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Sunday, Aug 18, 2019

Birthday wishes for Mahatma Gandhi

Between 2nd October 2018 and 2nd of October 2019, we shall hear many effusively complimentary things said about the Mahatma. Can we hope that at least some of these tributes are as insightful as those offered, during Gandhi’s lifetime, by Jan Smuts and Verrier Elwin?

columns Updated: Sep 22, 2018 18:44 IST
Mahatma Gandhi at Boulogne station, on the way to England to attend the Round Table Conference as the representative of the Indian Nationals.
Mahatma Gandhi at Boulogne station, on the way to England to attend the Round Table Conference as the representative of the Indian Nationals. (Getty Images file photo)
         

Early next month the country, and the world, will mark the 149th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. Between then and the next 2nd of October, Gandhi will be remembered and misremembered by many people, not least politicians seeking to whitewash their sins by associating their name with his.

While we await the unfolding of Gandhi@150, let me share some celebrations of the Mahatma’s birthday in his own lifetime. On the 2nd of October 1939, Gandhi turned seventy. To mark the occasion, the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan edited a volume on Gandhi’s life and work, with essays by, among others, the scientist Albert Einstein, the poet Yone Noguchi, the novelist Pearl Buck, and the philosopher Gilbert Murray. These Gandhi admirers were all globally renowned; here, they rubbed shoulders with the Mahatma’s close friends, such as C. F. Andrews, Rabindranath Tagore, Mirza Ismail, and Henry Polak.

I own a first edition of the Radhakrishnan volume myself. My favourite essay is by the South African politician Jan Smuts, who describes, with a mixture of admiration and exasperation, his dealings with Gandhi the agitator. Gandhi’s ‘distinctive contribution to political method’, said his old adversary, was to make ‘himself a sufferer in order to move the sympathy and gain the support of others for the cause he has at heart. Where ordinary political methods of reasoning and persuasion fail, he falls back on this new technique, based on the ancient practices of India and the East’.

The book edited by Radhakrishnan has been reprinted many times. Far scarcer is a volume issued five years later, on the Mahatma’s 75th birthday, and edited by a group of four others: D. G. Tendulkar, M. Chalapathi Rau, Mridula Sarabhai, and Vithalbhai K. Jhaveri. The foreword to this book is by Jawaharlal Nehru. There are fresh, albeit brief, messages from Pearl Buck and Albert Einstein, but otherwise this volume is dominated by Indian contributors. They include Gandhi’s fellow freedom fighters J. B. Kripalani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Sushila Nayar, and Yusuf Meherally, the journalists Frank Moraes, K. A. Abbas, and S. A. Brelvi, and the artist Nandalal Bose.

My favourite essay in this volume is by the British-born Indian anthropologist Verrier Elwin. Whereas other contributors chose to write on the Mahatma, Elwin sent in a moving profile of Mahadev Desai, who had recently died in prison, and who had been absolutely indispensable to Gandhi’s life and work between 1917 and 1942. Mahadev was officially merely Gandhi’s secretary, but, as Elwin pointed out, ‘he was much more than that. He was in fact Home and Foreign Secretary combined. He managed everything. He made all the arrangements. He was equally at home in the office, the guest-house and the kitchen. He looked after many guests and must have saved ten years of Gandhi’s life by diverting from him unwanted visitors.’

These books are both very valuable, as a record of what Gandhi meant to India and the world in his own lifetime. But I want to juxtapose to these two published tomes, birthday wishes offered by less well known Indians. On the 2nd of October 1919, Gandhi turned fifty. The occasion was marked by celebratory meetings across the country. For instance, in a meeting in Belgaum, one speaker said that ‘since the Mutiny [of 1857], Mr. Gandhi was the first man to prove that Government could be made to yield to Satyagraha. The audience, he hoped, would be infected by [a] hundredth part of Gandhi’s brilliant character.’ Another speaker claimed that ‘whatever Tilak and others did in words, Gandhi had done in deeds’.

The most remarkable tribure to Gandhi on his fiftieth birthday came in the form of an epic poem, almost four hundred lines long. Entitled ‘The Ascetic of Gujarat’, it was written in Gujarati by one Nanalal D. Kavi. The Bombay Government’s hardworking police department had it translated in its entirety. A few lines follow:

‘Truth is his motto.

Asceticism is his armour,

His banner is of Brahmacharya, his saints’ bowl,

Inexhaustible waters of forgiveness are in,

His skin is of forbearance,

An heir to the Yoga of the eternal Yogi family,

Above storm-winds of passions,

The great living teacher of Bharata,

He is the ascetic of Gujarat,

The great-souled Mahatma Gandhi’.

Let me fast forward twenty-seven years, to the 2nd of October 1946. On this day, Gandhi turned seventy-seven. As ever, he received many letters from friends and well-wishers. They included the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi-Minh, the Burmese nationalist Aung San, and the British Labour leader Stafford Cripps.

The file in Gandhi’s papers containing these letters from the Great Men of History also has a lovely letter from an unknown American, who wrote: ‘Today at lunch I got the urge to tell you that small towns, like Forty Fort [in Pennsylvania] where I live, all over the world have been made better because of your life.

Perhaps it is not so strange after all that you, Hindu leader, should remind the world and Palestine to adopt the methods of Jesus, our Christ. Jesus lives today and perhaps he speaks through you.

To me it is one of my great blessings that I have lived in the same generation with you.’

Between 2nd October 2018 and 2nd of October 2019, we shall hear many effusively complimentary things said about the Mahatma. Can we hope that at least some of these tributes are as insightful as those offered, during Gandhi’s lifetime, by Jan Smuts and Verrier Elwin; and some at least as sincere as those penned by Nanalal Kavi and that man from Forty Fort?

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 22, 2018 18:42 IST

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