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Story of a Man of God

Story of a Man of God

Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi

sides of the same coin. He was severe with the nation (his extended family) too. It is

Story of a Man of God

the nature of a saint to make heavy de-

Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire

by Rajmohan Gandhi; Penguin/Viking, New Delhi, 2007; pp xii + 745, Rs 650.

RAMASWAMY R IYER

W
hy one more book on Gandhi? The answer is that this is a complete, chronological biography, based on access to a wider range of material than was available earlier. The author explains the rationale of the book in the Preface, and I am prepared to accept it. In any case, having read the book, I can say that it fully justifies itself. It is also well written, and despite the size, it is easy to read.

With reference to the main title, I am not sure that one can really distinguish “Mohandas” from “Gandhi”. The usual dichotomy of public/private does not apply in Gandhi’s case. His life was lived in full public view at all times. His wide-ranging concerns – god, truth, love, ahimsa, compassion, courage, integrity, freedom from British rule, austerity, vegetarianism, “bread labour”, ‘brahmacharya’, Hindu-Muslim unity, reform of Hinduism, the upliftment and empowerment of the poor and those whom he called harijans, the empowerment of women (he might not have used the term “empowerment”), “wiping every tear from every eye” (whether he used that precise phrase or not is immaterial), and so on – together constituted a seamless unity.

The book is among other things the “story of a man”; and the central fact about that man was that he was (in the words of Jan Christian Smuts) a man of god, or as his countrymen and later the world called him, a mahatma. In his multi-stranded life, his communion with god (variously called God, Ram, Truth or Love) was the principal strand that held all the other strands together and unified his life. At its core, the book is an account of Gandhi’s spiritual journey, a Pilgrim’s Progress, with the saintliness emerging fairly early and gradually finding its direction, passing through but coming out of several dark nights of the soul, struggling with (selfperceived) imperfections, experiencing despair but recovering a sense of joy and grace, and proceeding inexorably to the final martyrdom.

I

Gandhi was influenced by his extensive reading of the scriptures of different religions, and one might say that his life was partly in the Indian tradition of mahatmas or ‘rishis’ and partly in that of the Christian martyrs. Another Christian element in his life was the idea of vicarious atonement: his fasts and of course his martyrdom were partly of that nature, though the fasts also had Jain origins. He foresaw the possibility of martyrdom, said that he did not seek it but was prepared to accept it if that was god’s will, and hoped to die with god’s name on his lips. He was aware of the danger of actually desiring martyrdom, and safeguarded himself against it. As I read the book, I found myself strongly reminded of T S Eliot’s exploration of martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral. Consider the following two passages:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain: Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

All my life I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy, And if I am worthy, there is no danger. I have therefore only to make perfect my will.

In the play, Thomas, the archbishop of Canterbury, speaks these lines, but Gandhi could well have spoken them.

In this context it is necessary to take note of Gandhi’s harshness to his family, which is documented and discussed in the book. Gandhi, as a saint in the making, though he would not have said so himself, was setting extraordinary moral and spiritual standards for himself, and was very severe with his own “failures” (as he considered them). He tended to set high standards for others and to be severe with them too – particularly with those who were close to him, and most of all with the members of his immediate family. In a way, the severity and harshness towards them and the love that he had for them were the two mands (by way of goodness, exemplary conduct, forbearance, love for the enemy, non-retaliation of harm, and so on) on ordinary people. By doing so, the saint lifts those ordinary people to great heights. Gandhi’s harshness towards his family is not something that needs an elaborate explanation: it is what one would expect. Living in the proximity of a saint can be very difficult indeed. The late K Swaminathan, the distinguished editor of Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Writings, a great Gandhian and himself a saintly person, said once that Gandhi expected too much from ordinary people. I would say that that is the distinguishing characteristic of a saint.

A word must be said here about Gandhi’s relationship with Sarala Devi, a relatively minor episode which received undue media publicity when the book first appeared. Two points need to be made about this issue. First, there was nothing clandestine about the relationship. Like the rest of Gandhi’s life, this too was a relationship that was open and unconcealed, and many people knew about it, doubtless with disapproval on the part of some. Secondly, despite that disapproval, and despite Gandhi’s own later self-critical references to this episode, it seems to me that there was no impropriety in the relationship. On p 230, referring to this relationship, the author says “...Eros too might have lurked”. I see no basis for that speculative remark. Gandhi had already taken the vow of brahmacharya. He was relentless in his self-analysis, and (rightly or wrongly) constantly on guard against the emergence of sexuality. Would he have been unaware of the dangers of Eros creeping in? He thought of the relationship with Sarala Devi as a “spiritual marriage” and speculated that such a companionship was possible between a man and a woman. Perhaps he deluded himself. In any case, he broke off the relationship when others pointed out its undesirability (in their view). There could be a difference of opinion on whether it was a good relationship or not, how it would have affected others (particularly Kasturba), and what effect it would have had on his public standing, and so on. However, it is entirely possible to look at it as an honourable if ill-advised attempt at companionship. As the author points out, Gandhi was all the time giving and might have felt the need to receive. On the

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

whole, the book handles this episode very well.

It is more difficult to make sense of the controversial brahmacharya experiments that Gandhi undertook in his old age. In his mind, the pursuit of true brahmacharya and the battle against evil that he was engaged in all his life were inextricably linked. He thought that the attainment of true brahmacharya would give him greater strength in his other battles. Others were profoundly uneasy about the experiment, but it was important to him, and here again, there was nothing clandestine about what he was undertaking, nor was it wholly unprecedented: if I remember right, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had tried something similar. However, we are in deep waters here. One cannot confidently hazard explanations or judgments; one can only express one’s perplexity. It must be said to the author’s credit that he makes tremendous efforts at seeing this undertaking from Gandhi’s own point of view without necessarily implying approval or disapproval.

In general, the author’s presence in the narrative is not intrusive. Occasionally, however, an interjected comment or explanation is not quite persuasive. For instance, consider the following: (i) “Though this account was provided decades after the incident, the lines hint that even at the time that Mohan contemplated suicide, he was observing himself, and was amused” (p 6);

(ii) “Older relatives are deferring to this lad” (p 15); (iii) “Dave’s phrase ‘or something better’ is indicative of the potential the eighteen-year-old Mohan conveyed at least to some observers” (p 19); (iv) “…certainly suggests a leader in the making, if not one already made” (p 23). All these seem to me instances of speculative interpretation. However, these are minor matters. The author’s comments were clearly tentative, and indicate an understandable attempt to explore the extraordinary evolution of a shy, gangling lad from remote Porbunder into a confident and charismatic leader of people. One may repeat to oneself the Tamil caution against searching for ‘rishimoolam’ (the origins of saintliness), but one inevitably tends to do so.

I have more serious difficulties with three other comments.

(i) On Hind Swaraj the author says that “it was less than pure truth”. That seems a strange comment. If the author had said that Hind Swaraj was not balanced and that it takes extreme positions, he would have been right; but “less than pure truth”? Any rhetorical excess (Gandhi did employ it on occasion, and so do all of us) can be so described, but such a description is misleading rather than illuminating: rhetorical excess is not the same thing as a lie. Moreover, two points need to be noted. First, the pamphlet was early Gandhi: a great deal of thinking lay ahead. True, Gandhi never repudiated it. However, it seems to me that if Gandhi had written the book 10 or 15 years later, it would probably have been more balanced and less strident. Secondly, and more importantly, it was a shock treatment that Gandhi might have considered necessary at the time. The west had not merely colonised the land,

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007 it had also colonised Indian minds. It was necessary to release people from that thraldom. In the cause of intellectual decolonisation,Hind Swarajwas in the nature of campaign literature. Rajmohan Gandhi recognises this: he himself describes the book as “a warrior’s manifesto”.

(ii) On pp 402-03, the author finds “prejudice” and “preconception” on the part of Gandhi in relation to “untouchables”. Horror and revulsion at the evil of untouchability, a keen sense of the injustices done to the people so classified, compassion for their plight and a desire to bring about their upliftment and empowerment, were central concerns and strong driving forces in Gandhi’s life. He brought the untouchables into his ashrams and gave them pride of place in his campaigns, right from the South African days. By preference he chose to live among them. All this comes out in the book. To find prejudice and preconception in a person who was constantly battling against prejudice and preconception on the part of others seems to me rather strange. That judgment is based on a plausible but doubtful interpretation of the passage quoted on p 402. It was of course a contemporaneous interpretation that gave rise to protests, but I find Gandhi’s answer persuasive.

(iii) On p 554, in an account of the divergence between Gandhi and the Congress leaders in relation to the Cabinet Mission, the author interjects the comment “Power beckons”. (On p 553, he had used the term “a less than glorious episode”.) The thesis that in the final negotiations with the British the Congress leaders were driven by a desire for power and showed unseemly haste, is a familiar one; one has heard it before from unsympathetic or cynical commentators. Nehru, Patel, Prasad, Rajaji, Azad and others were old and their lifelong struggle did not seem to be succeeding; freedom seemed far away. When the government changed in Britain and there was promise of freedom in the air, the Congress leaders might indeed have become impatient to clinch the negotiations, and not let the opportunity slip and face yet another prolonged period of struggle with an uncertain outcome, and the likelihood that freedom would not come in their lifetime. The impatience was for bringing the struggle to a conclusion and achieving freedom, not necessarily for “power”, though freedom would undoubtedly bring power with it. In the process, they might have misjudged British intentions and misread documents, and distanced themselves from Gandhi who had a better understanding of these things. There was indeed a parting of the ways between the Congress and Gandhi in 1946, but it seems to me that it does not merit a dishonourable interpretation.

Having mentioned the Quit India movement, one may perhaps raise briefly the question of its wisdom. The mood in the country as a whole was one of despondency. There was a general feeling that something needed to be done urgently to restore faith and confidence and re-energise the country. A dramatic move was needed, and the “Quit India” call seemed the right thing to do. Of course, that movement itself was quickly put down by the British; all important Congress leaders were put in jail, and became non-operational. If the movement nevertheless jolted the Empire severely, the reason was that the upsurge of popular and violent resistance (unsanctioned by Gandhi) made it clear that Britain could not hold India down by force of arms any longer. Did the Quit India Movement contribute to partition? The developments mentioned above may have pushed Britain closer to the Muslim leadership, and Jinnah might have found the prolonged incarceration of the Congress leaders very convenient; but it is doubtful whether the partition of the country could be attributed to the Quit India movement.

The forces and factors that led to partition and the question whether a viable agreement could have been reached without dividing the country cannot be gone into here, but one point that the book makes needs to be noted. The author feels that Gandhi’s proposal that power be entrusted to a Muslim League government led by Jinnah as prime minister was a carefully considered and seriously intended solution – an inspired one in his view – and that if it had been given a fair trial and not rejected out of hand, Partition might not have proved inevitable. I had adopted without much thinking the general view that the proposal was quixotic and could not possibly have worked, but after a careful reading of what the author has to say on the subject, I feel that there is much to be said for his view. This is of course a purely hypothetical argument now.

Chapters 15 (‘Walk Alone’) and 16 (‘To Rama’) cover the final phase – the Noakhali walks, the Calcutta and Delhi fasts – when Gandhi rose to unimaginable heights of greatness. The narrative is careful, precise and controlled, but is not unworthy of the tragedy and glory that it narrates. The undercurrent of emotion rises to surface at the end.

I began with the statement that the book justified itself; I would now go further and assert that it was necessary. It is useful and illuminating, and likely to remain definitive for a long time.

EPW

Email: Ramaswam@vsnl.com

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