Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi

This essay appears today in the Scotsman, and is the second of an informal four-part series of pieces on the Middle Stage over the month leading up to the sixtieth anniversary of Indian independence. The first of these, featured last week, was "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose".

The life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is one of the most well-documented and minutely analysed lives of the 20th century. Yet, as the editor of Gandhi's collected works, which run into 100 volumes, remarked, the Gandhi story is inexhaustible, "like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata combined".

This is because Gandhi's abiding concerns - the working out of disputes large or small without descent into hatred or violence, the need for every human being to arrive at self-rule in the individual sense before demanding authority in any other sense, and the belief that worthy ends are nothing without equally worthy means - remain eternally relevant, so that he speaks afresh to every age.

Now, the historian Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, vividly brings to life in his massive biography the texture of Gandhi's days as he progressed from a timid anglicised student to the fearless loincloth-clad opponent of empire and other licensed injustices, the development of his thought across his engagements with conflict situations in England, South Africa, colonial India, and free India, the attitudes borne towards him by his many friends and foes, and the mood and colour of his age.

Gandhi is well qualified to write this book for more than just reasons of family. Among his other books are biographies of Vallabhbhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari (two of the Mahatma's staunchest allies in the independence movement and brilliant politicians in their own right); a study of Indian Muslims, over whom colonial India broke up into two independent countries; and a wide-ranging study of South Asian history, Revenge and Reconciliation, encompassing the thought of figures such as the Buddha and the emperor Ashoka and the counsel of such texts as the Bhagavad Gita (the Mahatma's favourite book). Gandhi's intimate familiarity with South Asian history and the many sides and perspectives of the Indian freedom movement impart to his study a satisfying density and richness that place it on the highest rung of the vast literature on the Mahatma.

In an excellent early section, Rajmohan Gandhi shows us how the young Gandhi, working as a lawyer defending the rights of the coloured community in South Africa, perfected the incipient methods of passive resistance and satyagraha (literally, "truth-force") through his reading of writers like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau, and his skirmishes with the South African government. When he moved back to India for good in 1914 his reputation preceded him, and he himself was ready to publicise his unusual weapons before the Indian people and to persuade them to join him in deploying them against Empire.

Among the salutary qualities of Rajmohan Gandhi's work is his liberal and judicious use of quotations from Gandhi's writing, including his autobiography and other books, his weekly columns for the two Indian journals he edited, and his voluminous correspondence (he was an indefatigable letter-writer and lobbyist, once writing some 5,000 letters, all by hand, over a six-week period). The value of this approach is twofold. One, instead of the static, "finished" Gandhi enshrined in history, it presents us with a Gandhi continuously on the move, finding words for his experience as he discovers and refashions himself.

Second, it foregrounds Gandhi's engagement not only with the Raj, with the oppressive caste system and the Hindu-Muslim question, but with the English language itself. As a youth Gandhi's English was poor. As a 19-year-old journeying to England to study law, he dreaded conversation in English with his fellow passengers, recalling that "I had to frame every sentence in my mind before I could bring it out". But by steady labour he improved his English to the extent that, writing in English on the great questions of the day and rebutting the Raj at every step in a clear, forceful idiom, he did as much as any other Indian writer to domesticate the language. As the Indian historian Sunil Khilnani has observed, "English made the empire, but [Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru] showed how it could be used to unmake it - how the language could be a tool of insubordination and, ultimately, freedom."

Gandhi emerges in Rajmohan Gandhi's portrait as both an acute strategist and a doubting, sometimes fallible, man, viewed by some as a saint and others as a crank. Despite his misgivings ("I often err and miscalculate") he was one of history's greatest moral visionaries, the inventor of universally relevant pacifist concepts that aspired towards breaking down adversaries nonviolently. His genius extended beyond immediate conflict resolution; by the practice of never talking down or humiliating his opponents, he was also usually successful in foreclosing future conflicts. As Diana Eck has written, Gandhi "saw clearly that if conflict is cast in terms of winning or losing, of us prevailing over them, then ... the next round of the conflict is only postponed". Rajmohan Gandhi's splendid biography delivers to us both the Gandhi of his time and a Gandhi for our times.

And some essays on Gandhi: a recent one by Pankaj Mishra on Gandhi's Autobiography ('"I must reduce myself to zero," he wrote on the last page of the autobiography, upholding a long Indian tradition in which power and charisma are gained from renunciation rather than worldly success'); "Fighting A Gandhian Fight" by Mark Juergensmeyer; "Southasia’s difficulties with Gandhi’s legacy" by Ashis Nandy; "Gandhi in Jaffna" by Ramachandra Guha; "Gandhi the philosopher" by Akeel Bilgrami, and "What If Gandhi Had Lived On?" by Rajmohan Gandhi.

1 comment:

Neha said...

Thank you for your review - I ended up picking up and reading the book. (And well, blogging about it too.