A biographer’s journey: In search of the Mahatma

Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: The Collected Works had all the known letters that Gandhi himself wrote; but virtually none of the letters that he received or responded to. Then there were the thousands of letters written about Gandhi by his contemporaries and critics.
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru spinning, Delhi.(National)
Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru spinning, Delhi.(National)
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 05:49 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByRamachandra Guha

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) run to one hundred volumes. Many years before I read these volumes, one by one, their Chief Editor, Professor K. Swaminathan, had satirised scholars like myself in verse:

Hundred hefty haystacks

Cluttering up the landscape

Hold within their entrails hidden

Half a dozen needles.

Researchers of the future

With fine-toothed combs

And salaries to earn

May perch on each pile,

Attack it and ransack it

And search, search, search

For the passages that pin-point

The message of these pages....

The Collected Works are indispensable to any scholar of Gandhi. In writing my own two-volume biography of the Mahatma, I found more than half a dozen nuggets in this capacious and lovingly curated collection. However, I knew from the beginning that I had to go much beyond this printed series of books. The Collected Works had all the known letters that Gandhi himself wrote; but virtually none of the letters that he received or responded to. Then there were the thousands of letters written about Gandhi by his contemporaries and critics, which I wanted to study as well. I knew, too, that the colonial state in South Africa and in India had kept a close tab on someone they considered a dangerous rebel, and one had to study these unpublished government records as well. Gandhi’s public career extended over 50 years — what he did and said was minutely covered in newspapers large and small, metropolitan and provincial, and a biographer had to go find these reports, too.

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Searching for these traces of my subject took me to archives around India and the world. I made four separate trips to South Africa, where I worked in the Union Archives in Pretoria, a cold, grey, stone building constructed to keep people out. The surroundings were made more inhospitable by the lack of a café to eat lunch or drink coffee in. But I did find some useful material, including the jail record of Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal, with his signature and fingerprints. The archive of the University of South Africa in Pretoria was housed in a less bleak building and had a more helpful staff. Here I found some letters (not in the CWMG) that Gandhi had exchanged with Joseph Doke, his Johannesburg friend and first biographer, and with Doke’s daughter, Olive, to whom he was particularly attached (since he had only sons himself).

A trip I particularly enjoyed was to Israel, tracking the papers of Gandhi’s best friend in South Africa, the Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. These were in the possession of his grand-niece, Isa Sarid, who had settled in the port town of Haifa. Fortunately, a childhood friend, the writer-diplomat, Navtej Sarna, was then posted in Israel. I stayed with the Sarnas, in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and drove every day to Isa Sarid’s home in Haifa. The Kallenbach papers were in a separate room, where I would sit, taking notes (there was no photocopier in the house, and no market nearby). The materials were fascinating; the original sale deed of Tolstoy Farm, copies of Gandhi letters not in The Collected Works, letters to Kallenbach by some of Gandhi’s closest associates, and from all of Gandhi’s sons. I would take two breaks, one for tea, and a longer one, for lunch. Isa had followed her uncle and his mentor in being vegetarian, so this was mostly salads. At 88, she was all there, and entirely giving of her time, her materials, and her knowledge.

Born in India, made in South Africa, Gandhi was deeply attached to the United Kingdom, and to the city of London in particular. He had been a law student in London between 1888 and 1891, and later made four extended visits to the city, in 1906, 1909, 1914, and 1931 respectively. Many decades later, I looked for Gandhi-related records in London, which were most abundantly available in the British Library (BL), and in its India Office collection in particular. Here were housed the papers of several Viceroys of India, among them Lord Irwin and Lord Mountbatten. The former were most useful in reconstructing the history of the Salt march — I was amused to find Irwin write, for advice on how to deal with Gandhi, to the Archbishop of Canterbury — the latter for understanding the causes and consequences of the Partition of India. I also raided here the papers of successive governors of the Bombay Presidency, who had to follow the activities of Gandhi most closely, since both the city of Ahmedabad — where he lived from 1915 to 1930 — and the prisons of Pune — where he spent much time in the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s — fell in their jurisdiction.

The source notes of the two volumes of my biography give details of the materials that I found in the dozens of different collections that I consulted in the British Library. Let me add one personal memory here. The BL contained a small collection of the papers of Henry Polak, a Jewish radical who had worked closely with Gandhi in South Africa. These included some letters from Gandhi to Polak that were not in The Collected Works, written shortly before he was arrested in the satyagraha of 1913. This was an exciting and important discovery; the problem was that they were handwritten, and Gandhi’s hand was, in all of its three languages, extremely hard to decipher. Reading these letters, I could not easily distinguish ‘l’ from ‘t’ and ‘c’ from ‘o’. Fortunately, in the seat next to me was a young scholar who worked with medieval manuscripts in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Persian, and was thus particularly well equipped to make sense of strange handwriting. I asked her to come help me, and she did. Her name was Supriya Gandhi, daughter of Rajmohan of that ilk, and who was then doing a PhD at Harvard. So it was a great-grand-daughter of Gandhi who helped me decipher some rare, unpublished, letters written by Gandhi and now housed in the British Library. It was a juxtaposition which delighted me, and would surely have delighted Gandhi too.

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To find material on or around Gandhi I travelled once to Israel, several times to South Africa, and dozens of times to the United Kingdom. While in the United States on other work I also visited archives in that country: consulting the Peace Collection in Swarthmore College (where rested the papers of Gandhi’s Quaker friends), and studying the papers of his early biographer, Louis Fischer, split between the New York Public Library and Princeton University.

To be sure, I had also to spend time in archives in Gandhi’s homeland. Searching for materials previous biographers had not bothered to look for, I found one key file in the Uttar Pradesh State Archives in Lucknow (on Gandhi’s famous speech in Banaras in 1916), a dozen key files in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai (on Gandhi’s jail terms in Pune, and on Kasturba’s last illness and death), and about 50 key files in the National Archives of India in New Delhi — some in the private papers of Gandhi’s mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale; some in the Foreign and Political series dealing with princely states; but the majority in the Home (Political) series, these containing rich information on Gandhi’s three major all-India campaigns: the Non Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements. I also worked extensively in the Sabarmati ashram archives in Ahmedabad, which had the best collection of letters to Gandhi, as well as rare newspaper clippings related to his life and struggle.

However, the archive in India, and the world, that gave me most material for my work was the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), in New Delhi. Here I scoured the papers of numerous individuals and organisations connected with Gandhi and the national movement; looked at microfilms of old newspapers and magazines; and raided oral history transcripts. An important discovery was a run of eight microfilms, each containing several hundred pages of material, from Government House in Durban, pertaining to the condition of Indians in South Africa in the years 1893-1914, and the perceptions (as well as misperceptions) of their major leader, Gandhi. These were obtained by the NMML back in the 1980s, when there was no absolutely no political or professional contact between India and South Africa. The papers had been microfilmed by an American scholar who had worked in Durban, and then returned with his booty to his University in California. Word of what he had reached the NMML’s outstanding Deputy Director Hari Dev Sharma, who arranged for copies of the microfilms to be bought and brought to New Delhi. Years later, it was also Hari Dev Sharma who persuaded Gandhi’s last secretary, Pyarelal, to donate the vast collection of papers in his custody to the NMML.

But then Dev retired, and the papers lay for years in hundreds of sealed boxes, stored somewhere in the recesses of this great library. Fortunately, another remarkable public servant, Dr N Balakrishnan, then took over as Deputy Director, and immediately began to have them indexed, classified, and made open to scholars. This was supervised by Deepa Bhatnagar, a long-time NMML employee who was, at the time, perhaps the most accomplished archivist in India.

What Pyarelal had once possessed was the largest collection of Gandhi Papers anywhere in the world. It was so colossal that it took a team of dedicated archivists four years to index it. They chose, wisely, to sort out the papers into two broad categories. The first half consists of Gandhi’s personal correspondence, organised alphabetically. Here we find his correspondence with his comrades from his South African days (such as the remarkable Jewish trio of Henry Polak, Hermann Kallenbach, and Sonja Schlesin); with his Indian associates (male as well as female, Hindu and Muslim) such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, and J. B. Kripalani; with his European friends (among them the Quakers Horace Alexander and Muriel Lester); with his American admirers (such as the New York priest, John Haynes Holmes, who, as early as 1921, hailed Gandhi in a sermon as “The greatest man in the world”); with the British officials he dealt with (among them successive viceroys); with that great servant of princely India, Sir Mirza Ismail (Dewan of Mysore, Jaipur and Hyderabad); with his Indian antagonists and adversaries (such as the Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, the Hindu Mahasabha leader BS Moonje and the Muslim League leader, MA Jinnah); and with all kinds of unknown Indians.

The second half of this printed index lists the Subject Files, a staggering 428 in all, each several hundred pages in extent. These are organised under the broad headings: ‘Growth of Communalism and the Partition’, ‘Civil Disobedience Movement and Round Table Conferences’, ‘All India Village Industries Association/Goseva Sangh and Other Rural Development Programmes’, ‘Harijan Sevak Sangh and Gandhiji’s Harijan Uplift Programmes’. Under each of these subject headings, dozens of individual files are listed. Each provincial Congress Committee: Andhra, Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Central Provinces, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madras, Mahahastra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, United Provinces, etc, has its own set of files, as do the important princely states such as Hyderabad and Kashmir.

I was extraordinarily privileged to be the first biographer to be able to use this, the largest collection of Gandhi’s own papers. Yet generations of scholars yet unborn will have reason to be grateful to Dr Balakrishnan and his colleagues. For, Gandhi’s life and work touched every aspect of Indian life — caste, gender, religion, technology, the economy, literature, nationalism and colonialism — while he himself was the most important and controversial Indian of his time. The meticulous, detailed, indexing by Deepa Bhatnagar and her team makes this massive hoard — a million pages and counting — much easier to use by researchers. Whether one is working on a biography of Ambedkar, Patel, Rajagopalachari or Sarojini Naidu; whether one is examining the assertion of Hindu-Muslim unity in the 1920s or the growth of Hindu-Muslim conflict in 1940s; whether one is interested in the social history of caste or in the political history of colonialism — this magnificent index allows the scholar to locate those materials that may be central, relevant or marginal to her research.

I made thousands of new discoveries in these papers—discoveries that were trivial, not-so-trivial, somewhat significant and massively important. However, what these newly opened Gandhi Papers gave me most of all was the sense that the second most important person in India’s freedom movement was not Patel, or Nehru, or Rajaji. It was Gandhi’s remarkable secretary, Mahadev Desai, who, depending on the circumstance and the challenge, served as Gandhi’s head, or his heart, or his hand. Because he was always with Gandhi and because of his own self-effacing nature, Mahadev had never been given his due by biographers.

Yet he was more vital, more indispensable, to Gandhi’s life than any other man, notwithstanding what nationalist hagiography had to say. Mahadev had Rajaji’s moral and spiritual intelligence, Patel’s earthy rootedness, and Nehru’s capacious vision of the world — and a quite lovely sense of humour too.

I first got a sense of Mahadev Desai’s importance while working on the life of the maverick anthropologist, Verrier Elwin. Elwin loved and admired him; when asked to write a tribute on Gandhi’s 75th birthday, he chose to write on Mahadev instead. Now, in this newly opened collection of Gandhi’s own papers, I found abundant evidence of Mahadev Desai’s genius and industry. Reading the small print of The Collected Works, I sensed how much Gandhi valued and relied upon Mahadev; reading the correspondence of other people, I saw the crucial role that Mahadev played in mediating between the Congress and the British, and between warring Congress factions too. Revelatory in this regard was a file 400 pages thick in the Gandhi Papers in the NMML, containing telegrams and letters of condolence sent after Mahadev Desai’s death. This gave me a deeper sense of Mahadev’s significance and influence than anything else I had seen.

One of my editors confessed that, as she read the manuscript of my book, she had wept when she came to the pages on Mahadev’s death. I told her that I had wept while writing those pages too. For many years previously, I had, whenever visiting Kolkata, dropped in on the grave of Charlie Andrews, Gandhi’s closest English friend, in the Christian cemetery on Lower Circular Road. Now, whenever I visited Pune, I went to the old Aga Khan Palace, where there is a small, understated samadhi to Mahadev Desai, who died there during Gandhi’s last spell in prison. There was only one person even closer to the Mahatma — his wife Kasturba, whose samadhi is next to Mahadev’s, for she died in the Aga Khan Palace too.

I began this essay with one poem, and shall end with another. Here is how Mahadev Desai summarised, in four crisp lines, two-and-a-half decades of working with and for the greatest Indian of modern times:

To live with the saints in heaven

Is a bliss and a glory

But to live with a saint on earth

Is a different story.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of two Gandhi biographies, ‘Gandhi before India’ and ‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948’

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