Mahatma Gandhi, in his own words

Published : Feb 22, 2024 00:58 IST - 8 MINS READ

Gandhi writing at Birla House, Mumbai, circa August 1942.

Gandhi writing at Birla House, Mumbai, circa August 1942. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

A new two-volume “autobiography” serves as a second act that Gandhi himself might have written if circumstances had allowed him to do so.

“I am an ordinary man.” That was how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi described himself at a Congress meeting in Madras on January 30, 1946. That was how he always perceived himself, an Everyman, someone no different from his neighbours, certainly not a Chosen One. That attitude is reflected in his autobiography as well. His underlying message in narrating his experiments in self-actualisation seems to be, What someone like me could achieve, anybody else can achieve too. Therein, however, lies the difference that makes this ordinary man extraordinary.

Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man
by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Aleph Book Company
Pages: 400

Gandhi’s life remains unique in many respects, and one that has been documented in unusually rich detail. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), comprising letters, editorials, speeches, and much more, come to 97 volumes. And yet, this collection is not exhaustive: for example, many of his letters to his youngest son, Devadas, came out in the public domain only in 2022 when Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Tridip Suhrud published Scorching Love. Then there are memoirs and documentations from close associates, especially his two secretaries, Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal. As a result, we can find out what Gandhi said or did and where on a given date, while we may have little idea what we ourselves said or did on a given date 10 years ago.

LISTEN: Gandhi’s writings about his continued experiments do provide something like an autobiography, something like a second act he might have written if circumstances had allowed him to do so.

Abundance of detail

This abundance of detail, partly thanks to Gandhi’s notion of truth as full disclosure and partly due to the practices of those times, offers many advantages. A treasure trove for scholars, this Gandhiana is also an unusually detailed road map for those seeking ways to resolve conflicts, both within and without. But this richness can also be a problem of plenty. A reader interested in learning more about Gandhi’s life and works can read his key texts, fewer than 10, in easily accessible editions. But what next? Few non-specialists would pick up the first volume of The CWMG and plough on until the last one, not to mention Mahadev Desai’s multi-volume Diaries and other works considered primary sources.

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Selections, carefully compiled, can offer a middle ground and solve the problem. In 2007, Gopalkrishna Gandhi selected essential writings from The CWMG in The Oxford India Gandhi, which narrates Gandhi’s story in his own words—“the story of his life as he himself might have narrated it to a grandchild”. It also sought to cover the gap between 1920, when the narration of the autobiography comes to an end, and 1948.

Every generation, it is said, calls for a new biography of great men and women. In Gandhi’s case, there was a need for a new autobiography as well. In 2015, T.M. Krishna urged Gopalkrishna Gandhi “to do a new autobiography of Gandhi”, meaning, to put together “what Gandhi has said, in his own words, about his life, his family, outside the public sphere, outside The Story of My Experiments with Truth, which is so… so… brief…”.

The result is a two-volume work: the first volume, Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man, was published in 2021 and covers Gandhi’s life until 1914. Gopalkrishna Gandhi aims to put together “scattered narrations of his” that “fill in and fill out the before-life, the real-time life, and of his autobiography’s story”. As he writes in the preface: “Glimmers about his life, his association with people and with his large and growing family, biographical and ideological, slip through his public actions, speeches, letters, and other writings. As do personal observations about his inner struggles, his relationships with people—both famous and not famous. With the same frankness as marks his autobiography, he shares in speeches, recorded conversations, articles, and in letters to his family and close friends, of the years ‘covered’ in his autobiography and beyond.”

The second volume, I Am an Ordinary Man: India’s Struggle for Freedom, delves into the remaining period (1914-48), which is historically considered more important and which continues to provide the moral compass for the nation’s journey. Notwithstanding the subtitle of the first volume (“My Life as a Young Man”), the books do not supplement but complement the autobiography.

I Am an Ordinary Man: India’s Struggle for Freedom (1914–1948)
by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Aleph Book Company
Pages: 443
Price: Rs.999

A couple of things need to be clarified at this point. Gandhi’s autobiography, unlike, say, his previous work, The History of Satyagraha in South Africa, is not meant to be a historical documentation for posterity. It is, rather, an account of his quest for the absolute. Atma katha, the word for autobiography in Gujarati and Hindi, literally means “the story of the soul” and that is what it was for Gandhi. His writings from other modes of self-narration may not necessarily be autobiographical in this special sense. Still, no part of his life and none of the many hours he managed to put in a day were ever bereft of a keen awareness of his ultimate goal, “self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain moksha”. It follows, then, that Gandhi’s writings about his continued experiments do provide something like an autobiography, something like a second act he might have written if circumstances had allowed him to do so.

“Atma katha, the word for autobiography in Gujarati and Hindi, literally means ‘the story of the soul’ and that is what it was for Gandhi.”

Secondly, the recollections put together in these two volumes are “in his own words” in a specific sense. Restless as Mercury was composed, “apart from the borrowings from Experiments, mainly from the Gujarati original, Gandhi’s own words occurring elsewhere, the narrations of Joseph Doke, Millie Polak, Mahadev Desai, Prabhudas and Pyarelal…”. (The titular description of Gandhi, though, comes from his sister, Raliyat). I Am an Ordinary Man, covering “the chronologically smaller but, in terms of activity, the much more intense period”, is sourced from an even wider range of publications.

The need to weave together a large collection of entries into a coherent, first-person narrative has often necessitated alterations, though limited only to tense and person. Although many Gandhian scholars are pernickety about altering even a comma in his writings (as he himself was, to be sure), the changes made here are kosher. A scholarly reader can very well go to the source and check the original content, while a non-specialist can read what had remained largely inaccessible to him/her. (In any case, the day is not far when artificial intelligence will generate an audio of Gandhi narrating the autobiography in his own voice.)

Restless as Mercury and I am an Ordinary Man create a space of their own between The Story of My Experiments with Truth and a number of worthy biographies. To quote Gopalkrishna Gandhi from the preface of Restless as Mercury again: “‘Original’ footage, howsoever grainy, jerky, starting and ending without notice, has the ring of truth. It is the ‘thing’ itself, not an image of it.… Gandhi’s life story in his own words and those of his contemporaries who quote him is heard best when heard directly. It is the organic truth.” 

The two volumes have become all the more readable thanks to two editorial interventions that provide explanatory context: short prologues from the editor linking up the various sections into a smoother narrative flow, and well-researched footnotes, including some wonderful nuggets. Indeed, a certain kind of reader may read all the footnotes in one sitting, especially those about reading itself.

Reading “War Correspondences” in The Times of India, circa April 1930. Photograph by Walter Bosshard.

Reading “War Correspondences” in The Times of India, circa April 1930. Photograph by Walter Bosshard. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

For Gandhi, reading was an integral part of moral formation, but he found little time for it in the face of pressing duties. In jail, however, he had ample time to read. In Yerawada Central Prison, Poona, after the Great Trial of 1922, Gandhi went on a reading binge. In his “jail diary”, he also made a sort of list of every book he read. The list begins on April 21, 1922, with the 10 books he had read there by then and goes on until December 30, 1923. Most entries are one-liners: “Finished reading [the book title].” These ranged from Gujarati novels, philosophical treatises in English, and religious-spiritual scriptures to Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Goethe, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also Read | Despite the NCERT’s shocking move, Gandhi lives on

Reproducing the jail diary, I Am an Ordinary Man provides in footnotes not only a gist of the book mentioned but also goes on a hunt to find out which edition it was and published by whom. In the case of Ramayana, Songs of Kabir, or Patanjali’s Yogadarshan, the footnotes offer a glimpse of the exciting world of early print culture in India and the rich collections of jail libraries back then. When Gandhi notes that he finished reading Yogadarshan, the footnote clarifies: “Any of the following might have been the text Gandhi read in English: 1. 1907: Ganganath Jha’s Yoga Sutras with the Yogabhashya attributed to Vyasa into English in its entirety. 2. 1912: Charles Johnston: Dublin University: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man. 3. 191: The Yoga System of Patanjali with comments by Yogabhashya, Harvard University Press. Or another text in Hindi or Gujarati, alongside the original Sanskrit.”

Reading I Am an Ordinary Man is an experience illuminated by that spark of the reading culture. 

Ashish Mehta is a New Delhi-based journalist.

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