Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: Essential reading on MK Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: Swami Anand, who persistently urged Gandhi to write his autobiography, wrote detailed pen sketches of persons and, through that, introduced the readers to sociological insights about castes and communities.
Gandhi after his release from prison, 1924.(gandhi museum)
Gandhi after his release from prison, 1924.(gandhi museum)
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 05:47 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByTridip Suhrud

For long years, the only language I could read and grasp its cadence, the beauty of its lilting prose, the subtleties of its syntax and meaning of the said and the unsaid was Gujarati. For that reason, it was through Gujarati writings that I was introduced to MK Gandhi. Oddly, none of the writers and the books I read then were about Gandhi. They were written by people closely associated with him as co-workers, fellow ashramites.

Kaka Saheb Kalelkar’s Smaran Yatra was my favourite summer time reading, and the first autobiography that I read, a journey that eventually led me to read and recently annotate Satyana Prayogo, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Gandhi’s autobiography). Kaka Saheb gave the first introduction to prison life, perhaps the only free space in times of tyranny. Swami Anand, who persistently urged Gandhi to write his autobiography, wrote detailed pen sketches of persons and, through that, introduced the readers to sociological insights about castes and communities. His retelling of the Sermon on the Mount in Gujarati gave a glimpse of the life of Jesus that so attracted Gandhi.

Swami Anand and Kaka Saheb were both restless travellers and their accounts of the Himalaya taught the Gujarati readers lessons in the geography and ecology of mountains. They made us curious about Gandhi, about the ashrams and his capacity to collect around him a menagerie full of characters. Menagerie was the word used by Mahadev Desai to describe the ashram community. The first account that I read of Gandhi was through the first three volumes of Desai’s diaries, written in Gujarati, of their time together as prisoners at the Yerawada central prison. This is perhaps the best introduction to Gandhi, the man, the thinker, the bricoleur and a person who had an immensely rich life of the mind.

Also Read: MK Gandhi, the clever tactician of non violence

It also humanised their otherwise stern companion who had come to us in school text books as an “iron man” — the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel of those prison diaries is a man full of earthy humour, who had a school boy like diligence in learning Sanskrit and who took great delight in making parbidiyas, envelopes for Gandhi’s vast correspondence. Desai remains the best interlocutor and chronicler of Gandhi’s striving to see God face to face. His dairies, indifferently and incompletely translated into Hindi and English, remain an unsurpassable reference to the life and times of Gandhi.

The other text that made explicit the joy of reading philosophical discourse was Kishorelal Mashruwala’s Gandhi Vichar Dohan, which, to my mind, remains one of the most nuanced philosophical expositions on Gandhi’s thought. English language brought with it a different world of scholarship about Gandhi and a disappointment. Despite RK Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma, the lack of fictional and literary engagement with one of the most eminent characters is glaring.

Gandhi’s life as a student in London, his flâneur-like explorations of the city, his voracious readings and later three visits to London are captured best in James Hunt’s Gandhi in London. The South African decades remained inaccessible to scholars during the Apartheid years and our lack of knowledge of the South African scholarship on Gandhi and his movements, contributed to that. Maureen Swan’s Gandhi: The South African Experience is an outstanding political tract on the early years of Gandhi. It is a matter of regret that the most delightful account of Gandhi’s life and the life of the Phoenix and Tolstoy community, Prabhudas Gandhi’s Jivan nun Parodh (Life’s Awakening) remains inaccessible to all those who do not read Gujarati.

Largely because of the self-deprecating manner in which he wrote of his legal work, we tended to disregard it as well till Charles DiSalvo came with a detailed biography — The Man Before The Mahatma: M K Gandhi - Attorney at Law — of him as a lawyer. Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory – Chauri Chaura, 1922–1992 remains a lesson in reading the archives.

The corpus of biographical works on Gandhi is so immensely rich that it deserves a full length study. He has been remarkably fortunate to have each generation of historians and biographers engaging with his life: Pyarelal, DG Tendulkar, Rajmohan Gandhi, Narayan Desai, Ramchandra Guha. Erick Erickson’s Gandhi’s Truth and Geoffrey Ashe’s Gandhi: A Study in Revolution are genre-defining works. While Kasturba awaits a gifted teller of her story, Harilal’s troubled life has been chronicled by one of the finest “auditors” of Gandhi’s life: Chandulal Dalal. Harilal Gandhi: A Life is also special for a few paragraphs that Ramchandra Gandhi wrote as a foreword. Gandhi’s last phase is reminiscent of Via Dolorosa. NK Bose’s My Days with Gandhi and Sudhir Chandra’s Gandhi: Ek Asambhav Sambhavana illuminate those days when Gandhi experienced the dark night of the soul.

Also Read: Gandhiji’s name etched in the history of independent India, writes Mohan Bhagwat

But of course, the best on Gandhi is Gandhi himself. His autobiography is a text for those seeking an ally in troubled times; Hind Swaraj continues to exasperate readers, new and old alike; his idiosyncratic Key to Health remains his best selling book. For all those who have leisure, volumes of his collected writings are highly recommended.

Tridip Suhrud has recently published a critical edition of M K Gandhi’s Autobiograhy and ‘The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944’

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021