December 13, 2019
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If Truth Be Told...

Another addition to Gandhiana. But, notably, it clears misconceptions and brings out the real Mahatma from under the surface of formalised respect and awe.

If Truth Be Told...
If Truth Be Told...
The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings
Compiled and Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Oxford University Press Pages: 863; Rs. 850
I can’t think of another person in the history of the world about whom more is known and written about than Mahatma Gandhi: the entire corpus of Gandhiana would fill several libraries. Besides his autobiography written early in life, he wrote extensively for journals he edited, gave long interviews to mediapersons, carried on correspondence with hundreds—almost all of this has been meticulously collected and published. Many distinguished writers wrote his biographies, psychologists like Erik Erikson and Sudhir Kakar published analyses of his relationships with different women. A year or so ago, his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi published what appeared to be the definitive version of his grandsire’s life (Mohandas—A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire). One would have thought all that could be said about the Mahatma had been said. That is not so. Now another grandson, Rajmohan’s younger brother Gopalkrishna, has come out with a massive 863-page tome on the same subject. The first question that comes to mind is: does it fill any gaps left by the others? On going through the text, my answer is a categorical yes. Primarily for the reason that, in a strange way, it brings the Mahatma alive and clears many misconceptions about him.

The Gandhis were grocers who became dewans of different Kathiawar states. They were orthodox Hindu Banias influenced by Jainism: strictly vegetarian, teetotallers and observing the rigid code of conduct of a middle-class Hindu joint family. Mercifully, the family was free of anti-Muslim prejudices. This was young Mohandas’s make-up when he left for England to study law. He made feeble attempts to turn himself into a brown sahib but became a vigorous propagator of vegetarianism and abstinence from liquor. When he returned home, his first clients were Muslims. One of them took him to South Africa. A majority of members of the Natal Indian Congress set up by M.K. Gandhi, Attorney, were Muslims. It is not surprising that he had a soft corner for the community.

Gandhi evolved his values of life and code of conduct in South Africa. He realised that the most potent weapon to use against an enemy stronger than yourself was passive resistance based on the conviction that truth was on your side; thus was born the concept of satyagraha—truth force. It was to be wielded without any ill-will, but with the conviction that he would come to see your point of view and lay down arms. However, in order to make satyagraha a potent force, one had to shed fear and, if necessary, suffer humiliation and physical violence. Gandhi was often beaten up and put in jail. There were attempts made on his life and more than once he came close to being killed. He never flinched and soon the white rulers, both British and Dutch, came to respect him. He was able to talk to generals, governors, viceroys and kings on the level. Even so, when wars broke out, as they did with the Boers and the Zulu revolt, he raised corps of volunteers to tender medical aid to the injured. It was this kind of conduct that gave him the image of a saint.

In the ashrams he set up in South Africa, he laid down strict rules of conduct: early morning prayers, cleaning your mess yourself, raising vegetables, cooking, making your own garments and shoes. Consumption of liquor and tobacco was forbidden; sex tolerated only among married couples. The slightest deviation from the norm was punished by Gandhi undertaking a fast for penance for what he regarded as sins. It earned him the image of a crackpot. He admitted it himself. "Some look upon me as a fool, a crank, or a faddist, wherever I go I am sought out by fools, cranks and faddists," he wrote. One can’t be blamed for drawing that conclusion. He gave up drinking cow or buffalo milk because they were subjected to phooka (whatever that means). But goat’s milk was okay. His secretary made sure the goat in question was of good character and looked into its eyes for signs of randiness. Once when goat’s milk was unavailable, he made do with goat-milk butter. And promptly went down with diarrhoea. Alcohol was to him sheer poison. Once Nehru, who was sick in Poona jail, refused to take brandy because Bapu disapproved of it. So brandy was injected into him by the prison doctor. Gandhi assured him he had done no wrong. He wrote: "You cannot be blamed for the doctor having given you an injection of brandy. You did not drink it for pleasure. Moreover, an injection of brandy is not as objectionable as a vaccine."

His formula was simple: whatever gave pleasure to the senses was perforce sinful. There was an element of a sadistic killjoy in him. In a way he became the chief spokesman of SPTD (Society for the Promotion of Tasteless Diet). Boil vegetables if you must, but don’t add salt, spices, chilli, garlic or pickles to it. They are tamasic—of the lowest grade. To make sure, he examined stools of people to see if they had shat out undigested food. The last meal he took before he was assassinated was raw carrots. He laughingly described it as cattle fodder.

More bizarre were his relations with his wife and sons. He treated them very shabbily. Once he threw his wife, Kasturba, out of his house. After having expended his lust on her when she was young, he took a vow of celibacy without consulting her. He had himself massaged by women disciples. To ensure that he had got the better of his libido he had young women sleep beside him on the floor: Kasturba was no longer a temptation to be resisted. He would never have tolerated her having male masseurs or young men sleep beside her to test her virtue. He was never close to any one of his four sons. It is easy to understand why Harilal took to hard drinking and converted to Islam. He wanted to attract his father’s attention by spiting him.

Despite being aware of his fads, by the time Gandhi returned to India to lead the freedom movement, he was acclaimed by people as their messiah. Why? Because what people know of the world’s great teachers is largely based on myth, legend and makebelieve. They could raise the dead, walk on water, fly in the air and perform other miracles. Artists painted their portraits without having a clue about what they looked like. They put halos around their heads to give them an aura of divinity. About Gandhi people knew everything and did not think he needed a halo around his head to put himself beyond their reach. They knew he never told a lie, never flinched in face of danger or threats of violence. He rose to supreme heights when India won its battle for freedom. While others were preparing to celebrate, Gandhi went to places hit by communal violence—to Calcutta, Bihar, Noakhali and Delhi. He fasted and prayed for peace to return. Where the police and army had failed, he succeeded. In Delhi, he held prayer meetings in a Dalit temple and insisted that passages from the Quran be read. Angry Hindus stopped him thrice from doing so: the fourth time they relented. When mobs of infuriated Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan destroyed a part of the mausoleum of Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli, he went there to pray for forgiveness. When anti-Pakistani feelings were at a fever pitch and the Indian government refused to honour its pledge to pay Pakistan Rs 55 crore, he went on fast and forced it to abide by its word. He knew he was asking for trouble but did not give it a second thought. A calumny was spread about his having agreed to the partition of India on communal lines. He told his secretary Pyarelal: "Today I find myself alone. Even the Sardar (Patel) and Jawaharlal think that my reading of the situation is wrong and peace is sure to return if the Partition is agreed upon.... I shall perhaps not be alive to witness it, but should the evil I apprehend overtake India and her independence be imperilled, let it not be said that Gandhi was a party to India’s vivisection." He was pretty certain he would not be allowed to live. In a prayer meeting on June 16, 1947, he said, "I shall consider myself brave if I am killed and if I still pray to God for my assassin." As he had anticipated, the assassin finally got him on January 30, 1948. He went with the name of Rama on his lips—a glorious end to a glorious life.

Of one thing I am pretty certain: if the Mahatma were to visit Calcutta today, he would not be staying with his grandson at Raj Bhavan despite the exemplary service he has rendered to him.

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