Saturday, December 20, 2014

Parallel Lives

Biographies can be inspiring, and thought-provoking, and I have always enjoyed reading them. In general, I have preferred reading about contemporary figures rather than historical ones as I relate better to the present than the past. But, a problem with the typical biography is that you learn about one person in absolute terms, without benchmarks, unless the author chooses to provide them.

I recently had the opportunity to read three books which, instead of looking at a single individual, profiled parallel lives. This choice happened by chance and not by design, but all three were wonderful reading experiences.

An Uncommon Friendship Indeed

An Uncommon Friendship – From Opposite Sides of the Holocaust by Bernat Rosner and Frederic C. Tubach (with assistance from Sally Patterson Tubach) is the amazing story of an Auschwitz survivor (Rosner) told by a German contemporary (Tubach) whose family had strong Nazi sympathies at that time. After the War, Rosner and Tubach both emigrated to the United States where they made their own lives – Rosner as a retail executive, and Tubach as a professor at the University of California. They happened to meet in California many decades after the War and slowly discover each other’s past.

Rosner spent about a year at Auschwitz where his survival was nothing short of miraculous. At a critical juncture, he was just one step away (or one guard’s gesture away) from being assigned to a path to the gas chamber rather than the line to live another day. Rosner had dealt with the horrors and nightmares of the holocaust in which he lost his entire immediate family by suppressing their memories and building his life anew in the land of opportunity. The last person with whom you would expect him to share his past was Tubach, given his family’s Nazi background. But An Uncommon Friendship is a heart-warming tale of how Rosner and Tubach slowly discovered each other to the extent that they travelled together to Europe to the villages of their childhood to re-construct and share their past. This tale of human bonding is such a sharp contrast to the inhuman atrocities that characterized Nazi Germany that one wonders how such extremes can happen in the same human race.

Rosner got a lucky break after the War when he was able to emigrate to the United States rather than re-locate to the fledgling state of Israel thanks to the magnanimity of an American soldier he befriended when the Americans took control of some of the regions that had been under German occupation. The soldier turned out to be the scion of a rich American family, and arranged for him to enroll in college in the US. Rosner grabbed that break with both hands and built his life afresh.

Troubled Talent

Robert Peace, the protagonist of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs got such a break as well, but what happened thereafter couldn’t have been more different. Peace, an African American, was born to a hard-working yet penurious woman and an enigmatic, drug-dealing father (who spent most of his life behind bars for a murder that the book suggests he may not have committed) in a troubled, crime and drug-plagued suburb of Newark called East Orange. 

Academically brilliant, he went to the best schools his mother could afford including a top notch Jesuit institution in Newark city. Impressed by his promise, the school’s most successful alum sponsored Peace for a university education of his choice. This allowed him to attend Yale University.

The book is written by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s (white) roommate, an aspiring if unsuccessful novelist, and tells the story of Peace’s life with a particular focus on his years at Yale and what happened thereafter. Peace’s life is juxtaposed against those of his contemporaries, rich and poor, black and white. What emerges is a sensitive yet stark sociological portrait of contemporary America that gives a more nuanced picture of socioeconomic conditions, race relations, crime and discrimination than what gets from the typical coverage of the recent killings of black youth by white American policemen.

As its title suggests, this book doesn’t have a happy end. Peace is a complex and infuriating character, brilliant but deeply flawed at the same time. Was his inability to “make it” in the land of opportunity the result of human frailty or the milieu in which he grew up? Why could Bernat Rosner overcome his past and build a new life but Robert Peace not do the same? Can the barriers of race and discrimination ever be overcome? These thoughts will live with me for a long time to come.

Nehru and Bose

I drew the title of this post from the third book - Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Like all Indians, I knew several things about both Nehru and Bose before I read this book, and much more about Nehru than Bose! Nehru, the aristocratic visionary, to whom we owe the concept of a modern, democratic India but also the ideological barriers that come in the way of our achieving our economic potential; Bose, the courageous and impatient nationalist, whose mysterious and sudden disappearance and death created forever an enigmatic halo.

By re-constructing the lives of Bose and Nehru in the chronology and context of the freedom struggle, Mukherjee brings out the similarities and differences between these two outstanding freedom fighters.

Neither was poor, both had socialist leanings, and were strongly committed to India’s freedom. Both had their differences with Gandhi, and had trouble in understanding some of the tactical decisions he took in the course of the freedom struggle. But, they dealt with these in different ways. Nehru treated Gandhi as a father figure (Gandhi was a great source of emotional strength to Nehru after Motilal’s early demise) and kept many of his differences to himself, while Bose was impatient and outspoken. The book clearly suggests that Gandhi trusted Nehru more than he trusted Bose. There also seems to have been a fear of Bose’s charisma and his ability to mobilise and motivate people. To compound matters, Bose had many competitors in Bengal politics and sometimes needed to take a more extreme position in order to demonstrate his leadership.

The biggest difference between Nehru and Bose towards the end was of course their attitude towards the use of force in the final thrust for freedom. Bose’s fascination for the military and all that goes with it went back to his youth, and manifested itself in the creation of the Indian National Army (INA). Bose and his colleagues showed considerable physical courage in this endeavor and ex-members of the INA became important contributors to the development of India. But, Bose’s grand dream of teaming up with the Axis powers was doomed almost from the start – Mukherjee’s book brings out well the inherent contradictions in Bose trying to work with the Nazi leadership.

Mukherjee has not, as far as I can see, brought out any startling new facts about Nehru and Bose. But, by re-telling history in the right sequence and going back and forth between the two protagonists, he shows clearly that Nehru and Bose had several things in common, including a warm personal friendship for much of the 1930s. This is book is a wonderful introduction to the history of the time as well as the two towering persons who are the subject of this book. Unlike the other two books I wrote about in this post, this book is focused more on the subjects’ public persona, but I suppose that’s inevitable since they were public leaders of such importance.


These three wonderful books illustrate the power of profiling parallel lives. I hope to find more books in this genre, and perhaps even write one myself someday!

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