I remember accompanying my mother to her bank locker many years ago on what was, I would find out, a semi-annual necklace-retrieval trip, scheduled in accordance with important family functions. In the movies, bank lockers are for forged passports and wads of cash, state secrets and treasure maps. What had my mother chosen to keep safe, I wondered, to protect from fire and flood under lock and key in a communal vault?


I waited anxiously while the manager located our box, brought it into our private cubicle, and left my mother to her excavation. She lifted out the contents and located her prize in a stack of red jewelry boxes, but I was captivated by the other things within: a one-hundred-year old pen, some antique medallion, a sheaf of papers, a map of India made entirely of gold and mounted on an inscribed wooden plaque. I touched it gingerly. The map had belonged to my great-great-grandfather, and, through some fortuitous journey through a rather extensive family tree, was eventually bequeathed to my father.

When a man is deemed great, when he makes it into “the history books,” the objects of his life are disseminated among relatives and friends, children and grandchildren, and end up in the hands of increasingly distant progeny in far-away lands, decades in the future. Of course, one need not be famous to offer an inheritance, to bequeath the tokens and trophies of a life to the next generations—on our wedding, my husband’s grandmother gifted us a precious silver spoon, engraved with the name of his great-great-grandmother, Edna, born in Mississippi just after the Civil War—but it requires someone of a particular sentiment to save, then share, mementos which can be made meaningful long after the age of their significance. It helps if the majority of your descendants feel some imperative to preserve your legacy.

I have always been something of an unofficial family archivist; I am drawn to the genealogical; I am sentimental about stuff. The map of India wrapped away in the bottom of my parents’ back locker thrilled me. Here was an artifact of history I could call mine—not mine alone, but more mine than anything I was learning in school about William McKinley and the Dingley Tariff.

I had heard by then that my grandfather’s grandfather, V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, was someone special. “The Silver Tongued Orator,” he was called. “The Right Honorable.” When my brother and I put on earnest suits and faces and set off for speech and debate competitions, we channeled some primal inheritance from this unknown man, born in 1869 in the Tanjavore district of Tamil Nadu.

But what did we know of him, really? And what could we claim, beside this map?

Hearing Sastri’s “titles,” my child-self imagined that he had been knighted by the British in the dying days of the Raj; I pictured him in some hallowed court, delivering speeches to assembled British bodies on the issues of his time. But I had also heard that he was a close friend of M.K. Gandhi—they were born within two weeks of each other—and I saw them standing side by side, inspiring revolution in fiery word and pious deed. I didn’t realize then the significance of these conflicting visions.

Distant ancestors are like shadows: They are ours, but not uniquely. They grow and shrink in stature over time; as we age, so too do they, though their wrinkles never show, while ours collapse in folds. It is possible to go for days, months, years, without paying them mind. But then one day, you catch a glimpse of one of yours, the partial eclipse of the light of history on the flesh of you, and it’s impossible to see yourself in the world any longer without those grays, their filters of color and shade.

After the afternoon in the bank, I forgot about Sastri for a while—or rather, I started taking his shadow for granted, stopped paying its contours mind. Then, one day, sitting in a lecture hall at Stanford, I heard the eminent British historian Christopher Bayly speak on the history of liberalism in India. In a section others might well have glazed over, I heard Bayly mention Sastri’s name, clubbing him with other prominent liberals of his time: Hriday Nath Kunzru, Tej Bahadur Sapru, C.Y. Chintamani. Each of them opposed Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement because they believed the only effective opposition to the British government would come from within the constitutional process, that is, with certain deference for the law.

Sastri, in other words, was a moderate, not a revolutionary. My curiosity was piqued. I headed to the library at UC Berkeley, where I came across treasure in another shared vault: a cache of Sastri’s books, letters, speeches, and even multiple biographies of the man.Pulling the books down from the archives, I wondered about those who had devoted months and years to anthologizing Sastri’s works and telling his life story. What had drawn them to Sastri, I wondered, since I was here by accident of blood?

The story I learned was this: Sastri was a leading statesman during the Indian independence movement, but, as Bayly had suggested, he was ambivalent about non-cooperation, preferring the diplomatic posture of reform. At first blush, the condemnation of non-cooperation seemed like betrayal of Gandhi, whom Sastri in fact loved and referred to as a younger brother. But Sastri feared that even non-violent non-cooperation would too easily spawn violence and jeopardize any future possibility of working with the British toward and after India’s independence.

Further digging revealed that Sastri grew up reading Huxley, Mill, Tyndall, and Tolstoy. But though he benefitted from an English education, his deepest literary and spiritual attachment was to Valmiki’s Ramayana. He could as easily cite the Bible as the Mahabharata, and wrote playfully of Morley and Rama as equal apostles of truth. Sastri taught at Salem College before joining, and later heading, Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s Servants of India Society. He rose to become a member of the Council of State in the 1920s and attended most major constitutional conferences and international conventions in which India was represented until his death in 1946. For example, Sastri came to the United States as India’s delegate to the Washington Naval Conference and, in 1921, was a signatory on the Four-Power Treaty between the United States, the British Empire, France and Japan.

A debater, orator, prolific letter-writer, and contributor to numerous publications, Sastri produced a stunning body of work in English. Everyone who has written on him seems to have commented on the splendor of his prose. According to one biographer, P. Kodanda Rao, “He was among the greatest masters of the English language of his time … The late Lord Balfour … heard Sastri’s speech at the  League of Nations and said that he  then realized the heights to which the English language could rise.”

I read Sastri’s essays on politics and friendship, life and faith, and began to hear his famed silver tongue: “Many agnostics attain a tranquility of spirit which I envy. I am hagridden by the idea of nothing after death.”
Do revolution and reform have to be mutually exclusive? Do Valmiki and Morley each speak truth? What manner of figure was Sastri? Might he have a contemporary analogue?

In a lecture given after the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, novelist Zadie Smith called Obama’s “the story of a genuinely many-voiced man.” She reflected on the President’s plural selves, his inheritances from Kansas and Kenya, Punahou and Columbia. “For Obama,” she said, “having more than one voice in your ear is not a burden, or not solely a burden—it is also a gift.”

Sastri, too, embraced the possibilities and promise of his dual inheritance, of the English and Indian literary and philosophical canons, which marked him as a citizen of the world. He articulated the importance of English-language and English-style education for nation building in India. This was not a popular perspective in the decades before Indian independence, as Gandhi, for one, was proposing that the English language of the colonialists be “driven out of the field.” Today, of course, English is a veritable Indian language, being shaped as much by Indian tongues as it has shaped the minds and spirits of its speakers.

Smith described an Obama equally caught between the undeniable multiplicity of his being and the desire of others that he choose sides. “How,” critics asked, “can the man who passes between culturally black and white voices with such flexibility, with such ease, be an honest man?” The world is skeptical of those we cannot put in boxes, of those who live and think between traditions. Sastri maneuvered between India and the British government, between Gandhi and the Servants of India, as well as between Eastern and Western bodies of knowledge. Like Obama, who has famously repudiated the division between “red states” and “blue states,” Sastri did not think in terms of concretely delimited spaces, whether geographic, literary, or philosophical.

Tellingly, one word that appears throughout Sastri’s writings is “moderation.” “Moderation,” he wrote, “[is] the silken string that runs through all the virtues. I would print in large capitals the sixteenth sloka of the sixth chapter of the Gita, in which the aspirant to yoga is enjoined to shun over-eating and fasting, over-sleeping and vigil alike.” Sastri endeavored to practice moderation in all things; often, he was a moderator in debates, where he moderated between opposed perspectives. He was also well known as a political “moderate.” Listen to those parts of speech: moderation (n.), moderator (n.), moderated (v.), moderate (adj.). What do the noun, adjectival, and verb forms reveal? Who do they reveal?

In 1935, Sastri gave a lecture titled with this playful rhetorical question: “Can a politician be a gentleman?” He began by acknowledging his own tendency to seek out opposing perspectives, to concede points to adversaries in the name of establishing common ground, and to strive to maintain in public life an attitude of generosity, tenderness, and chivalry. “It is sometimes accounted to me for a weakness,” he said. Nevertheless, he urged his listeners to practice politics as gentlemen and to refrain from abusing, ridiculing, or maligning their opponents. The posture of superiority toward one’s political opposition is common, he noted, but unwise: “It is all angels on one side and devils on the other; swans and crows, upon the one side all unworthy citizens, upon the other all saints.”

The black and white, good and bad, distinction was indefensible, even unethical, according to Sastri. There must always exist opposing sides in order for there to be political practice: “ … the essence of politics is that we should take different sides in order that by effective advocacy of both sides, the mean may be arrived at, truth may be served and the ends of justice be preserved; it is your duty to be on one side, it is the duty of the other man to be on the other side.” By marrying an affirmation of the golden mean to the idea that one’s political opponents are also responding to their dharma, Sastri hoped to civilize the political discourse of his time.

Importantly, his time was one of social and political upheaval. So, too, is ours.
Writing in The New Yorker after Obama’s 2012 reelection, Adam Gopnik described the president as “a man who never takes the bait of rage, who sometimes seeks conciliation to crazy fault … [A man who is] above all, calm, cool—not needy in any way, and that absence of neediness, that pervasive cool, which reads to even his admirers at times like a slight, ironic detachment from his own eloquence.”

Sastri, too, was mistaken for cold; his demand for moderation seemed like a crazy fault. But in his writing, he revealed a spirit we might imagine lives equally in Obama’s heart: “It is only my lifelong practice of self-control that cloaks the gnawings of my inmost being behind a blank expression of face.”
The politics don’t capture the poetry of the man. When I got married in 2011, and my then-fiancé and I were designing our interfaith Hindu-Jewish-Christian wedding, I found myself drawn again to Sastri’s shadow. In the archives, I located a collection of his letters, including a number written to his daughter, Rukmini. One letter, written in 1916, moved me most deeply as a testament to the power and beauty of a richly observed life:

“By good luck it was full moon yesterday. We went again after ten o’clock and it was a glorious heavenly sight, bathed in the moonlight. We gazed on it from near, admiring the blend of the many-coloured stones and their marvelous brilliance as they playfully threw back the moon’s beams. Then we withdrew to a distance and tried each in his own way to realize the perfection of art which harmonized into one divine whole so many varied charms.

Long we stayed on the grounds. When we went, there was a thick mist and we had great misgivings, but the moon in her meridian power seemed to conquer all obstacles and shone proudly on the Taj which smiled and glowed in answering triumph.

“You must see it once, I’ll show it to you, I promise.”

Searching for the spirit of the vows I would offer, I channeled Sastri’s voice.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.