Mark his words
There is an essentiality to Gandhi’s use of ‘potent’ vocabulary, his elisions being of a voltage higher than that of his words. Mohandas resisted being propositioned by a pimp at Malta an experience he describes without coyness. But he nearly ‘fell’ in England. He describes his 1890 experience, as a law student, of a rubber of bridge in Portsmouth: “Every player indulges in innocent jokes as a matter of course ... and I also joined in. Just as I was about to go beyond the limit, leaving the cards and the game to themselves...”. His train of thought and words to match are interrupted. But it is clear that the ‘limit’ of this bridge player was to be reached after a rough passage. He says, quite simply, he had been moved by the Portsmouth landlady to ‘lust’ but stopped just in time, quaking, trembling, and with beating heart. There is a disarming frankness to his saying elsewhere: “While he (a would-be barrister) is in England, he is alone, no wife... no parents... no children ... He is the master of his time...”.
An essentiality about Gandhi’s narrative style is its leanness.
Gandhi’s understatements are far stronger than dramatisation can be. The famous refusal to remove his pugree in Durban is described by Gandhi in but two short sentences: “The magistrate kept staring at me and finally asked me to take off my turban. This I refused to do and left the court”.
The two words ‘refused’ and ‘left’ say it all.
The even more celebrated Pietermaritzburg episode has been the very soul of Gandhi theatre, screen, and legend. But how has the protagonist related it? The actual moment of eviction is captured in just three sentences: “The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out.”
After the verbal resistance offered by Gandhi to the constable at Pietermaritzburg, he had been outdone physically although his spirit had remained unbowed. The next day, when at Pardekoph he was again manhandled in the stagecoach by the white man in charge of the vehicle, he refused to be physically defeated. “I clung to the brass rails of the coachbox and was determined to keep my hold even at the risk of breaking my bones ... He let go my arm.”
Unlike at Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi won at Pardekoph both spiritually and physically. He has said, “My active non-violence began from that date”. This ‘activeness’ was also to include something else he describes doing for the first time in his life between Pietermaritzburg and Pardekoph. Which was to employ a civic amenity, the telegraph office, for sending out wires by way of public complaint and private communication against the abuse of power by authorities.
Gandhi’s ‘essential writing’ in the public domain can also be taken to have begun with this act. That style of writing matures, very quickly, from an articulation of complaints over a personal hurt to issues affecting the public. When, barely a year after Pietermaritzburg and Pardekoph, he is pushed off President Street in Pretoria by a guard, Gandhi refuses to proceed against the man saying: “I have made it a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance”.
He is already a rule-maker and, by the law of opposites, becoming a rule-breaker. And a rule-amender as well. Describing the brutal attack on him by a group of white youths on a Durban street on January 13, 1897, Gandhi once again holds on to a railing as he is battered.
“If I had lost hold of the bar, I would have struggled on, would perhaps have slapped or bitten the man and would have resisted till death.”
Gandhi ‘slapping and biting’! An amendment, a codicil, to his non-violence. Hard to believe, but there it is, and in his own words.
Sonja Schlesin (1887-1956) had joined Gandhi’s Johannesburg office in 1903 and served him and the cause of Indian South Africans with rare zeal. But she was her own person. Gandhi writes: “Miss Schlesin in her folly started smoking a cigarette in my presence. I slapped her and threw away the cigarette...”
An opponent of public wrongs and a defender of individual rights in Durban, he was quite a wielder of authority at home. Throwing his friend Mehtab out of his Durban home with excellent reason, he very nearly did the same to Kasturba with no real provocation. She had said to him, “Keep your house to yourself and let me go”. “I forgot myself. I caught her by the hand, dragged the helpless woman to the gate, which was just opposite the ladder, and proceeded to open it with the intention of pushing her out. The tears were running down her cheeks in torrents, and she cried: Have you no sense of shame? Must you forget yourself? Where am I to go? I have no parents or relatives here to harbour me” ... I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her.”
How do we know of this unacceptable behaviour of Gandhi towards his wife? Not from her, not from witnesses. From him. From the ‘essential’ Gandhi. In all these episodes we see Gandhi employing force, the personal force of his mind-actuated body. We see a Gandhi who is putting his hands to a use we do not quite associate with him. He is no different here from the rest of us who have used or do use force in one form or the other when outraged, disdained, or insubordinated by those over who we feel we have some authority.
And lest it be thought that Gandhi stood for the use of physical force in those or similar circumstances, it is important to see that he was constantly making new tools for his satyagrahic intervention, tools which used his sense of outrage but sublimated it into something other than rage, into a greater and more potent energy, a capacity to turn the arrow of hurt into himself, to bear the resultant pain and use that pain to transform people and circumstances.
Bearers of the ‘Gandhian’ tag would be uncomfortable reading Gandhi’s description of his Boer War days: “I myself served wine to the stone-breakers in my corps and served bidis to others. Discretion is very necessary in doing all such things. Generosity to others is as necessary as strictness with oneself. But bearers of the spirituous tray dare not see a sanction in that quote either!
With millions the world over, I had read Gandhi on his father, Karamchand Gandhi, the karmayogi. I had carried a mental image of the brave and principled diwan who ran the durbar at Porbandar for 27 years, at Rajkot for eight, and at Vankaner for one.
But this time, the Gandhi ‘pencil’ marked out something I had missed in his description of ‘Kaba’ Gandhi’s human side: “Our household was turned upside down when my father had to attend the durbar during a Governor’s visit. He never wore stockings or boots. His footwear was soft leather slippers. If I was a painter, I could paint my father’s disgust and the torture on his face as he put his legs into stockings and his feet into ill-fitting and uncomfortable boots. He had to do this”. I could now better understand MKG’s distaste for heavy footwear and passion for making, with his hands, simple sandals.
I had also missed young Mohandas’ comment on the ways of his father’s workplace, the durbar: “I knew then, and know better now, that much of my father’s time was taken up by mere intrigue...Everyone talked in whispers”. I could now see the origins of his utter openness whether in the spoken or written word, as well as in action.
The Kathiawari turban acquires a new meaning in Gandhi’s wry comment: “There is a saying that Kathiawaris have as many twists in their hearts as they have in their pugrees.” As also in the assessment which seems to carry a sigh in it: “I know how turbid Kathiawari politics is.” These lines were not in the autobiography. They occur in different documents. But the ‘pencil’ Gandhi had given me was marking and connecting them for the retelling of the life within the Life, the ‘essential’ story.
This is an edited extract from Gandhi: Essential Writings (OUP), compiled and edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the grandson of MK Gandhi, and Governor of West Bengal.