Travelling Selves and National Identities in South Asia

Eve Tignol

Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity, which was first published in 2007 by Javed Majeed, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at King’s College London is an engaging book and a valuable contribution to scholarship on autobiography, travel and nationalism.

Arguing that it is “through interiority that nationalist politics are constructed”, Majeed proposes here to investigate the autobiographies of three important political thinkers of late colonial India – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sir Muhammad Iqbal – who are justly considered as “definers of dominant strands of modern South Asian nationalism”. The author thus simultaneously explores Gandhi’s An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927-8) and Satyagraha in South Africa (1924-25), Nehru’s An Autobiography (1936) and Discovery of India (1946) and Iqbal’s Javid Nama (1932), which according to him, are significant sites for the articulation of particular notions of selfhood and nationalism and are all characterised by a “postnationalist” discourse that resists homogenizing nationalism.

The monograph begins by innovatively considering Gandhi’s, Nehru’s and Iqbal’s autobiographies as pertaining to the genre of the travel narrative and cleverly situating their works in the broader literary context of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century travel accounts in and outside India by Indian travellers or auto-biographers such as Mohan Lal Kashmiri, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, Dean Mohamed, Pandian or Cornelia Sorabji. Majeed offers here an insightful discussion of the history of colonial representations of the “sedentary native” that denied Indian subjects any individuality and ability to travel, in a bid to control them. The author also argues that nineteenth-century Indian travelogues usually placed travel as the dominant topic of the narrative, undiscerningly praised Western technology and displayed no attitudes of self-questioning. Contrary to previous travel writings, Majeed then highlights how Gandhi, Nehru and Iqbal shaped their notions of reflecting selves and of nationalism through the very concept of travel against colonial representations of the fixed and unquestioning nature of “native” identity. Gandhi, for instance, advocates simplicity of life, other forms of travel (e.g., travelling by cart or on foot) and alternative ideas of speed, as forms of resistance to Western technology. Nehru, who writes both of his autobiographies in prison and experiences of travel as a primarily mental activity, conflates freedom of travel and political self-rule, emphasizing self-doubts and extolling India’s cultural heterogeneity. Finally, Iqbal, whose “autobiography” takes the form of a symbolic travel through time and space through which he tries to reconcile tradition and modernity, elaborates the individual self as a “project of travel rather than a finished achievement”. Majeed thus compellingly illustrates how the three authors individually displayed a common need to acknowledge the self in order to define alternative nationalism, by resorting to the concept of travel.

The second half of the book is a more loosely structured combination of essays on specific aspects that unfold in the autobiographies: reflections on “the aporia of Muslim nationalism”, Gandhi’s concepts of vulnerability (notably through experiences of stage fright and shame) and ambiguous identities, Gandhi’s “translation” of the Bhagavad Gita, or Iqbal’s views on the European concepts of race and nation. Although these chapters are less clearly linked to the argument of travel and sometimes fail to bring all three figures in conversation with each other, they also offer some of the most interesting discussions. The chapters on Iqbal’s questioning of the notion of race and his debates with Maulana Madani on the meaning of the terms ummatmillat and qaum and on Gandhi’s emphasis on vulnerability as a strategy for self-empowerment, for instance, are particularly captivating.

Beside the repetition of the same sentences pp. 81-2 and 109-10, the analysis would maybe benefit from taking into account more carefully the broader historical environment in which these texts are rooted, which also partly explain the growth of a sense of self in late colonial India such as the changing political context after World War I with the hope of further devolution of power among political leaders or, in the case of Iqbal, the gradual religious shift from “other-worldly” to “this-worldly” Islam that Francis Robinson has well documented.

Majeed’s Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity is nonetheless a thought-provoking study which innovatively interweaves the lives and thoughts of three major Indian nationalists in their attempts to resist an objectifying colonial gaze and to propose alternative visions of the self and the nation. It is an excellent contribution to at least three areas of scholarship – nationalism, autobiography and travel – which are found to inform each other in unexpected and engaging ways.