The Gopal I knew

Print edition : May 01, 2002

Remembering Sarvepalli Gopal, the man behind the historian.

THE passing of Sarvepalli Gopal a couple of weeks ago has brought the curtain down on a life of distinction. Indian historiography has lost one of its most distinguished exponents. He was a historian to the manner born and his professional eminence has been commented on by his contemporaries and students, one of whom, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, has written a singularly moving and evocative piece ("Good night sweet prince", The Telegraph, April 22, 2002). Eulogies have been written and tributes paid to his qualities as a historian, his deep scholarship, his unflinching devotion to truth as he saw it, his fierce intellectual integrity, his power of articulation and, I might add, his eloquence and the literary style that marked his writing. Historians tend to concentrate their efforts on particular periods of history. For Gopal, it was the British political and administrative interaction with India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. To a non-historian like me the interpretative character of his writing of history was a notable feature. He also used with remarkable effect biography as a medium for history as the record of events was woven round the life and times of the individuals he studied. Starting with his work on Cornwallis and the Permanent Settlement - itself a prize-winning essay at Oxford - and through his researches into the viceroyalties of Ripon and Irwin he laid the foundations for the study of British policy in India and its correlate, the rise of Indian nationalism.

After an early intellectual flirtation with Marxism, he was enveloped by the Indian neoliberal tradition, a belief in humanism and human dignity, personified by Jawaharlal Nehru, the hero of his youth as he used to say and the subject of his magnum opus. He has been described as a quintessential liberal. That he was. Not surprisingly, those who knew him recognised the mental agony he suffered when the Emergency was declared in 1975, as it seemed to flout all the values he and his generation had imbibed from the freedom movement. That this should have been imposed by the daughter of his hero only added to his anguish.

Professor S. Gopal.-N. SRIDHARAN

It is not my purpose to write about Gopal's achievements as a historian, impressive as they undoubtedly are, nor indeed am I competent to do so. Rather, I wish to salute the man behind the historian, based on my knowledge of him for nearly seven decades. Yes, seven decades! We virtually grew up together.

Gopal's was a many-faceted personality as I suppose is the case with most of us. All of us have different traits, some more dominant than others. There is also a temporal aspect to this - some traits seem dominant at one stage of one's life and appear to be submerged at other times. So with Gopal. He was in earlier years a very sociable man who loved good company and enjoyed conversation laced with light banter and humour, but even in the midst of such company he was often more a listener than an active participant. His interest in men and affairs was palpable. He was not above indulging in gossip and the more salacious it was, the more he seemed interested in it. With all his love for company he could at times and indeed often lapse into silence and seem almost distant and detached. Friends wondered why he seemed to change gears thus. I believe the reason for this was that while he was basically at least in those early years an extrovert, there was an underlying and compelling streak of the introvert in him.

This introvert streak, which grew over the years, seemed to have stemmed from his introspective quest of himself. In his formative years, he had an abiding desire - indeed determination - to grow out of his father's shadow and to be recognised for what he was rather than as his father's son. Having chosen his profession, he wished to prove himself to what he felt was a tribe of cynics and passive critics. And how he proved himself! Yet, when recognition and honours came to him, he seemed ill at ease and preferred to efface himself. This was the mark of his sensitivity and refinement. I recall when he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan he was positively embarrassed and shunned the attendant publicity and preferred not to go for the formal investiture. His physical disability may have been the objective cause of this abstention, but perhaps his modesty and dislike to project himself was the subjective factor.

The Gopal I knew in earlier years was a warm and affectionate person, overflowing with good cheer. He was a bon vivant and liked the good things of life. He was quite a gourmet and was well-versed with the Good Food Guide and I believe even suggested the name of a restaurant for inclusion in it. A connoisseur of good wine, he lived life to the full. It was all the more sad to see him in the years of his decline. Company became an embarrassment and he withdrew into his shell. Through the years of his debilitating illness, while he was pleased at the idea of people dropping in to see him he was rather uncommunicative and perhaps felt that such visits only drew attention to his own physical infirmity. During the final years of his illness he was confined to Girija, the family house, and this must have been particularly difficult for one who loved to travel and see the world as indeed he did in his prime years. His introvert streak took over and he became increasingly introspective about himself. These years also brought him closer to his family and particularly to his dear devoted wife who was his constant companion, nurse and moral support.

He lived a full life with its ups and downs - physical ups in earlier years and psychological downs in later years.

"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well." Farewell my friend! R.I.P.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor