I discovered Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History by accident. Having skipped classes and paid no attention to my education for almost three years, I was on probation for the third time with a serious chance of being kicked out of one of the finest universities in the country. It was around this time that my life completely turned around. Having prepared myself mentally to being thrown out, I had shed all fear and started working hard with a new vigour, without the accompanying stress that arises out of such situations. I wanted to educate myself not for graduation or for grades but rather for education itself. Reading, for the first time, stopped being a chore for me. I started finding myself, for the first time, lost in library columns searching for books to read beyond those assigned in the reading list. One of the first books I stumbled upon was this book by Nehru.

Perhaps when one is down and out and looking for a way back in, almost anything can serve as a source of inspiration. In those tumultuous years when I was struggling to survive and graduate, a few of the books I read changed my life. They transformed me, helping me discover a deep repository of force within me that I did not even know I had. On this Guru Purnima, I want to talk about a few of these inspirational characters who helped me discover a new direction in life.

Nehru’s Glimpses of World History is a remarkable book. In the form of a series of letters to Indira Gandhi from jail, it is a compilation of essays on history from antiquity to the contemporary (the 1930s in this case). Interspersed with personal anecdotes and observations, the book provides a Leftist, modernist interpretation of history. Most importantly, all these stories from across the globe are understood in the context of the modern world: how do they relate to us today? While I may not necessarily agree with much of Nehru’s analyses, I could not help but marvel at his intellectual genius. The entire book, over 1,000 pages, was written without any reference books, purely from memory.

At a time when I was discovering my love for education, knowledge and history, Nehru’s erudition became my goal. I aspired to be as well read as him, as analytical as him. Like Nehru, I did not want my knowledge to be limited by any geographical area or time period. I wanted to understand the history of the world in a comprehensive manner. I wanted the scope of my knowledge to be as wide as Nehru’s, so that I could see how different global influences interact. While I might not share many of these ambitions today, at that time at least, Nehru the writer and scholar became my guru, who gave me direction when I had none.

Life lessons

Soon after, I found myself enrolled in a course on Gandhi’s politics of non-violence. This was not a coincidence but rather part of a journey. I was actively seeking out courses that I thought I might enjoy and want to learn about, rather than those that could have helped me score better. While Nehru’s erudition inspired me, Gandhi’s exhibition of self-control, fighting for the just cause, and love, even for one’s opponent, became lifelong lessons.

I finished his book, My Experiments with Truth, in a day. He was to become my conscience, my inner voice and my strength. Gandhi, the determined, principled fighter, became my lifelong companion. His voice of reason resonated in my head as I fought the impulse to lash out either in my professional or personal life. His mantra of bearing oppression patiently and courteously helped me survive some of the toughest periods of my life. Through Gandhi I learned that every setback in life is meant to make me stronger. I learned resilience and patience through my second guru – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Popularly, Bhagat Singh’s worldview and politics is understood to be diametrically opposed to that of Gandhi. While Gandhi stubbornly adhered to non-violence, Bhagat Singh, true to his Marxist interpretation, believed in a bloody revolution (there is, however, much denunciation of arbitrary violence in his later writings). I was almost the same age as Bhagat Singh when he was hanged, 23, when I discovered him. I devoured his writings, the numerous letters and essays he had written from jail and before. His clarity of thought and undying sense of determination was infectious. Here was a young man at the pinnacle of his youth, the height of his creative and physical energy, giving up his life for a larger cause. And even as he waited for his impending execution – for killing a British police officer to avenge the death of political leader Lala Lajpat Rai – he wrote with such articulation. His thirst for knowledge was remarkable. Even in the moments prior to his death, he was engrossed in reading a book.

Like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh too became my inner voice. He became my third guru who made me appreciate the vitality of my youth and the impermanence of it. He helped me realise that there are certain things beyond our immediate existence – that a life spent in isolation, unaware of the plight of the people around us is not a life worth living. There were, of course, many after them that left an inedible mark on my life but perhaps due to my own psychological state at that point, Nehru, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh became my gurus in their own unique ways.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, and A White Trail.