Why Gandhi is every biographer's joy and horror
One can pick up whatever he wants to and create a Mahatma of his own.
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At the height of the khadi movement, when Mahatma Gandhi exhorted everyone to boycott foreign clothes, Kasturba, his wife, complained that she found it difficult to wear a khadi sari and cook as it was too heavy to do home chores. When Gandhi heard this, he got extremely annoyed and asked her not to cook at all, for he would not eat food prepared by her while wearing "unholy" foreign cloth!Gandhi with Kasturba.
This incident, quoted from Pramod Kapoor's latest book, Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography, brings to the fore a side of the Mahatma which is generally overlooked in favour of his otherwise liberal persona wherein he is seen as encouraging women to come out of their homes and participate in India's freedom struggle. The same Gandhi, who would otherwise exhort us not to resort to violence even when provoked viciously, would slap his wife and then remark how he "learnt the first lesson of ahimsa from her silent tears".
This dichotomy is also evident from Harilal's 14-page letter to Gandhi, his father, wherein he indicts the Mahatma of dealing with him and his family members "just as a ringmaster in a circus treats animals in his charge". Kapoor concedes this when he writes that Gandhi "could be extremely dictatorial when dealing with his closest relatives or his followers. In contrast he would often give in to his adversaries in seeking peaceful resolutions".
Maybe this was because Gandhi, to use the Naipaulian terminology, was a "bits-and-pieces man" who adopted things from sources as different as his mother's love for fasting and Tolstoy's religious belief to Ruskin's idea of labour, South Africa's jail code.
It was this tendency to pick up things, particularly from "foreign" sources, that made Sri Aurobindo call Gandhi "a European… in an Indian body."
Interestingly, these characteristics of Gandhi have made him every biographer's delight, for the latter can pick up whatever he wants to and create a Mahatma of his own.
But, the very same features have also made him a biographer's nemesis, as none of the accounts can ever be comprehensive, all-encompassing.
The Mahatma, to be fair to him, was a product of his space and time. He had an ordinary childhood. So much so that Joseph Lelyveld leaves out Gandhi's childhood and student years while writing his biography Great Soul, a decision he made because he believed that the 23-year-old law clerk, who arrived in South Africa in 1893 had little in him of the man he would finally become. He reached South Africa with the pride and prejudice of a Bania and that was evident in the manner he fought his apartheid battle in South Africa.
Despite Ramachandra Guha's valiant efforts to project Gandhi as "apartheid's first opponents" in his biography on the Mahatma, the man in reality was upset with the British policy in South Africa to place Indians "on the same level as the Natives", whom he disdainfully called kafirs.Young Gandhi as a laywer in South Africa.
Gandhi's worldview is best manifested in Hind Swaraj which, according to Kapoor, the Mahatma considered his best book "and 40 years later he would present it to Jawaharlal Nehru, saying that it contained blueprint for the Indian Republic".
Interestingly, Hind Swaraj disapproved of the Western civilisation to the extent of desiring the "natural destruction" of the "railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors". (Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White recalls how she was once denied permission to photograph Gandhi by one of his secretaries, just because she didn't know how to spin the charkha, which he thought was the "most delicate, intricate and marvellous instrument".)
Now, this worldview is antithesis of everything Nehruvian, which regards industrialisation as a key to India's salvation. Their differences were kept under wraps during the heady days of the freedom struggle, but once Independence was in sight the contradiction came out in the open. Gandhi then became a liability and was mostly ignored by those in the corridors of power.
Professor Markand Paranjape exposes this palpable unconcern for the Mahatma in his book, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, wherein he exposes how the government of the day did little to protect Gandhi despite being aware of the conspiracy to kill him.
On the day Gandhi was assassinated, only one assistant sub-inspector, two head constables, and 16 foot constables were deployed to ensure his safety!
If analysed closely, Gandhi's was truly the chronicle of a death foretold. Maybe he had outlived his utility, especially in the eyes of the top Congress leaders who were weary of some of his demands - from dissolving the Congress to bending backwards to please Pakistan.
With the Congress now in power, the differences between the Gandhi thought and the Nehruvian order were too obvious to ignore. Who knows Gandhi would have started his Satyagraha in free India against Nehru and what better a site than the Bhakra Nangal Dam?
Gandhi, post 98 volumes of the "Collected Works", hundreds of biographies and one tell-all memoir in My Experiments With Truth, is still in search of his James Boswell. Pramod Kapoor's book is a stark reminder of that.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)