Moulding of the Mahatma

Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi; Viking, Penguin Books India; Price: Rs.650; 600 pp

Perhaps, no other individual of the 19th and 20th centuries has been the subject matter of as many biographies as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) aka Mahatma Gandhi. Among the monumental and greatly acclaimed biographies written on the Mahatma are Louis Fischer’s The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1950); Martin Green’s Voice of a New Age Revolution (1993); Erik Erickson’s Gandhi’s Truth (1969); G. D. Birla’s three-volume In the Shadow of the Mahatma (1968); Pyarelal Nayar’s multi-volume Mahatma Gandhi: The Early Phase and Suresh Tendulkar’s eight volume Mahatma. According to the bibliography of Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire, the latest biography of this savant and extraordinary leader of men, over 50 volumes featuring his life, history and philosophy have been written to date.

Yet despite the profusion of words, there’s a lot that we don’t know about this great leader of whom Albert Einstein remarked: "Generations to come may scarcely believe that ever such a man in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." The disbelief has already begun in the country of his birth where Gandhi has been deified and idealised into an icon whose example and teachings are impossible to follow, except in the jokey Bollywood Munnabhai style.

The merit of this book written by his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is that it’s a detailed insider’s account of the formative influences and events which transformed a shy and gawky second son born in the small town of Porbandar (Gujarat), into the Mahatma. "There seemed a need for a chronological, complete and candid portrayal attempted here. Studies written shortly after his assassination naturally stressed Gandhi’s final decades and some aspects of his personality, excluding other areas. Moreover the early biographers produced their works without access to the vast amount of illuminating material now available to scholars," writes the author explaining the rationale of yet another Gandhi biography.

The outcome of Rajmohan’s labour of love is a highly readable and remarkably objective narrative which nails many popular myths and misconceptions about the life and tumultuous times of the Mahatma. The first of these myths is that Gandhi was born into poverty or near poverty. Not so. His father and forebears were diwans or wazirs to the princes who ruled various states and satrapies of the Saurashtra region of present day Gujarat.

Therefore while the young Mohandas was raised in the frugal, puritan culture of the region, his father had the foresight to enroll him in the English-medium Alfred High School when he was 11 years of age. Yet for the past half century the Gujarat state government has enforced Gujarati medium instruction in all government schools, and has officially discouraged English language learning on the false premise that the Mahatma wanted it that way. As a consequence the lives and employment prospects of millions of Gujaratis were ruined.

Further detailing the three years that the young 19-year-old Mohandas spent in London to qualify as a barrister, the author vanquishes a criticism oft voiced by celebrated writer V.S. Naipaul in particular, that obsessed with vegetarianism, the young Gandhi learned very little from his British education — that he "looked but didn’t see". The 31-page chapter titled ‘London and identity’ is packed with details of Gandhi’s London years, and highlights their great education and personality development value. The biography makes it very clear that the young student benefitted greatly from getting rid of the common Indian tendency to regard white men —particularly the British — as supermen; learning how to speak in public (espousing the cause of vegetarianism); organising advocacy and protest groups and providing them leadership.

Another popular canard about Gandhi was that he was a failed lawyer who took to agitational politics because he didn’t succeed in the legal profession. While admitting that the young barrister’s first appearance in Bombay’s small causes court in 1891 was less than impressive because he was "hit by a storm of fear", Rajmohan recounts that after moving to Rajkot in the same year, the young barrister built a fairly successful practice until an ill-advised and humiliating encounter with a British agent, "the ultimate authority for all the courts of Kathiawar", robbed him of all enthusiasm to practice law in the princely state. Therefore when he received a feeler from Dada Abdullah & Co, a Porbandar-based firm of Memon Muslims to assist with a lawsuit for £40,000 in South Africa — a huge sum in those days — he accepted with alacrity.

The moulding of Gandhi in South Africa — where he conceptualised and experimented with the doctrine of steadfast non-violent resistance (satyagraha) to white racism while standing up for viciously oppressed Indian indentured labour in South Africa, his emergence as a journalist and leader of people of all faiths and colours — the making of the Mahatma — is marvellously covered in four chapters spread over 100 pages without the reader being inundated with excessive minutae, the infirmity of most biographies of this extraordinary individual.

How the Mahatma utilised the moral, spiritual and political lessons learned in Britain and particularly South Africa, to emerge as the leader and master strategist of the freedom movement in India, is engagingly recounted in the remaining chapters of this enlightening biography whose chief merit is that it is told as a story in chronological sequence. Mohandas lucidly explains the secret of the Mahatma’s success: he enthused the broad mass of the poor across barriers of caste, community and religion by identifying with them; he communicated with them in a culturally accepted idiom, and he spoke to the white man as an equal, if not moral superior.

Free, frank and fearless, Mohandas needs to be stocked in every school and college library — and the library of every citizen — to remind one and all, that such a man in flesh and blood did indeed walk upon this very earth, and bequeathed India a proud legacy which if studied and understood, can give direction to this nation lost in a wilderness created by the unworthy heirs of the Mahatma.

Dilip Thakore

Tales without end

He (Shey) by Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Aparna Chaudhuri; Penguin Books India; Price: Rs.195; 154 pp

Teasingly titled Shey, (the Bengali third person pronoun ‘He’), Nobel laureate (1913) Rabindranath Tagore’s children’s fantasy narrative has recently been published in the Penguin modern classics series. The story has been translated by a talented Kolkata-based school girl, Aparna Chaudhuri who confesses that "the idea of translating it grew out of a desire to enter more actively into the text and characters". A high point of the book is that it includes Tagore’s own graphic sketches and illustrations.

Written over a period of several years for his nine-year-old granddaughter, Nandini, (variously referred to by her nickname, Pupu/Pupe/Pupudidi in the text) and published in 1937, this tale transcends the genre of juvenile whimsy to morph into a reflective narrative about the engaging art of storytelling. Dadamashi (‘grandfather’) aged 70, recounts how he joined a band of storytellers, "working on the making of make-believe characters" who are "only to play with, not answerable to truth or falsehood". Such people created out of words have swamped the real world of men and women and have far "outnumbered the people on earth" created by God in his wisdom, says Dadamashi.

Along the way He metamorphoses into an interactive session of narration in which the storyteller is joined by Pupu, who critiques the story and intervenes with her creative inputs. He, who is constituted entirely of words, in turn spins bizarre and grotesque tall tales to amuse Pupudidi. One can do what one likes with him "without tripping on any awkward situations". And so the story flows like the oral narratives of early ethnographic communities.

The man He, is nameless we are told, not because he doesn’t have a name, but because he is a shared joke and secret between Pupu and her grandfather. Anonymity gives him the character of everyman and his story begins "in what everyone does everyday". Yet, paradoxically He is "a man in a million". Mastering the unequalled art of inventing untruths, He is a native of Make Believe and Wonder Land, and seems in some inexplicable way an ancestor of Rashid, the Shah of Blah with oceans of notions and the Gift of the Gab in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990).

The extraordinary adventures of He born out of ordinary, everyday stories, are as enthralling as those of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, Lewis Carroll’s Alice or Salman Rushdie’s Haroun. Fantasy appearances of the Tree Sage are as convincing as the comic caricatures of contemporary characters like Puttulal, Pallaram and Banamali, who in turn compete for attention with grotesque creatures like Gandishandung and Bell-Ears. In a bizarre manner every story grows and expands, defying laws of coher-ence as the cardinal principle of such storytelling is succinctly explained by the narrator — "Let this story of ours be just any old how, without head or tail, rhyme or reason, sum or substance, just as we please."

Of a piece with these whimsical tales are the nonsense rhymes churned out by members of the Hoi!Hoi! Polloi Club dedicated to the cultivation of tunelessness, to breaking away from "that gentlemanly cut of poetry" and "to beat out the backbones of verses with clubs". Obviously, the writing and rewriting of rhymes until the division between sense and nonsense is blurred is poet Rabindranath Tagore’s reply to his detractors — a satire on the tensions between modern and romantic ideas of composing verse.

As the story progresses, Pupe has grown up and the anonymous He disappears and Sukumar steps in, not a prince, but an ordinary man who goes to office and loves cinema, and is also an extraordinary romantic at heart who dreams of becoming a sal tree and aspires to fly like a parrot. He exits from the story when his arty aspirations come to naught, and decides to train as a pilot in Europe. He doesn’t come back and Pupu collects the childish drawings of Sukumar of which she had been so critical and hides these away in her desk. The fantasy story takes on a real-life dimension as Dadamashi’s story merges into a touching tale of the real-life characters who were his listeners.

The preoccupation with verbal forms and images coalesced in Tagore’s later years with his artistic bent. The sketches in the book are of a piece with the fantasy story that liberates the adult mind from restraint and habit, into the freedom of an expansive imaginative space.

Jayati Gupta