Ram Guha, a couple of months ago, wrote about Nagaraj’s The flaming feet, and strongly recommended the book with the following words:
This new edition of The Flaming Feet may be the most important work of non-fiction published in this country in 2010. At any rate, it is indispensable for anyone with any serious interest in society and politics in modern India.
In his essay, Guha listed Nagaraj’s book as one that modified his world view:
Elwin was once a well-known writer in India. Tagore, Gandhi and Orwell enjoy global reputations. All had a considerable and varied oeuvre in English. Their books were published by the most prestigious publishing houses. A fourth book whose reading radically altered my understanding of the world was, in contrast, written by an author unknown outside his native Karnataka. And it was published by a totally obscure press. Browsing through Bangalore’s Premier Book Shop in the early 1990s, I came across a slim book called The Flaming Feet. The title was intriguing, as were its contents — a series of essays on and around the figure of B.R. Ambedkar.
Published by a local NGO called the Institute of Cultural Research and Action, The Flaming Feet was the first work in English by D.R. Nagaraj, a professor of Kannada in Bangalore University. The politics of the 1930s and 1940s had placed Gandhi and Ambedkar as antagonists — as, more recently, had the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. The Bahujan Samaj Party had launched a series of stinging attacks on the Mahatma, accusing him of patronizing the Dalits and impeding rather than aiding their emancipation. From the other side, the Hindutva ideologue, Arun Shourie, had written a 600-page screed depicting Ambedkar as a toady of the British.
D.R. Nagaraj was unusual and — at that time, at least — unique in admiring both Gandhi and Ambedkar. To be sure, in their lifetime their respective social locations made it hard for these men not to be political adversaries. By the time Ambedkar returned from his studies in the US, Gandhi was the acknowledged leader of the national movement. For a brilliant and ambitious young man from a Dalit background, to join the Congress was to relegate oneself to a secondary role in politics. Thus, as Nagaraj pointed out, “there was very little scope for a Congress Harijan leader to develop interesting and useful models of praxis from within”. So, Ambedkar chose to form his own political party and fight for his people under a banner separate from, and opposed to, Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.
In The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj demonstrated how, through their debates and arguments, Gandhi and Ambedkar transformed each other. The Mahatma became more sensitive to the structural roots of caste discrimination, while Ambedkar came to recognize that moral renewal was as critical to Dalit emancipation as economic opportunity. In seeking to honour both men, Nagaraj was, as he put it, fighting both “deep-rooted prejudices” (which urged Indians to follow only one or the other) as well as “wishful thinking” (which made one believe that one or other thinker provided all the answers to the Dalit predicament). Nagaraj insisted that “from the viewpoint of the present, there is a compelling necessity to achieve a synthesis of the two”. “The greatest paradox of modern Indian history,” wrote Nagaraj, was that “both Gandhian and Ambedkarite perceptions of the issue are partially true, and the contending visions are yet to comprehend each other fully”.
Reading Nagaraj, like reading Tagore, Gandhi, Orwell and Elwin, was an epiphanic experience. He taught me to recognize that while Gandhi and Ambedkar were rivals in their lifetime, from the point of view of India today the two men should rather be viewed as partners and collaborators. The legacy of both was required to complete the unfinished task of Dalit emancipation. After the publication of The Flaming Feet, Nagaraj began writing more often in English. These later essays, like the book, were marked by an unusual ability to bring disparate worlds into conversation: the past and the present, the elite and the subaltern, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan.
Guha has also written about Nagaraj earlier; but I had not paid attention before reading this piece; I am glad I finally did. And, in my opinion, Guha does not exaggerate; the book did change many of my views; it has helped me understand some of my own observations and though processes in a better manner; and, what is more important, it has opened up certain ideas and thought processes, which, but for reading this book, I would never have had a chance to think.
A must-read book; and, a book that you would like to re-read; and, finally, a book that will change you in ceratin ways, forever.