I spent 11 years writing my first novel. I knew early on that Mahatma Gandhi would have a brief role to play, and I was extremely nervous about giving him words to speak. They were supposed to be his final words too, spoken in the final moments of his life, in the privacy of his room, just before he walks out onto the lawns of Birla House. They are spoken to a visitor from the future, who begs him not to go outside, where Nathuram Godse is waiting, a gun in his hand and no pity in his heart. The visitor fails, of course. Gandhi, as stubborn as ever, refuses, convinced that it is time for him to go. He walks out onto the lawns, knowing what awaits him.
The prospect of putting words in Gandhi’s mouth terrified me, and I spent five years reading every book about Gandhi that I could lay my hands on, as well as many of his speeches. Part of it was getting the rhythm of his speech right. He was a man who chose his words carefully. Both the words he spoke and the tone in which he spoke them varied significantly depending on who he was speaking to. When talking to the common people, he was fatherly and prescriptive. With his followers, he was different. Often he was cryptic. Frequently he contradicted himself. He pretended not to expect unquestioned obedience. Most of his humour he reserved for foreigners, as a way of disarming them, and reducing their feelings of enmity. He had no compunction in using religion to appeal to sentiment. He talked frequently about Hindu-Muslim unity. Yet when talking to Muslims, he often pointed out to them that they were Muslims. His first meeting with Mohammad Ali Jinnah is a case in point.
It is January 1915. Gandhi has just arrived in India to a hero’s welcome, at the invitation of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. No one knows exactly what he plans to do here. In his reply to Gokhale’s invitation, he has written, “My present ambition is to be by your side as nurse and attendant.” He has begun to wear Indian clothes only a few months ago. A felicitation has been arranged for him by the Gujarati Sabha in Bombay, where Gandhi is introduced by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. This is a very different Jinnah from the one we all know and hate. He is a staunch nationalist and a formidable barrister, much admired for his defense of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He introduces Gandhi to the public with great pride, and is very generous in his praise. After he finishes, and once the applause dies down, Gandhi stands up. He does not thank Jinnah, or even mention him, except to say that it was nice to see a Mahomedan chairing the Sabha. Nothing could have been more calculated to insult his host. It’s quite possible that if Gandhi had been as gracious as Jinnah that day, our history would have been very different.
Incidents like this challenge anyone who is trying to understand Mahatma Gandhi. If he was such an advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity, why would he go out of his way to insult the one progressive Muslim who supported the freedom struggle? Did he not like his face? His life is full of such contradictions. As a result, there are many sticks to beat him with. He has been hated for more different reasons than almost anyone else in history. Scholarly and not-so-scholarly books have been written about how he was a pervert, a British stooge, a racist, a lover of Muslims, a suppressor of Dalits, and a man who actually did nothing to help achieve independence. His racism, for example, has helped Arundhati Roy get back in the news again. While endorsing The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire, a book which projects Gandhi as a hardcore racist, she accused him of supporting “the most brutal social hierarchy ever known”, and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed. She was featured in both The Guardian and The Independent, so it worked out quite well. In the book, Gandhi is quoted as saying things like “Europeans in Natal wish to degrade us to the level of raw kaffirs”, and “we could understand not being classified with the whites, but to be placed on the same level with the natives seemed too much to put up with”. Many of these statements were made in the course of legal arguments in a highly racist system, and it’s only fair to allow for the fact that a person’s viewpoint can evolve over time. But it does prove that even today, so many years after his passing, one of the easiest ways to get some cheap publicity is to publicly bash Gandhi, preferably in front of a foreign audience.
So was Gandhi a great humanist, or a narrow minded racist? For that matter, was he a friend of the Dalits, or a foe? Another popular trend recently has been to tear down Gandhi in order to build up Dr Ambedkar, something which would have shocked both men had they been alive. History shows that Gandhi did not much support special measures for Dalits, and conceded them very grudgingly. On the other hand, he spent most of his life trying to make us clean our own toilets, tirelessly fighting the notion that this activity was somehow reserved for Dalits. His adoption of a Dalit girl, late in life, led to the ostracisation of his family by large sections of Gujarati society. Nowadays, it’s trendy to call him a defender of feudal forces, but in his lifetime, the feudal forces were not so fond of him.
There are many things about Gandhi which are puzzling, and which make understanding him very difficult. He was a lifelong advocate of non-violence, who also helped recruit Indian villagers for the British war effort. As he admits later in his writings, the villagers themselves often pointed out this contradiction to him, and he was very relieved when the war ended. He was the advocate of celibacy and morality who, to the extreme excitement of many Western historians, slept with nude young women. He was the bitter opponent of Partition who one day said, “If India wants her bloodbath, let her have it.”
One way to consider all this is that he was just a politician. If you apply this yardstick to any politician of today, all of them contradict themselves, sometimes between breakfast and lunch. Even his contemporaries were not immune. Subhas Chandra Bose was an ardent Gandhian in the 20s and a military man in the 40s. Nehru was an admirer of Russia and the communists who refused to support them during the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Jinnah, as we all know, went from proud secularist to proud defender of Islam, without giving up his love for ham sandwiches. Perhaps these contradictions tell us that Gandhi was just a human being, like the rest of us. What makes it harder in his case is that the contradictions are so many.
After five years of studying him, I had to admit defeat. I realised that I was none the wiser. No clear picture of Gandhi had formed in my mind. The only conclusion I could reach was that he intended it to be this way. The essence of his power was to keep us guessing. It was never his intention that we should know who he really was. I left it at that, and did not try to figure him out any more.
Until just a few days ago, when I met this young man, who was helping people. He is in his mid-20s, an MBA from a premier management institute. He worked in a top notch MNC consultancy for a while, but then he dropped out. He describes himself as a Gandhian. He now works for the community. When I told him about my long study of Gandhi, and my conclusion, that he did not want anyone to know him, he laughed uproariously. “That’s exactly right!” he said, happily. I asked him how he serves the community. “I just go into the poorer parts of town and help people,” he said. “How do you help them?” I asked. “I just see what help they need,” he said. “If the kids need help with their studies, I help them. If they need a better drain, I help dig it. If someone needs a form to be filled in, I fill it. If someone has to go to hospital, I take them. They need so much help.” “But how do you live,” I asked. “What do you eat?” He smiled at me. “People take care of me,” he said. “Eating is never a problem.”
As I looked at his smiling face, I realised something. We can all scratch our heads and wonder who Gandhi really was, and what he wanted, and whether he was hero or villain. But this young man, born over 40 years after his passing—this young man seems to know.
Shovon Chowdhury’s novel, The Competent Authority, contains a brief, fictitious speech by Gandhi.
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