How differently does our understanding of history change when it is seen as contextual? Circles of Freedom, TCA Raghavan’s latest book, attempts to move beyond biography or narration by letting the setting have a say. Turning its attention to a circle of individuals within a larger political environment, the book looks at the way in which their interactions shaped the Indian independence movement. “Not a ringside view, but a view just beyond the ring”, as the blurb promises. In this unique premise, what can we make of this book? Does it live up to its innovative premise?

Stretching across the first half of the 20th century, our narrative unravels against the backdrop of the Indian Independence movement. The cast: a geographically diverse, but elite English-speaking crowd within the Congress party. Asaf Ali, an England-trained Delhi barrister, is the primary protagonist. His “circle”, consisting of Sarojini Naidu (a close friend) and Aruna Asaf Ali (his wife), along with a few other friends, enter and exit the book at various points in time, sometimes in the limelight, sometimes as flitting mentions. We see others like Jawaharlal Nehru, MA Ansari and Mohammad Ali Jinnah appear as secondary characters in this tale. At its core are the changes in Congress and Muslim identity politics seen from Asaf’s point of view.

This book is a tight-paced narrative that moves with its sources – treading lightly where little is to be learnt (Asaf’s initial jail terms, his growth as a barrister in India), and focusing intensively on events at other points of time (Delhi in the 1920s during Asaf’s political initiation, and Ahmednagar jail, 1942-45). Raghavan’s experience as a diplomat allows for subtle interventions in places that inform the reader of some facts. Minor interventions, but these give an insight into the author’s own immersion in the process.

Reading around the circle

Despite its quick and deliberate, pacing, the book does not rush through key moments. Balancing creativity and fact, this is neither a fictionalised account nor a dry recounting of sources. The writing and narration are light and yet delves into the seriousness of events through quotes, reports and academic citations.

Extensive research lies behind the book. This is seen best in the end notes and acknowledgements. From the various institutions and scholarly sources, one is able to see that this book has been well stitched together from what is available of diaries, written material, oral interviews and newspaper accounts. The newspaper accounts are especially interesting as they give us a contemporary societal view of Asaf’s life. One such event that was widely reported is his wedding, which, being between a Hindu and Muslim (with a considerable gap in age between them), led to much talk – some support and a lot of criticism.

Backed by this research and contextual understanding, Raghavan builds images and reconstructs events, while at the same time posing original and relevant questions about the characters, their thoughts, and their actions. One does not get to the end of this book with an impression of Asaf and his friends being exemplary human beings. This is neither a biography nor a hagiography.

The importance that Raghavan gives the characters is subordinate to the larger picture. In fact, the reader is shown throughout the book that these are flawed humans, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and independent choices. Asaf is a skilled speaker, slow to enter politics but later standing defending Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt in the Parliament bombing case – figures whom he admired but whose actions he did not completely endorse.

There are many other examples of problems and conflicts. Syed Mahmud, a close friend of Nehru’s and his roommate in Ahmednagar prison, gives up his friends and politics in fear for his health, causing mistrust between those still in confinement. Even within the Congress, disagreements are constant, with Asaf’s candidature as a Delhi Congress leader to the Central Legislature in 1926 being opposed by other leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya, who prefer a Hindu Mahasabha candidate.

Gauging the circle’s depth

This book deals with “the predicament of a moderate Muslim in the national movement”, as Raghavan puts it. In the issues that it deals with, this book occupies a very important place in today’s historiography of the national movement, in connection with the political moment of majoritarianism that we live in, as well as in understanding the role of religion in shaping the national movement. Dealing with the question of religious polarisation during the freedom movement, it contextualises and historicises the demand for Pakistan, and the growing movement of Hindu nationalism alongside the protagonists’ own journeys.

This is especially important in light of the debate over electoral reservations and Islamophobia today. Hindu-Muslim religious tensions are as much a part of the book as the fight against the British, in their equal relevance to the characters. Raghavan deals with these issues in a more-than-clinical, but less-than-experiential way.

How far does the book live up to its premise? While it holds its own to a large degree, there are two elements where I think it could have gone a bit further.

As the book states in the blurb, the book’s focus is on the life of Asaf Ali. It tries to bring the circle into the narrative, but for some reason they feel more like additions to Asaf’s own life story. A chapter on Sarojini Naidu’s life in Hyderabad and accounts of Syed Mahmud’s life in Bihar and Allahabad don’t shake this feeling. The second half of the book brings in a lot of Aruna’s independent life, and some secondary characters’ moments are given their due in influencing the story – Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s romance with Syud Hossain, or Jinnah’s political humiliation in front of his young bride Ruttie in the 1919 Nagpur Congress Session, for instance.

We are told that the story is meant to be through the eyes of the circle. But once in the political arena, where are the friends? While it begins with them, by the end the book begins to feel like a biography of Asaf told in context.

At the same time I also wonder how the narrative might have changed if Asaf’s considerations of events beyond the sphere of Congress politics and Muslim identity politics had driven the narrative. While I understand the author’s limiting factors, I am left wondering what Asaf’s thoughts of someone as important as Ambedkar would have been. The Gandhi-Ambedkar pact of 1928, a moment whose every aspect is otherwise discussed independently (separate electorates, elections, Gandhi himself, the independence movement), itself disappears into a few lines summing it up. Ambedkar appears only twice overall, once as part of the above-mentioned summation, and once in quotes. While I grant that the Constituent Assembly and other such events might have been beyond the scope of this book, given the focus on separate Muslim electorates, the pact is one I wish had been given some consideration.

This is a book that anyone interested in getting a feel of the times and of immersing themselves historically in the national movement should read. Though it is entirely an upper-levels story, it is fascinating and revealing in its style and structure. What it does very well is to demonstrate how interconnected history is, and how context matters in understanding it as much as individuals and events do.

Circles of Freedom: Friendship, Love and Loyalty in The Indian National Struggle, TCA Raghavan, Juggernaut Books.