- Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity: Gandhi, Nehru and Iqbal
Javed Majeed's new book is an important intervention in contemporary auto/ biography studies. It is centrally concerned with the autobiographical writings of three figures, all published before the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. Mohandas K. Gandhi's and Jawaharlal Nehru's autobiographies are well [End Page 379] known internationally, but Majeed supplements them with less well-known autobiographical writings by the same authors: Gandhi's Satyagraha in South Africa and, stretching generic conventions somewhat, Nehru's voluminous The Discovery of India. In addition, the author compares these texts to the Persian poem Jāvīd Nāma by Muhammad Iqbal, the leader of the All India Muslim League who was one of the earliest proponents of a separate state for Muslims in South Asia. All three authors, Majeed argues, use autobiography as a means of production of "projects of selfhood" that are intimately bound up with the politics of nationalism (3). In contrast to many autobiographies produced in the subcontinent at this time, however, Gandhi's, Nehru's, and Iqbal's texts enact a "postnational" politics, frequently resisting homogenizing or fixed notions of nationhood.
In the initial half of Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity, Majeed examines his autobiographers' deployment of the trope of travel. The writings of Gandhi, Nehru, and Iqbal are embedded in a rich contextual discussion of both colonial ethnographic travel writing concerning India, and accounts of travel within and outside the subcontinent written by Indians during the same period. Such an approach enables a careful reading of the texts in question that abstractions such as "diaspora" or "globalization" frequently do not. Majeed thus notes that while the autobiographies write back to colonial ethnography, and indeed appropriate elements of colonial modernity, they are also influenced by a tradition of Indian travel writing. Nehru, for instance, in this reading "recovers a historical narrative of adventurous travel interrupted by British colonialism" (68), in the process re-imagining a new geopolitical map in which India is no longer peripheral. The second half of the book consists largely of chapters adapted from previously published papers, and is more eclectic in subject matter. Successive chapters address the question of Muslim nationalism in all three works, Gandhi's elaboration of vulnerable "inter-gender identities" in his presentation of self, Gandhi's meditation on truth and the possibilities of translation with particular reference to the Bhagavad Gita, and Iqbal's relationship with British Idealist philosophers. While this section of the study is less tightly structured—the chapter on truth and translation, for example, focuses more on translations of the Gita than it does on Gandhi—it also contains some of the most interesting individual discussions. An example might be Majeed's account of Gandhi's initial promotion of the word "satyagraha" as a means of translating the English term "passive resistance," but then later, with the term having taken on new meanings in an Indian context, struggling to find an English equivalent for the word. Satyagraha, in this reading, as a "multi-authored and multiply translated term" exemplifies Gandhi's self-presentation as linguistically inept, [End Page 380] and his conscious foregrounding of his struggles with language, rather than attempting to dismiss the problem of interlinguistic and intersubjective translation (262).
Majeed's range of theoretical reference is also impressive. Postcolonial theorists such as Nicholas Thomas, Anne McClintock, and Bill Ashcroft rub shoulders with Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul de Man, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Frantz Fanon. Nancy Chodorow's concept of the reproduction of mothering provides an insight into the manner in which Gandhi's reinscription of his shyness and stage-fright becomes part of a larger gender politics, exemplified by his inability to move beyond the words "I conceive" when giving an early speech on vegetarianism in London (227). Yet such eclecticism also has its drawbacks: most of the theorists or philosophers mentioned above are given walk-on parts. They are referred to briefly, frequently in support of arguments that emphasize the complex self...