In 2008, Penguin India chose to bring out Rabindranath Tagore’s brilliant little book, Nationalism, as a Penguin Classic. The editor in charge of this project, Diya Kar, decided – wisely or recklessly I cannot say – not to ask one of the many Kolkata-based experts on Tagore to write the introduction. Instead, she asked me, a non-Bengali speaker. I – wisely or recklessly – said yes.

Nationalism was based on lectures that Tagore had delivered in Japan and the US in 1916-17, during the First World War. I had read the book but knew that apart from reading it again, I had to read other works by Tagore that had a bearing on it. Fortunately, I had, over the years, bought a large number of works by Tagore, either in translation or originally written in English, from Bangalore’s wonderful Select Book Shop. These included rare, fugitive, and out-of-print pamphlets and books, dealing with his talks on politics and society, his travels in Iran, Java, the Soviet Union, and other places, and his correspondence.

I took all I had by Rabindranath Tagore to the Nilgiris, and spent a month reading and taking notes on them. The exercise was joyous, and revelatory, for I discovered that while perhaps one had to know Bengali to truly appreciate Tagore’s greatness as a poet, his originality as a political thinker comes through strikingly even in translation. My readings showed me that the main arguments of Nationalism had been anticipated in essays Tagore had written a decade previously, during the Swadeshi movement of 1905-08, and had been amplified or modified in essays he wrote later, during the 1920s and 1930s. I also found that the influence of Tagore on the political and moral thought of Gandhi and Nehru was somewhat greater than most people had supposed.

I sent the draft of my introduction to Tagore’s Nationalism to Rukun Advani, who sent these crisp comments in response:

Overall, the Tagore essay is excellent – very readable and enlightening, and using an extremely wide array of primary and secondary sources. 

But yes I think there is an excessive use of quotation. For me, this excess began to seem apparent at the point where Tagore basically says similar things about universalism vs nationalism in his China trip (around footnote 42 and later). You could maybe reduce the use of his own words around there. I do not think you should in any way curtail or reduce the use of quotations in which hosts and critics are reacting to Tagore’s universalism – their reactions are always extremely interesting. But Tagore himself over the China trip could be reduced via some judicious paraphrasing. The other bit that could be slightly reduced is Nehru vis-à-vis Tagore at the personal level – some of the stuff on their first meeting and Indira going to Visvabharati seems tangential. The intellectual debt bits are fine.

The other thing you might consider inserting into this essay is a little more contextual information that you as historian provide on ideas of universalism/ internationalism and nationalism; that Tagore’s culturalist position, within which nationalism and colonialism can sometimes appear like two sides of the same evil coin, is coming out of hoary traditions of indigenous poetic quiescence and bhakti, as well as eclectically from similar otherworldly and spiritualist perspectives on oppression within Christian and Eastern traditions; that within the wartime era of aggression and retaliatory nationalism such poetic/spiritualist positions are bound to seem wishy-washy, much as secular liberal positions are often now dubbed wishywashy in the clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity in our own time; and that Gandhi’s genius lay in some ways in marrying two opposed visions, namely the Tagorean vision of gentleness and eclectic borrowing from other cultures with the nationalist courage of Mazzini and Garibaldi, into a Tolstoyan moral force which was all his own. In that sense, Tagore’s opposition to nationalism cannot be summed up by being seen as opposed to the Gandhian position on account of their differences over non-cooperation. You do say all this in some ways, but as a reader, I’d be happy if you could add a bit on the genealogies of Tagore’s humanist positions. There seems such a strong sense of Shelley and Beethoven and German Romanticism in his positions, so there must be literature on how he arrived at this John Bright kind of radicalism which transcends nationalist aggression without negating the ideals of nationalism. 

To these general, analytical comments, Rukun had added one correction based on his knowledge of Western classical music:

Your phrase “operas based on the works of RimskyKorsakoff” looks odd to me – Rimsky-Korsakov was himself an opera composer (apart from being a staunch Russian nationalist who, like Tagore, was part of the country gentry brought up on folktale and folksong), so perhaps the phrase should be “operas by RimskyKorsakov”.  

As a last illustration of Rukun Advani’s editorial genius, I offer his comments on the draft of a piece I wrote on Narendra Modi. This was in February 2013, when Modi was first making manifest his desire to be prime minister of India. I saw the man as megalomaniac as well as sectarian, and wished to warn readers against accepting at face value Modi’s claims that he had set aside his divisive past and was now a Vikash Purush, a Man of Development. I sent Rukun what I had written. He read it and offered what he said were only some “minor thoughts”, namely:

Modi’s voice betrays his authoritarian streak more straightforwardly than anything else that he does. Anyone who has heard him speak in public instantaneously recognises that he is a fascist of thoroughbred pedigree. The intent of his voice is to bludgeon his audience into worshipping him and following him on account of fearing him. Social scientists don’t analyse auditory affect adequately (maybe Film Studies people do in their jargon-ridden stuff?), but you have only to listen to Modi for fifteen minutes to know this is a man who will remove anyone who comes in his way.  

I revised the piece accordingly, and after it was published in the Hindu, sent him a link, singling out a paragraph which was, as I put it, “the latest example of Advani masquerading as Guha”:

Mr Modi’s desire to dominate is manifest in his manner of speaking. Social scientists don’t tend to analyse auditory affect, but you have only to listen to the Gujarat Chief Minister for fifteen minutes to know that this is a man who will push aside anyone who comes in his way. The intent of his voice is to force his audience into following him on account of fearing him.  

I should add, if merely to save face, that some other sentences and judgements were entirely mine. Writing a year and a bit before the next general elections, I argued that:

the real reason that Narendra Modi is unfit to be Prime Minister of India is that he is instinctively and aggressively authoritarian. Neither Mr Modi’s admirers nor his critics may like this, but the truth is that of all Indian politicians past and present, the person the Gujarat Chief Minister most resembles is Indira Gandhi of the period 1971-77. Like Mrs Gandhi once did, Mr Modi seeks to make his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality.   

I further remarked:

There is something of Indira Gandhi in Narendra Modi, and perhaps just a touch of Sanjay Gandhi too – as in the brash, bullying, hyper-masculine style, the suspicion (and occasional targeting) of Muslims. Either way, Mr Modi is conspicuously unfitted to be the reconciling, accommodating, plural, democratic Prime Minister that India needs and deserves.  

Some of the forecasts I have made over the years in print have gone awfully awry. But this one – sadly – has stood up all too well.

Excerpted with permission from The Cooking of Books: A Literary Memoir, Ramachandra Guha, Juggernaut.