MKG: all too human
Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire
Author: Rajmohan Gandhi
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 650
The day after M K Gandhi arrived in Bombay on the S.S. Arabia in January 1915, back from 17 years in South Africa, the liberal politician, Srinivasa Sastri described to his brother the man he had just met: Gandhi, with ‘the modest downward face and the retiring speech... has one front tooth missing on the left side... Queer food he eats: only fruits and nuts. No salt: milk, ghee, etc being animal products avoided religiously... dressed quite like a bania: no one could mark the slightest difference’. To most who met him in these early days of his Indian homecoming, Gandhi was a rustic exotic, destined to join India’s rich parade of unknown oddballs.
Half a dozen years later, Gandhi had transformed himself into the country’s most important individual. Hindus, revivalists and others, looked respectfully to his lead; industrialists and businessmen subsidised him; in the Gujarat and Bihar countryside, he had established his own pillars of support; he was a power in Congress affairs, where liberals like Motilal Nehru swayed towards him; and above all, for a powerful if unsustainable moment, he had - by espousing the cause of the Khilafat – brought the Muslims of the subcontinent into common political action with other Indians, rural and elite. He had begun to perturb the Raj.
But from there on, contrary to the usual cinematography of his life, it was not a seamlessly unfolding panorama. By early 1922, Gandhi had lost control of the movement he had pieced together, and he spent the rest of the decade in retreat — in jail or at his ashrams. He was centre-stage again from 1930 to 1934, directing the civil disobedience movement and negotiations with the British — but he resigned from Congress in 1934, distressed at the way it was going, and returned to his tent. In 1942, he launched his Quit India call, a desperate and misjudged attempt to regain his former control. It landed him immediately in jail, and from 1943 until his assassination in January 1948, he was consigned to relative political Siberia by his Congress colleagues. And after 1948, he became a monument, of greater interest to India’s pigeons than it people.
His political career was thus episodic: sporadically buoyed by his ability to forge a magnanimous rhetoric of incorporation — which delivered into the folds of the Congress dhoti the tinder of disparate interests and groups. But this was also a combustible rhetoric, and Gandhi had constantly to douse the fires he was lighting — through, for instance, his summoning of religion during the Khilafat movement and later with Hindus, or his injunctions to civilly disobey the law.
Gandhi’s politics, his political campaigns and tactics, were protean, sometimes adventurist, always inconclusive. His stunning originality lay elsewhere: in his redefinition of the concept of the political itself. He entered an Indian world in which understandings of politics were divided between, on the one hand, formal arenas defined by the British — elections, constitutional councils, diarchy, ‘responsible government’: concepts with little resonance for most Indians — and, on the other, one given to millenarian susceptibilities — which possessed powerful lexicons of good government and justice, but which did not connect to the architecture of power. He linked them, expanding the domain of the political by a counterintuitive move.
He made central the problem of dharma: ethical life as a chosen project, through dialogue, deliberation, reasoning, and faith — and not as conformity to inherited roles or conventions. “I had to make my choice,” he told the judge at his trial in 1922, and there is something Nietzschean in his determination to fling accepted values high in the air, in his obsession with willpower, in his fierce challenge to all around him. We still struggle to locate him: high Victorian moralist, Gujarati bania, nationalist, radical enlightenment critic, postmodernist, utopian, nostalgist, Indian, Western, Hindu, crank, universalist — what was he?
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Himself, of course. Gandhi’s idea of the political took it back to the most intimate activities and relationships: self-rule, autonomy, was an ideal approached through one’s own struggle with oneself. There was no doubt something solipsistic and asocial about the view of power this suggested (and it threaded back to ancient spools of Indian thought). But it produced also a vertiginous expansion of the domain of the political — pulling it inward into the spiritual agonies, moral ambitions, and fleshly impulses of one mind and body, it also unfurled outwards, becoming at once an allegorical screen for all: Everyman Agonistes.
This is why the performance of his own life is so important: it was, as he himself saw, his most potent and encompassing political script — far more than his writings, it was in the living of his life that he tried to define and convey his vision of politics.
Biography is, therefore, exactly the appropriate lens through which to understand Gandhi, and Rajmohan Gandhi — the Mahatma’s grandson, and himself a distinguished historian and biographer — gives us a valuable, leisurely portrait of the life. His Gandhi is not the heroic vicar of the national conscience, but a more subtle being: a man frequently in emotional and physical turmoil, someone who relied enormously on his aides and friends, with a ragged and often cruel family life — yet always ruthlessly self-examining.
Gandhi wrote of how, on his return to India, he sensed “the dormant passions lying hidden within me,” and Rajmohan Gandhi’s book shows us Gandhi as a man brimming — literally trembling — with life-desires. He reveals the story of the 50-year old Gandhi’s deep attraction to Sarladevi Chaudhurani (and, one might add, Esther Faering), and explores Gandhi’s experiments in the late 1930s, when, in order to stop his life-long trembling fits, he took to having his younger female assistants sleep beside him.
We like to think of exemplary lives in terms of success and failure. Such tabulation is difficult with Gandhi: not least because he himself rejected their conventional definitions. Gandhi saw his life as an incitement, not as a model. Another erratic ascetic, Samuel Beckett (who also knew a bit about the vexed relationship between our imaginations and our bodies) once wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It is a cadence Gandhi would have understood.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India, and currently a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin
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