Some months ago I finished reading Manohar Malgonkar’s book ‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi‘. The work was first published in 1978, but somehow, had not come to my attention. I have read Malgonkar’s fiction; ‘The Combat of Shadows’ being the first. It is a passionate novel, set in the tea plantations of the North-East, with revenge as its theme. Malgonkar writes with great ease and felicity. His understanding of the Indian mind is second-to-none, and his characters come alive in the narrative. Later I also read ‘Distant Drums’, a novel set around the 1857 Sepoy Revolt, whose protagonists are the leaders of that revolt. ‘A Bend in the River’ is also set in the times before Indian independence and the Partition that let loose a river of blood across the subcontinent. All Mangonkar’s fiction is full of passionate drama, with many melodramatic scenes of cinematic intensity. I have always wondered why no film-maker has attempted to bring ‘The Combat of Shadows’ and ‘A Bend in the River’ to life on the silver screen! These two novels are admirably suited to the medium of cinema and would make for excellent viewing in the hands of a good craftsman.
‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’ has been reprinted in 2008 by Roli Books and this new edition has been richly enhanced by some, hitherto unpublished, documents and photographs of the many characters involved in the actual conspiracy, and the subsequent trials. There are also photocopies of the statements made by the indicted people as well as by the investigating agents. There are photocopies of the actual Air India tickets bought by Godse and Apte when they embarked on their deadly mission from Bombay to Delhi. There are copies of the entries made in the Visitors’ Index book maintained by Hotel Marina, New Delhi, where Godse had stayed in Room No. 40 when the first attempt on Gandhi’s life was made on 20th January 1948. There are pictures of the two firearms procured by the conspirators to perpetrate their foul deed, and a complete account of how these came into their possession.
‘The Men Who Killed Gandhi’ is a painstaking journey that began in 1960 as an assignment from Life International, and it came out as a story in its February 1968 issue. But, by then, Malgonkar had realized that his story and the research behind it warranted a book, much more than just a magazine article. So, he sat down to enlarge the story with inputs from several sources, of which the Kapur Commission’s report proved to be most invaluable. The edition that was finally published in 1978 was until then, perhaps the most factual account of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi. But, as Malgonkar writes in the preface to the 2008 edition: “The book first came out when the country was in the grip of the ‘Emergency’, and books were subjected to a censorship of the utmost ruthlessness. This made it incumbent upon me to omit certain vital facts such as, for instance, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s secret assurance to Mr. L. B. Bhopatkar, that his client, Mr. V. D. Savarkar had been implicated as a murder-suspect on the flimsiest grounds. Then again, certain other pertinent details such as the ‘doctoring’ of a confession by a magistrate whose duty it was only to record what was said only came out in later years.” This edition, according to the author, “is the complete single account of the plot to murder Mahatma Gandhi.” The edition brought out by Roli Books has been a great success which can be ascertained from the fact that between 2008 and 2011, it has undergone five impressions.
The Last Castrato
After having read and pondered over this wonderfully produced volume, I moved on, quite by chance, to read an almost innocuous novel titled The Last ‘Castrato‘ by John Spencer Hill. The story is set in Florence, Italy, a city that is said to overawe visitors by its sheer volume of culture. Situated on the banks of the silvery river Arno, the city has a domineering influence on people when they first espy Brunelleschi’s Dome, or Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. The quaint, fairy-tale-like Ponte Vecchio straddles the river like a magical bridge promising some wonderland on the other side. Florence can be both intimidating, and yet captivating.
The novel recounts a saga in which the victim of a crime committed almost three decades ago, exacts his revenge on the wrong-doers, by slitting their throats and severing their vocal chords. The victim, it appears, was criminally castrated by a group of aspiring musicians who called themselves the Camerati Dell’Arte, the Companions of Art. In their attempt to restore Renaissance opera to its original roots, they decided that they needed the voice of a castrato. They abducted a young peasant boy, plied him with laudanum, and then proceeded to emasculate him. However, they were unable to market their music because the recording companies guessed that the boy had been criminally assaulted and did not want to have anything to do with the group. The boy, however, never forgave the Camerati and exacted his revenge upon them in the most macabre manner that he could devise.
There is obviously no connection between these two books, one a factual account of a conspiracy launched by five fiercely patriotic individuals who, although they held Gandhi in high esteem, felt that he had betrayed the cause of the majority, and therefore, had to be violently removed from the scene. In the end, their fanaticism got the better of their patriotism, and they succeeded in killing the Mahatma, who, if he had lived, may have ‘changed the shape of India’s polity and society’. The world, according to Pramod Kapoor, the editor of the volume, may not have been as violent as it is today. The second is a totally fictional work, in which a wronged individual seeks revenge for personal satisfaction.
However, it is rather ironical that Italy played a small role in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. Of the two guns that Godse procured for the deed, it was the 9mm Beretta, an automatic pistol, made in Italy, which fired the fatal shots. The pistol had found its way to India from Ethiopia after the Second World War. Fate had decreed that an Italian weapon would be used to remove the Apostle of Peace from this earth.
Quattrochi And The Destructive Italian Connection
Ironically, it was again the connection with an Italian; this time an individual, that brought down another Gandhi. The unhealthy influence of Ottavio Quatrocchi was chiefly responsible for turning Rajiv Gandhi from a promising Prime Minister into a commission agent, thereby destroying his credibility with the common man and bringing his government down from the heights of unprecedented majority to an ignominious minority, within the period of just one term. Quatrocchi was able to peddle his influence only because he was an Italian, the nationality of Rajiv Gandhi’s wife.
The destructive Italian connection continues twenty-two years (and counting) after the downfall of Rajiv Gandhi and his untimely and tragic assassination by a Sri Lankan suicide-bomber. Sonia Gandhi, his widow, continues to control the Congress Party as its longest-serving President, and the country as an uncrowned Empress who commands almost Caesarian, unconstitutional authority. The constricting embrace in which she holds the Party has made it into a lifeless, spineless organism, almost a brain-dead creature. The government she heads (as the Chairperson of the UPA) is prostate at her feet and its Prime Minister, unable to market his voice, has become the lead singer in the Opera Macabre that she is conducting in New Delhi, with the Indian media playing their diabolical orchestra from the wings. In his final statement, Nathuram Godse had this to say about the Indian press: “The Press had displayed such weakness and submission to the High Command of the Congress that it allowed the mistakes of leaders pass away freely and unnoticed and made vivisection easy by their policy.” We can see that nothing has changed since then.
Will India survive its fatal Italian connection?
By Vijaya Dar
Image Source: Quattrochi