Revisiting Gandhi’s early years

Print edition : July 30, 2021

“Restless as Mercury: My life as a young man” By Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph, 2021.

1910: Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach (middle row, centre) at Tolstoy Farm, South Africa. Tolstoy Farm was the first ashram Gandhi initiated during his South African movement. Photo: AFP PHOTO / SOTHEBY'S

A new and close look at the first 45 years of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life, ingeniously reconstructed from his The Story of My Experiments with Truth, twelve volumes of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and the narratives of five of Gandhi’s contemporaries.

As I read the preface by Gopalkrishna Gandhi to Restless as Mercury: My Life As A Young Man, I was reminded of what his elder brother and professor of philosophy Ramchandra Gandhi told me 30 years ago. Back in 1991, we were working together to make Jagran aur Gavahi: Tees Janvari, a documentary on the significance of Gandhi’s martyrdom. While we were going through the original footage on the editing table, Ramchandra Gandhi said to me: “These frames [of the original footage] are like Gandhiji’s ashes, let us be very careful in working with them.” Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes in the preface: “‘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.”

While this book brings together Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth and autobiographical observations from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), the documentary took a Brechtian break to contemporary times. It foresaw the destruction of the Babri Masjid a year down the line in December 1992 and the resurrection of divisive politics within the country, and also visualised the resurgence of Gandhi’s ideas abroad.

Both the book and the documentary tell a story “for the sole reason that a story as first told is not a story, it is reality”. But the documentary, before it was premiered on Doordarshan, the sole television network then, on January 30, 1992, faced cuts from the censors of the government channel. Rather than make the cuts, we decided to reshoot a part of the opening sequence. Also, both are products of the synergy of Gandhi’s “growing family, biological and ideological”. The book made me recall Vithalbhai Jhaveri’s five-hour-long film Mahatma, which I saw in 1969, Gandhi’s centenary year, and the transformative impact it had on me as a student of Class 9.

The idea of this book came from Carnatic maestro and Magsaysay award-winner T.M. Krishna. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes that one day, Krishna asked him, out of the blue: “Gopal, why don’t you do a new autobiography of Gandhi?” Thinking that he had misheard Krishna, Gopalkrishna Gandhi said: “You mean a new biography, right?” “No,” Krishna replied, “I mean a new autobiography...” Krishna wanted the new book to put together what Gandhi had said, in his own words, about his life’s journey, his family life and his public persona, but “outside” The Story of My Experiments with Truth, which he thought was too brief. So Restless as Mercury was born, taking its title from what Gandhi’s elder sister Raliyatben called her kid brother Moniya: “Para jevo chanchala”, Gujarati for “one could not sit still even for a little while”.

New genre of autobiography

This time, Krishna—who has been called an “urban Naxal” and “converted bigot” by the Goebbelsian troll factories of the saffron brigade, and who has even faced the cancellation of his concert in New Delhi by the powers that be in November 2018, even as the concert itself was resurrected the next day in another space and hailed as a celebration of democracy—cannot be faulted by any sane person for having helped develop a new genre: the three-dimensional edited autobiography.

The three dimensions of this new genre are the original autobiography by the subject, contextual writing outside of the autobiography by the subject and the subject’s experiences as narrated by the subject to contemporaries or observed independently by contemporaries. The credit for Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s efforts having fructified so well in this new genre of writing must go to the monumental and priceless collection of CWMG, which runs into a hundred volumes and is now available online on the Gandhi Heritage Portal.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi has also sourced his material from the narratives of five contemporaries of Gandhi: his first biographer, Joseph J. Doke; his close associate Millie Polak, Christian feminist Scotswoman and author of Mr Gandhi: The Man; his two secretaries, Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal; and Gandhi’s grand-nephew Prabhudas Chhaganlal Gandhi, the youngest of the sources.

The book covers the period from 1869 to 1914, from the time of Gandhi’s birth in Porbandar to the time he finally departed Cape Town, South Africa, on SS Kinfauns Castle on July 18, 1914, for London en route India. The contents are divided into six books. Book I deals with Gandhi’s first 19 years from 1869 to 1888; Book II looks at the next eight years from 1888 to 1896 when Gandhi was in England to study law, returned to Rajkot and then moved to South Africa to practice law; Book III draws us to Gandhi in South Africa from 1896 to 1908, a period of 12 years when Gandhi was engaged with the rights struggle of Indians in South Africa, and which saw his first satyagraha on September 11, 1906, in Johannesburg; Book IV takes a close view of 1909, a momentous year for Gandhi, who visited England to mobilise support for the struggle in South Africa; Book V sees Gandhi’s struggle intensifying in South Africa during 1910-1913; and Book VI spans 1913-1914, when Gandhi’s satyagraha demands were conceded to and he planned to return to India.

This is like a ringside view of the first 45 years of Gandhi’s life unfurled on a wide-angle screen. Nelson Mandela memorably said: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi.” Each of the six ‘Books’ is accompanied by an appropriate chronological photograph: a portrait of Gandhi’s father Karamchand (Kaba) Gandhi; a photograph of the Houses of Parliament in London; the Gandhi family portrait: Kasturba with her sons and Gandhi’s nephew, though Gandhi himself is missing; a portrait of Dadabhai Naoroji; a photograph of the march crossing into the Transvaal; and a portrait of Gandhi during the satyagraha of 1914.

But there is no place for cinematic licence. We are “revisiting” the first four parts of the five-part original autobiography, enriched by twelve volumes of CWMG and the narratives of five contemporaries. We are offered a new and close look at the saga of Gandhi’s struggle through value additions of depth, tone and colour, without the artificiality of a remake, coming though as the book does in 2021, 96 years after The Story of My Experiments with Truth was originally published in 1925.

Glimpses of family life

The book gives the readers an intimate glimpse of Gandhi’s family life. In August 1888, Gandhi took leave of his wife Kasturba (referred as Kastur in the book) to go to England to become a Barrister: “I went to see her and stood like a dumb statue for a moment. I kissed her, and she said, ‘Don’t go’. What followed I need not describe. With my mother’s leave, and leaving my wife and our son (Harilal), but a few months’ old, I left Rajkot that day for Bombay”(page 36). Of his mother, Gandhi writes: “Never did I see any frivolity in her or interest in the pleasures of life, nor any recourse to beauty aids” (page 12). Gandhi writes about the death of his mother: “She died at the early age of forty” (page 13). Gopalkrishna Gandhi offers a correction in a footnote: “This is incorrect; she was nearing fifty at the time of her death.”

Gandhi describes in graphic detail how his Modh Vania caste community in Bombay tried its best to prevent him from going to England to study law and how finally he was declared an “outcaste”. But, Gandhi writes, “this boycott made no impression on me.” He bought some clothes in Bombay, some he liked and some he did not: “The necktie which I delighted in wearing later, I then abhorred. The short jacket I looked upon as an attire that mimicked nakedness” (page 37).

There is an interesting exchange between Gandhi and his close associate Hermann Kallenbach in June 1908 that is noteworthy because it is a recurring theme in Gandhi’s later life. Kallenbach is concerned that Gandhi is getting involved in “domestic trifles” when he should be thinking of his imminent meeting with General Smuts. “No, these little things are to me of as much importance as the big ones. They touch the very core of our life and truth is one whole, it has no compartments” (page 182). A scene from Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi, captured this ethos brilliantly. In the film, Gandhi abruptly gets up to leave a special Congress party meeting convened at Sabarmati Ashram. “Where are you going?” Jawaharlal Nehru asks him. “To apply hot mud pack to the sprained ankle of my goat,” Gandhi replies. For him, the health of the goat was as important as national politics.

Even as Gandhi is busy with the struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, he keeps a keen eye on developments in India. He condemns violence and attacks on Englishmen and women in India in Indian Opinion (bomb thrown by Khudiram Bose, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, April 30, 1908) (page 180).

But there are some silences. Gandhi arrived in London on July 10, 1909, just nine days after Madan Lal Dhingra, a young Indian student, assassinated Sir W.H. Curzon-Wyllie, political aide-de-camp to John Morley, Secretary of State for India. Gandhi vehemently condemned the assassination and castigated Dhingra. Gandhi said: “Those who incited him to this act will be called to account in God’s court and are also guilty in the eyes of the world” (page 220). Dhingra was executed on August 17, 1909.

A few omissions

A little more than two months later, on October 24, 1909, Gandhi and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar shared the dais at a function to commemorate Vijaya Dashami organised by the Indian community in London. By then, the Indian community in London as well as the British Police were aware that Savarkar had “inspired Dhingra’s admiration in the cult of assassination”. Although Gandhi mentions the Vijaya Dashami event, along with the fact that Savarkar “delivered a spirited speech on the great excellence of the Ramayana”, there is silence on Dhingra’s Savarkar connection (CWMG, Volume 9, pages 498-499). M. Asaf Ali, later to emerge as freedom fighter and Congress leader, who was in the audience that day, vividly mentions this event in his memoirs, though the date mentioned is incorrect. (M. Asaf Ali’s Memoirs: The Emergence of Modern India by G.N.S. Raghavan, page 70.)

On the way back to South Africa on SS Kildonan Castle (November 13-30, 1909), while penning his thoughts on the subject of Indian Home Rule, Gandhi sternly castigated the propounders of the cult of assassination in his exchange between the Reader and the Editor: “...It is a cowardly thought, that of killing others. Whom do you suppose to free by assassination?... Those who believe that India has gained by Dhingra’s act and other similar acts in India make a serious mistake. Dhingra was a patriot, but his love was blind. He gave his body in a wrong way; its ultimate result can only be mischievous” (page 226).

Gopalkrishna Gandhi gives the Gandhi-Savarkar meeting of October 24, 1909 a complete miss in Book IV, which is devoted to the year 1909 and consists of 69 pages. This omission is all the more glaring because Dhingra’s hit represents the first success of Savarkar’s cult of assassination as if it were a dry run for assassinations planned for the future. It is also poignant, as 39 years later, on May 24, 1948, nine persons, including the assassin Nathuram Vinayak Godse and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, were arraigned on Gandhi’s assassination. All, except Savarkar, were convicted and sentenced, and two among them, Godse and Narayan Dattatraya Apte, were sent to the gallows. Later, on appeal in the High Court, two more of the convicted conspirators were acquitted. More than 18 years after Gandhi’s assassination and eight months after Savarkar’s death, the Government of India set up the Justice Kapur commission in November 1966 to probe Gandhi’s assassination which concluded: “... facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

There is an uncanny and eerie replication of the 1909 assassination in the 1948 assassination of Gandhi, and the figure of Savarkar lurks in the background of both.

On July 1, 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated Sir W.H. Curzon-Wyllie at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington, London, firing five shots from a Colt’s automatic magazine pistol at point-blank range on Curzon-Wyllie’s face. Before the assassination, Dhingra practised using the pistol at a shooting range at 92, Tottenham Court Road, London.

On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Vinayak Godse assassinated Gandhi at Birla House, Albuquerque Road, New Delhi, firing three shots from a 9-mm Beretta Model 1934 semi-automatic pistol at point-blank range into his chest. Before the assassination, Godse practised using the pistol in the jungle behind Reading Road, New Delhi.

Another event that is overlooked is Gandhi’s condemnation of the bomb attack on Viceroy Lord Hardinge in Delhi on December 23, 1912. Gandhi condemned the murderous attack in no uncertain terms in the columns of the Indian Opinion on December 28, 1912. He wrote: “We as Indians deplore that this nefarious institution of cold-blooded Satanic murder should find its votaries in India.... The idea of securing independence by assassination is chimerical” (CWMG, Volume 11, page 361).

Interestingly, although Rash Behari Bose, who is alleged to have thrown the bomb, escaped, the two freedom fighters, Amir Chand and Avadh Bihari, who were arrested and hanged on May 8, 1915 for this attack, were students of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. It was St. Stephens which hosted Gandhi on his return to India from April to 14, 1915, and where Gopalkrishna Gandhi (and his elder brothers, Rajmohan and Ramchandra) studied. Intriguingly, Amir Chand was the tutor and mentor of Raghubir Singh, who founded Modern School, New Delhi in 1920 in response to Gandhi’s call to start Indian schools. Modern School, which Gandhi later visited on January 13, 1935, is where Gopalkrishna Gandhi and his siblings studied.

Another episode missed out in the book would have brought the sublime human touch Gandhi possessed to the fore (CWMG, Volume 96, pages 1-2). This is about how Gandhi brought together in matrimony the young British couple Millie Graham Downs and Henry Polak, both of whom became his close associates in the struggle in South Africa. This omission is a little difficult to comprehend as Millie Polak’s Mr Gandhi: The Man is one of the sources of Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s book.

I must close with the preface to the book as I began with it. In his preface, Gopalkrishna Gandhi asks: “Why did Gandhi not concern himself with the cause of South Africa’s majority, its African population?” Undoubtedly, Gandhi was sharply focussed on the struggle of Indians in South Africa and their rights as British subjects. Gopal Gandhi also mentions that Gandhi used racist phrases such as “kaffir” (infidel) to describe the African people, which “jar”. If this is examined contextually, as Nelson Mandela urges us to do, Gandhi gets the benefit of the doubt. “Insensitive vocabulary” was used at that time in South Africa even by the African majority.

But there is something more revealing in a footnote (page 325) on how John Dube, first president general of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress) said in an interview to Reverend W. Pearson in 1914 that he was “amazed” by the nonviolence and forbearance with which Indians faced police brutalities, and by their love for Gandhi. The footnote reads: “Dube thought Gandhi had tapped a vein in the Indian character that he was not sure existed in the Africans, who would hit back recklessly, in a comparable situation.” This was when Dube recalled what he had witnessed near Phoenix station during the Indians’ campaign in November 1913.

Herbert John Gladstone, the youngest son of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and the first Governor General of the Union of South Africa from 1910 to 1914, found Gandhi to be a rather enigmatic personality. In a report to Lewis Vernon Harcourt, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Gladstone wrote: “It is no easy task for a European to conduct negotiations with Mr Gandhi. The workings of his conscience are inscrutable to the occidental mind and produce complications in wholly unexpected places. His ethical and intellectual attitude, based as it appears to be on a curious compound of mysticism and astuteness, baffles the ordinary processes of thought” (page 327).

When Jawaharlal Nehru was writing his Foreword to the first volume of the CWMG, in December 1957, he was in Darjeeling. Nehru wrote: “I write this from Darjeeling with the mighty Kinchinjunga [variant of Kangchenjunga used in 1950s] looking down upon us. This morning I had a glimpse of Everest. It seemed to me that there was about Gandhiji something of the calm strength and the timelessness of the Everest and the Kinchinjunga.”

Restless as Mercury is an ingenuous creative process of reconstruction that reflects something of the “calm strength and the timelessness” of the saga of the life and struggles of Gandhi. We now eagerly await Part Two of this creative reconstructed autobiography covering the period 1914-1948, which will complete the story of Gandhi’s tryst with history. Collective memories of the nation have to be preserved for future generations.

Suhas Borker is Editor, Citizens First TV (CFTV) and Convener, Working Group on Alternative Strategies, New Delhi.

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