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The kingdom of two prophets

What influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s way of thinking most was Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, writes Khushwant Singh.
None | By Khushwant Singh
PUBLISHED ON MAR 03, 2007 06:29 AM IST

Gandhiji acknowledged his debt to Leo Tolstoy. He named his first commune in South Africa, Tolstoy Farm. He kept Tolstoy’s work on his bookshelves. It is not known whether he actually went through the magnum opus War & Peace (I tried a few times and got lost in the plethora of Russian names) or Anna Karenina, his most readable novel, or collections of his short stories: He does not refer to them but only to his ideas of God, religion and society. They exchanged correspondence and Gandhiji wrote a moving obituary of the greatest novelist of the times when he died in 1910.

What influenced Gandhi’s way of thinking most was Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The greatest difference between the two men was that while Gandhi put his ideas into practice, Tolstoy, more often than not, failed to live up to what he professed. The two men had utterly different backgrounds. Gandhi was middle class, witty and a man of modest means. Tolstoy was born an aristocrat, a Count with a large estate employing 400 serfs and a huge stable of horses. Gandhi abhorred violence and though he faced guns and fell victim to one, he never handled any. Tolstoy was a soldier, a daring fighter. Though he ignored service rules, when he heard the boom of canons, he was up fighting for all he was worth. Gandhi had respect for money and was extremely particular about how he spent it. Tolstoy was an inveterate gambler and lost vast fortunes including much of his estate to pay his debts. Gandhi never indulged in extramarital sex. Though infatuated with some women, he did not take any liberties with them. Tolstoy, on the other hand, was a compulsive womaniser. Wherever he went he visited brothels and contracted venereal diseases. He seduced peasant women and maidservants. He asserted his rights as a landowner (droit du seigneur) to bed wives and daughters of his serfs and sired bastards. Some he acknowledged and employed as his servants; others he ignored. Later in life he wanted to take a vow of chastity and asked his wife to move into another bedroom.

The Countess refused to give up her conjugal rights. After her sons were born, poor Kasturba suffered a sexless married life. The Tolstoys compromised on a double bed. It was he who broke his vow more than once.

Gandhi continued to fight a ding-dong battle against his libido. He let women massage his head and limbs; he had nubile girls sleep beside him, but took no liberties with them. Tolstoy gave his serfs freedom but kept a large staff of servants. He gave up his aristocratic costumes and took to wearing peasant’s clothes. Gandhi never kept any servants, washed his own clothes and swept his floor — so did Tolstoy in his later years by digging his soil to plant vegetables, drawing water from the well, cobbling shoes for the family, chopping his firewood but always had a staff to carry out his orders. He also turned pacifist and vegetarian. However, he was unable to control his temper and often flew into a rage. Though professing love for humanity, there was a nasty streak of anti-Semitism in him. Gandhi had no religious or racial prejudices. The chief difference in both was their attitude to God and religion. Tolstoy remained religious and was denounced by the Orthodox church; Gandhi expanded it to embrace all religions in one. Tolstoy deified himself; Gandhi remained a humble mortal. Both were prophets in their own rights; one in the realm of thought, the other in the realm of action.

Love of good food

The trouble with tasty food is one eats more than is good for the body and pays the penalty of an upset stomach and disturbed sleep. I have always loved tasty food and at times over-indulged myself with dire consequences. Now nearing my mid-90s, I have been warned by my doctor to restrict my diet. He tells me that my diet should be salt-free, sugar-free, free from spices and other ingredients, which enhance its taste. How on earth can bland food be tasty?

However, I have had to reconcile myself to brown toast for breakfast, to daal or khichdi with dahi for lunch and one dish for dinner. It’s grim because the hankering for tasty food persists. I watch cookery programmes on TV. Some make me salivate. I turn over pages of cookery books and imagine what different recipes would taste like. My latest indulgence is Jiggs Kalra’s Zaike Ka Safar: a culinary biography (Allied). He tells of his years in different parts of the country and their food specialities. So you have 100 of the best Bengali, South Indian, Gujarati, Mughalai and Punjabi recipes. I am a part of Jiggs’ autobiography as he was my colleague on the staff of The Illustrated Weekly of India in Bombay.

Since then he has become the super-guru of chefs in the country. He is invited by our government to advise on menus to be offered for lunches and dinners of visiting dignitaries and supervise their preparations. State governments consult him on preparations of the milk and vegetable products they market. Occasionally he offers me guru-dakshina by sending me food made in his home. I have to spread it over several meals and follow each with liberal, hefty doses of chooran.

Rabri express

Rabri Devi’s parents were on the train, ticketless
And the TT fined them, so said the press:
Because Lalu’s applause
Was so anti-in-laws,
He surprised me, I must confess.

(Courtesy: Prabhat S Vaidya, Mumbai)

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