Saturday, 10 December 2016

My experiment with Gandhi - PRAMOD KAPOOR

My experiment with Gandhi

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IT was purely a publisher’s instinct that set me on the path of my experiment with Gandhi. Having found tremendous success with illustrating Khushwant Singh’s classic Train to Pakistan and Manohar Malgonkar’s Men Who Killed Gandhi, I thought my next book to illustrate would be Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I had not read Gandhi literature for a while and had forgotten that Gandhi’s autobiography ended in 1921. To take the idea further, I discussed it with my old friend and author, Mushirul Hasan. Without him realizing what he was pushing me into, and being equally ignorant of the ocean-like vastness of the subject, I took the plunge in reading 98 Volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi as suggested by him.
The next six months changed my life. I discovered many interesting anecdotes and stories which would fascinate a lay reader but were perhaps too trivial for scholars to mention in their deep study of the man and his times. After all, so much has been written on Gandhi that unless safe vaults of private archives are unsealed or Gandhi’s descendants decide to make public or auction their private papers, there is little left to discover. Yet, partly because of my fascination with what I was reading and partly because of my publishers instinct, I felt that the story of Gandhi needed to be retold for the present generation in the style and manner in which they consume stories today – crisp, anecdotal and a record of the times through real happenings. I have tried to simply convey the stories as they happened without being overly judgmental.
When I began my research, I tried to contact many scholars and thinkers who had contributed impressively to Gandhi literature. Some were generous with time and suggestions; others dismissed my request as a worthless exercise. While the former imparted knowledge, the latter generated an intense inner determination. Both contributed to my experiment with Gandhi. It is now over 66 years since his assassination and everything that could be written about the man, his politics, his life and his teachings, should logically have been done with by now. Yet, for me, Gandhi has been a source of endless fascination, whether as a leader, a father, a human being, a saint and a politician.
Every time I have gone digging for archival material on other related books or subjects, I have stumbled across a piece of history or fascinating information that historians considered irrelevant or which did not fit into their thesis or analysis of the man. The more I dug, the more emerged and my interest grew. Mainly because it brought alive to me just how complex a character he was, perhaps the greatest living statesman in history, a born leader and revolutionary, a man of extraordinary courage and vision, but also someone who was often at odds with his teachings, at odds with the leaders and statesmen he worked with or negotiated with, and at odds with many aspects of his character, especially as a father and a husband.

Gandhi came to me early, as I suppose it does to many Indians, in school where he was required reading. Like others at the time, I also had parents who were deeply influenced by Gandhi and impatient that their children read Gandhi’s autobiography even before they were mature enough to understand the book or the subject. While we were not a ‘Gandhian’ family, examples from his life were invariably quoted when children did something wrong. Gandhi was a lesson in moral science at home and in school; in those days there was a little bit of Gandhi in everyone’s life. My earliest visual memory was the photograph of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel alongside a local folk hero, Chandra Shekhar Azad, that hung in our living room in Banaras. That was decades ago and many of those memories have faded. It was a family tragedy that has kept his name alive in my mind and it relates to his favourite bhajan, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patita Paavana Sitaram.’

A day after my wedding my mother suffered a stroke, was paralyzed and lost her speech. She only retained the ability to recite one phrase; ‘Patita Paavana Sitaram.’ She repeated it in times of happiness or distress. I moved to Delhi as a young man and lost my father when I was 26. I was told of his passing away after my wife and I returned from a Christmas Eve dinner. My thoughts were with my paralyzed mother and the need to reach Banaras at the earliest. Custom decreed that my father had to be cremated before sunset. There being no flights at the time, I hired a taxi and reached Varanasi a few minutes after 5 pm and fell at my mother’s feet. In a voice deep in grief but high decibel in urgency, she repeated, ‘Patita Paavana Sitaram’ and gestured, indicating I should rush to the cremation. That one phrase is sharply etched in my mind and remains with me three decades later. It was this personal connect with Gandhi, latent all the while, which also kindled my interest in researching him. Reading his collected works, and every page of Gandhi literature I came across, I felt compelled to write my own book and to title it, ‘My Experiment with Gandhi’, a work in progress.

Gandhi is viewed and reviewed, analyzed and interpreted in a different manner every decade or so. What emerges from this revision and revaluation is the complexity of his character and the contradictions. A master of conflict resolution, he would forge agreements with his fiercest critics, but could be extremely dictatorial when dealing with his closest relatives or his followers. He would often give in to his adversaries in seeking a peaceful resolution, but would force his doting wife or staunchest followers into doing things that were against their wishes. At the height of the khadi movement when Gandhi exhorted everyone to boycott foreign clothes, Kasturba complained that she could not wear a khadi sari and cook – it was too heavy to do home chores and asked Gandhi’s permission to wear something lighter. Gandhi got so annoyed that he told his wife not to cook at all for he would not eat food cooked by her while wearing unholy foreign clothes.

As I continued my research Gandhi appeared to me more as an intriguing man than a mahatma. As I read more, I found that I would at times agree, disagree or even be indifferent, but I found it hard to disengage from the life and times I was witnessing through the books and papers that I pursued. I continued to discover as I pursued my experiment .

Gandhi was a dominating figure for those around him, and he ensured that they obeyed him by the force of his colossus-like image. He was obsessive, determined to the core, and missionary in his zeal. He came up with innovative ideas and had the ability to checkmate his adversaries by using the weapon of humility. These extraordinary qualities could mislead those who met him for the first time, despite so much being known or written about the man. Many British officials didn’t think too highly of him in the initial stages and that was also the case with many Congress leaders who underestimated his leadership and negotiating abilities when he returned to India from South Africa in January 1915. Over the next thirty years, he was to prove them wrong.

As he embarked on a journey of discovery, for himself, the leaders he would meet and influence or come in conflict with, and the vast mass of Indians who were fascinated by the man and his methods, eventually elevated him to being a Mahatma. Gandhi himself approached his discovery of India and its people with childlike enthusiasm, travelling by third class in trains to familiarize himself with the country and talk to people he met and shared space with. While Indian leaders were discovering Gandhi, he was familiarizing himself with India as an apprentice.

In 1916, less than a year after his arrival in India, he was invited by Annie Besant for the inauguration ceremony of Banaras Hindu University. Gandhi delivered a sharply-worded speech at the event in the presence of the Viceroy, Lord Harding, a galaxy of maharajas and the top educationists of the time. He sharply criticized the use of English, the filth that was allowed to gather around India’s temples, the civic sense of railway travellers, and admonished the maharajas present for the jewels they were wearing. He accused them of stealing wealth from the poor farmers and, to cap it all, even blamed the chief guest, Lord Harding, for creating ‘a wall of distrust’ by surrounding himself with such heavy security. The final straw was when he asked the Viceroy to ‘go home to England’. This was so unexpected and outlandish that his outspokenness evoked disfavour. Annie Besant, seated on the dais, shouted at Gandhi asking him to stop, while the maharajas left in disgust. The event had to be called off to avoid further embarrassment to the dignitaries, but the audience seemed appreciative of Gandhi’s approach. The gentry in India were indeed discovering Gandhi.

Lord Reading, Governor General of India, remarked: ‘There is nothing striking about his appearance… I would have passed him by in the street without a second look at him. When he talks, the impression is different. He is direct, and expresses himself well in excellent English with a fine appreciation of the value of the words he uses.’ Gandhi would use that power of expression (after all, he was trained as a barrister) for the many crusades he undertook. One was to convert Indians who had become westernized in speech and dress. Using his persuasive powers and setting a personal example, he converted many westernized Indians into adopting a ‘swaraj’ lifestyle – notably one Motilal Nehru who gave up his Saville Row suits for home spun khadi. He was also almost convinced, but not quite, to give up his daily peg of whiskey, which was a subject that he and Gandhi argued over on many occasions. He questioned Motilal, when the latter, speaking as chief guest over dinner at Cecil Hotel, Simla for his declaration that, ‘Water has been called pure. But whisky is made after being thrice distilled. It is therefore purer than water.’ Subsequently, the two exchanged lengthy letters to argue their respective points. Similarly, while visiting Shantiniketan, he saw Tagore eating loochis (Bengali puris) and remarked that eating white flour fried in ghee was ‘poison’, to which Tagore replied, ‘It must be a very slow poison. I have been eating it for almost half a century now.’ Clearly Gandhi was making friends and creating followers at the same time.

Despite these relatively friendly skirmishes, Gandhi was emerging as a leader who would not only be a prime mover for India’s independence, but give the world a unique soldier of non-violence. By the early 1920s, Gandhi had transformed into a leader with a massive pan-Indian following. His insistence on travelling third class to keep mass contact kept him in touch with Indians of all classes. Thousands were turning up to see him on railway platforms during his train journeys or walking miles to hear him speak at public meetings. Wherever he went, the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’ were getting louder and reflected his fast-growing stature. He had clearly captured the imagination of the Indian people by his novel methods of protest – non-violent and peaceful, but non-cooperative. They believed he was bestowed with divine powers. When police fired in the air to disperse a threatening crown on that fateful day in Chauri Chaura, they thought that bullets had become water because of ‘Gandhi Baba’s chamatkar’.

His acceptance though was not entirely universal. Many political leaders and intellectuals questioned his non-violent satyagraha movement. In fact, a fierce debate broke out over this tactic. Many felt that though Gandhi used non-violent methods, his ideas of protest were aggressive and often resulted in violent action by his followers. He was, more than once forced to call off his non-cooperation movement because it resulted in violence. There was also criticism of the fact that he was undertaking life-threatening fasts in order to usher in peace. An act of violence itself.

The communists and those with left leanings, oddly enough, believed Gandhi was a capitalist, and openly opposed him. In London, where Gandhi had gone to attend the Round Table Conference, young communist leaders, including M. Jaya Surya Naidu, son of Gandhi’s closest associate Sarojini Naidu, openly shouted slogans of ‘Gandhi Murdabad’. They were led by Gandhi’s fiercest critic, Shapurji Saklatwala, who wrote thus about Gandhi: ‘The intoxication of mass worship has benumbed all his senses from physical comfort… He has a dictatorial mind which will remain unchanged from external pressure till he himself rapidly changes it from contradiction to contradiction.’

It was not just the communists, some western oriented capitalists like Burjor Padshah and Dinshaw Wacha, key directors of Tata Sons, perhaps irked by Gandhi’s call for a boycott of mill made cloth and in disagreement with his non-cooperation movement, called Gandhi a dictator. Padshah’s words were: ‘The dictator acts under the dictation of his artificial mobocracy who have gone out of his hands.’ Contrary to the general belief that industrialists G.D. Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj were the early donors of Gandhi, Sir Ratan Tata (1871-1918) had much earlier donated lakhs of rupees to Gandhi through the radical leader, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in support of his fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Even as western oriented capitalists and practicing communists called him a dictator, there were also friends and followers like Satyanand Stokes in 1921 and Subhash Chandra Bose who, perhaps sarcastically, persuaded the Congress Working Committee in September 1940 to pass a resolution calling Gandhi ‘a dictator of Congress policy’.

Gandhi’s crusades would come to define India and impress it on the consciousness of the world. What was fascinating about the man and his methods was just how relentless he was in the pursuit of his goals, starting with freedom from British rule. He would come up with one novel idea after another in the fight for freedom – the Khilafat Movement, non-cooperation, boycott of foreign clothes, homespun khadi, the salt satyagraha, the Quit India movement. Nevertheless, the contradictions remained. His name is now synonymous with pacifism and non-violent struggle, but he was also an astute general and soldier who used the arsenal of moral authority to gain victory and unashamedly milked that ability when friend turned foe, as in his dealings with many political leaders. He used it as a suit of armour when breaking the salt law or travelling to places like Noakhali during the peak of the communal riots. So often did he risk his life that there was often a clash between myth and reality. One of the more ‘famous’ stories about Gandhi is about the most venomous snake in South Africa and a King Cobra in India, both crossing over his body without causing harm.

What added to my obsession with Gandhi was the huge amount of material that he produced in the form of letters. He was a compulsive letter writer. Being ambidextrous, he would switch to writing with his left hand when the right one was tired. Considering he wrote or dictated at least two dozen letters every day, he must have written over half a million letters in his lifetime and received at least ten times more. They reveal more of the man than the millions of words written about him. They show, for instance, how affectionate and mischievous he could be when writing to family and friends.

Sarojini Naidu was variously addressed as ‘My Dear Fly’ and signed off as ‘Little Spinner, Spider’, etc. or ‘My Dear Bulbul-e-Hind’ or ‘My Dearest Mirabai’ or even ‘My Dear Ammajan’; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was addressed as ‘My Dear Idiot and Rebel’ combined, and he signed off as ‘Tyrant’. Padmaja Naidu was addressed as ‘My Dear Lotus Born’, Sushila Nayyar as ‘Stupid Daughter’, his German friend Hermann Kallenbach was addressed as ‘Upper House’ and he signed off as ‘Lower House’, leading to unnecessary speculation. The Rev. C.F. Andrews was perhaps the only person on first name terms with Gandhi. He wrote to Gandhi as ‘Dear Mohan’ and in turn Gandhi addressed him as ‘Dear Charlie’.
Many of his speeches were published in his journals, Young IndiaNavajivanIndian Opinion and Harijan in English, and many in Hindi, Gujarati and other languages. His letters, journals and speeches are a great source for biographers and they have proven invaluable in my case. Again, they also reveal his contradictory nature. Towards the latter part of his life, he often used the vow of silence, or maunvrat, as an effective tactical weapon in dealing with a political impasse. What I discovered in my research, which involved months of hugely rewarding reading of books, speeches, letters, countless notebooks and jottings and newspapers of the time, was that Gandhi is perhaps the most documented man in history and yet his life and times remains a work in progress. Despite his ‘order’ to his friends to keep his life ‘an open book’, the private papers of some of those very close to him (Pyarelal’s papers, for instance) still remain unpublished and inaccessible to most biographers, locked away in government and private vaults. Hopefully one day, they will be put in the public domain and provide some exciting new material to scholars and biographers.

To me Gandhi’s life throws up many lessons that are relevant today, and yet so much of it remains an enigma for the present generation. For instance, when Gandhi landed in India, one of the first places he visited with his Phoenix South Africa family was Rabindranath Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan. It was Tagore who gave Gandhi the title of Mahatma, and yet they disagreed bitterly on so many issues, especially the non-cooperation movement and on the boycott and burning of imported clothes. Both used their best writing skills to criticize each other in public. Tagore wrote the play, Mukta Dhara to convey his disagreement while Gandhi produced a wonderful piece, ‘The Great Sentinel’ as a counter. They still remained friends and when Tagore passed away in 1941 Gandhi wrote one of the most moving obituaries.

I find that both his unique political ideas and the symbols he employed are reflective of just what is so sadly lacking in our political life today. I suppose the world has changed irrevocably. So great was his moral authority that many senior judges would baulk at pronouncing a sentence, even when he pleaded guilty to the charges and demanded the severest punishment. In 1922, soon after the Bombay riots during the visit of the Prince of Wales, and later Chauri Chaura, where 23 policemen were burnt alive by Gandhi followers turned rioters, he was charged with sedition. Much to the discomfort of his followers and the presiding Judge Broomfield, Gandhi pleaded guilty. Judge Broomfield, while pronouncing the verdict sentencing him to six years said, ‘The determination of a just sentence is perhaps as difficult a proposition as a judge in this country could have to face.’ As a mark of respect, he bowed to the accused, Gandhi, when leaving the courtroom. British Attorney General T.J. Stangman, though prosecuting Gandhi, shook hands with him before leaving him with his tearful followers.

While we will continue to admire his life and achievements, some of his personal beliefs and how he treated his family and close friends remains a difficult task to explain to someone who did not live in his times or his mind. The treatment he meted out to his eldest son, Harilal, for example. Harilal followed his father to jail in South Africa at a very young age and yet, inexplicably, Gandhi chose his nephew over Harilal when it came to financing higher studies in Britain. Whether he took this decision with a sense of justice or to propagate the image of an impartial leader is difficult to pronounce. Harilal never forgave his father, became an alcoholic and to spite his father, converted to Islam. Gandhi did not make enough of an attempt to reform his son, though he took greater interest in trying to reform others whom he barely knew. The man who earned fame for non-violence, slapped his young wife, Kasturba, and then claimed that he learnt the first lesson of ahimsa from her silent tears. There are many other such examples of Gandhi’s unusual relationship with his family that perhaps needs a different psychological study.

One of the most complex aspects of his life for me was the many women who were attracted to him, despite his vow of celibacy at the age of 36. Gandhi himself admitted to an American journalist that Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore’s niece, nearly destroyed his marriage. He was nearing fifty then. Gandhi’s sexual life or sexuality has been the subject of much debate and criticism, especially while performing his personal yagna that involved sleeping naked with his teenaged grandniece. Many close to him, Mridula Sarabhai, Sushila Nayyar, J.B. Kripalani, C.R. Das, even Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to him against this practice. This was at the peak of Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947. His personal secretary at the time, Parasram, after witnessing this bizarre form of self-denial, wrote an angry 10-page letter and quit his job. So did Sudhir Ghosh, his Bengali translator. To his credit, Gandhi made no attempt to hide these letters, often discussing the issue in public through letters and speeches. I remember my first meeting with a senior social scientist. Before we could settle down in the chair in the lawns of India International Centre in Delhi, I abruptly asked him what he thought of Gandhi sleeping naked with his teenaged grandniece, Manubehn. On impulse, his equally abrupt but truthful answer was that he too felt uncomfortable with this yagna. Of course, once we settled down, he provided insights, explaining Gandhi and ardhanarishwara.

For all his experiments, one quality that he had in abundance was compassion. On a winter evening in 1939, Gandhi was taking his customary walk when the sight of a visitor brought sorrow to his face. It was Parachure Shastri, a well known Sanskrit scholar and poet who had spent time in prison with Gandhi in the Yerawada jail in 1922. In the ensuing years, Parachure had contacted a virulent form of leprosy. Embarrassed and ashamed of his illness, he wanted to disappear for good, but before doing so wanted to have a last darshan of the Mahatma. Not having replied to Parachure’s letter asking to visit him in the ashram, Gandhi was not only surprised but found it extremely difficult to absorb his pathetic appearance. The visit was so sudden and unexpected that Gandhi had no time to discuss Parachure’s visit to the ashram with other inmates.

Having sensed Gandhi’s dilemma, Parachure offered to leave the ashram after delivering the yarn he had specially spun for Gandhi. But Gandhi asked his inmates to get food and made him sleep in a hut located at a distance. Neither of them slept that night. In the morning after having explained the risk, Gandhi obtained the consent of other inmates. He argued that it would be his life’s challenge to nurse Parachure to health and by refusing refuge he would compromise with his conscience and therefore, God. The next day Parachure was moved to a hut right next to Gandhi’s. In the midst of visits by top political leaders and the difficult political environment that Gandhi was in, he found time to personally clean his wounds at least three times a day. Though it took years, with a combination of love, affection, diet and compassion, Gandhi nursed Parachure to acceptable health. Parachure became an intrinsic part of the ashram. If this sounds like mythology, I have no doubt that whatever the definition of mythology in centuries to come, Gandhi will symbolize it.

While practicing and preaching non-violence, Gandhi knew of the risk he was taking with life and death. Some of his most eloquent speeches and writings relate to death. He often said death is a natural end to physical being and, therefore, needs to be celebrated rather than mourned. On the death of his teenage grandson, Rasiklal (son of his eldest and later estranged son Harilal), Gandhi wrote an extremely moving obituary. Gandhi was extremely close and very fond of Rasiklal who at the age of 17 had come to Jamia University in Delhi on his instructions to teach and had died of cholera. Gandhi wrote: ‘Truly speaking, death is god’s eternal blessing. The body which is used up falls and the bird within it flies away. So long as the bird does not die, the question of grief does not arise.’
Gandhi clearly had premonition about his own death. A few days before his assassination, he would repeat this to his close friends and followers as if he had foreknowledge. Though he discouraged people from calling him Mahatma, he knew he was a mahatma and the world called him thus. In the court of Justice G.D. Khosla, Nathuram Godse while justifying his dastardly action, praised Gandhi intermittently in his speech that lasted almost the entire day. So forceful was his defence that Khosla in his memoir wrote that had there been a jury they would have acquitted Godse.
Gandhi, if alive would have himself defended Godse. In the twilight of his life he had already pronounced a verdict on his would be assassin. ‘If someone were to shoot me in the belief that he was getting rid of a rascal, he would kill not the real Gandhi, but the one that appeared to him a rascal.’
No wonder I, and many others after me, will continue the experiment with Gandhi.

My Experiment with Gandhi by Pramod Kapoor will be published by Roli Books in 2015.

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