency in Sanskrit.”

Jagat Babu was a learned man with a deep interest in theology and philosophy. His writings and intellectual interests display a staggering repertoire and an impressive oeuvre. Tilak’s Gita Rahasya, Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means, James Allen’s From Poverty to Power (a treatise on how to find peace and contentment in the material world), Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi all became his sources of inspiration for spiritual and intellectual pursuits.

In his memoir, he references the Mahabharat, Bhagavad Gita and Isha Upanishad among others. His writings reflect a similar range of interests – property theory, citizenship, religious rights, Advaita philosophy, vidya and avidya, reason, unreason and so on. It is personally overwhelming – the range of his interests and the reach of his intellect.

In Pratima Verma’s memoir of Jagat Narain Lal, she mentions that during his various prison sojourns, he wrote seven book-length works:

  • Bharat Rashtra ki Avashyak Baatien.
  • Bharat ka Arthik Itihaas.
  • Bhartiya Nagrik Granthmala.
  • Hindu Samaj Darshan.
  • Hindu Dharm ki Pehli Pothi.
  • Light unto a Cell.
  • Jyotsna (an anthology of poems)

I could not trace copies of these books. Barring Light unto a Cell, they may not even have been published, and the manuscripts are probably lost. But one does get a sense of his intent from his notebooks and diaries, which contain extensive notes, sometimes even chapters, perhaps from a draft manuscript, on the aforementioned topics.

He wrote a forty-page tract challenging Alfred Marshall’s classification of property and associated rights. His interventions in the Constituent Assembly debates on the right to religion (specifically on the right to propagate), citizenship, freedom of press, labour rights, linguistic reorganisation, etc, illuminate the world of conflicting ideologies as well as of consensus building. From the quest for spiritual knowledge, to the tendency towards personal introspection, his diaries and notes give us a glimpse of a man whose quest for self-realisation and yearning for freedom, personal as well as political, was boundless.

That said, Jagat Babu never quite managed to straddle the two boats of political and spiritual freedom with the depth of a Vivekananda or the wisdom of a Gandhi. His political journey remained conflicted and self-admittedly, riddled with many anxieties.

These memories are poignant even if they are not the most reliable indicator of “facts” as they stand recorded in history. More often than not, memories are unstable and often unconsciously flawed. They tether somewhere to factual signposts but at the end of the day they are the living imagination of events and people as they once existed. As they re-centre a bygone universe, they re-create not so much the “facts” as much as the presence of those times.

But memories are also significant for another reason: We stand today at the edge of living memories of the freedom movement. With all the participants dead, what remains of their experiences of upheaval, personal loss, trauma, sacrifice, generosity, courage, are diaries, notes, letters, poems and reflections. While freedom movements are complex, protracted events in history, shaping the destiny of something as large as a Nation, they also have within them many personal histories and stories that defy easy pigeon- holing and remonstrations. And small though this story might be, it is large enough for you to want to reopen those boxes into which our nationalist history has been neatly packed.

Competing Nationalisms

Excerpted with permission from Competing Nationalisms: The Sacred and Political Life of Jagat Narain Lal, Rajshree Chandra, Penguin Books India.