Gandhi was fifty-five when he began dictating his autobiography in weekly instalments, one short chapter a week, for his magazine Navajivan. He was dictating, in Gujarati, to his trusted secretary and translator into English, Mahadev Desai, who also took part in many of Gandhi’s political campaigns. Writer and translator couldn’t have been closer; in its English translation the book sings, and for the first seventy or so chapters the writer is sufficiently far away from the events he is describing for the matter to be well sifted in his own mind. He is direct and wonderfully simple; the narrative is ordered. These early chapters have the quality of a fairytale, and it is possible while reading them to forget that the writer is a full-time politician, the creator of a movement unlike any other in India, and often uncertain of the next turn to take. Halfway through the book, in his account of events in South Africa, there is a narrative fracture; the politician and lawyer, the writer of letters and petitions, swamps the storyteller. It isn’t only that he has already written a book about South Africa; it is also that as he is dictating his weekly instalments he begins to be overtaken by political events around him in India. It spoils the book, but Gandhi was not concerned with literature; and there is enough of the magical early part for the book to be considered a masterpiece.
I have read the book many times, and at each reading I see something new. The early narrative is so easy and beguiling that one can read too fast; and as with a certain kind of appetising fiction, one can gobble up details, forgetting them as one reads, or not remembering all. As a child, when parts of the book were read to me, I saw the painful fairytale, at a time when Indian independence was still some years away. In my thirties, when India was independent and Gandhi himself long dead, I could read the book as a book. I saw its strange deficiencies: the absence of landscape, the extraordinarily narrow view of England and London in 1888–91: no attempt to describe the great city that must surely have overwhelmed the young man from Rajkot, no theatres or music halls, everything disappearing in his quest for vegetarian food and in his wish to stay faithful to the three vows he had made to his mother before leaving Rajkot: no meat, no alcohol, no women.
Everyone who has read about Gandhi’s three years in London knows about his dancing lessons, his violin lessons (to help him ‘hear’ the music for his dancing classes), his buying of a violin (one absurdity leading to the other), and his wish, with the help of Bell’s Standard Elocutionist, with its extraordinary line illustrations of oratorical gestures, to master the art of public speaking. Bell, he says, making a little joke, rang an alarm for him. He abandoned his elocution lessons (he had paid a guinea down for three lessons, and he had had two). He took back the violin to the shop, gave up his violin lessons (the woman teacher approved of the giving up) and his dancing lessons. (Bell was one of the books in my father’s little library; perhaps, missing Gandhi’s point, he had been guided to it by Gandhi’s autobiography.)
London, though, was much more than this kind of frivolity for Gandhi. He couldn’t forget that his brother was paying for everything, and he was a diligent student, prompted in that by the same moral sense that kept him obsessed by the vows he had made to his mother. The law exams could have been done after a few months of selective study. He thought it would have been fraudulent for him to do so; the law books had cost him much money. The logic is strange; but he decided to read all the books. He read through the common law of England in nine hard months; and he thought he should read Roman law in Latin.
One forgets as one reads, Gandhi’s narrative is so beguiling. I had remembered the awkwardness, the shyness of the young man in England. The revelation for me in this last reading was Gandhi the diligent law student, reading Justinian in Latin, avoiding short cuts for moral reasons. It explains his emphasis later on law and procedure. All through the autobiography there are clues to Gandhi’s later behaviour.
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The Indian National Congress met in Kanpur in 1925. Gandhi would have been deep in his autobiography at this time; and by an extraordinary chance we have a literary witness of the Congress occasion. Aldous Huxley was thirty-one, and full of energy (he had promised his publishers two books a year). In 1925 he was for a while in India, doing a round-the-world journal for Jesting Pilate, published in 1926.
He was a London intellectual – belonging, in his own words, ‘to that impecunious but dignified section of the upper middle class which is in the habit of putting on dress-clothes to eat’ – and he was travelling fast, travelling and writing, doing the famous sights and, more or less successfully, working up new ideas about them, never taking the name of Kipling. Still,it is unexpected finding him here in awful Kanpur, at this Congress meeting, some years before the Indian freedom movement and the mahatma became well known internationally. Perhaps Forster’s A Passage to India, published the previous year, though an entirely different kind of book, had put ideas in his head.
There were about eight thousand people at the Kanpur Congress. They were in a tent about a hundred yards long and sixty yards wide, with a light roof of brown canvas, and they were all seated on matting on the ground. Whereas earlier in the century (according to Nehru) there would have been delegates in morning coat and striped trousers, now they were all in Indian dress and many were wearing the boatshaped white cotton cap which was already known as the Gandhi cap. The meeting went on for three days, six hours the first day, seven hours the second, and finally nine hours, speeches all the time, and no food.
Huxley, though very young, was treated with great regard. Some people might have thought he was Professor Huxley; this had happened before in India. He was given a place on the platform, which would have been raised in some way so that speakers could be seen. But even on the platform people sat on the floor; and at the end of the last, nine-hour day Huxley (immensely tall, to add to his troubles) was all but dead of fatigue. But he had had a very clear view of Gandhi, one of the main speakers; and his brisk but sharp pen portrait of the mahatma (still little known abroad) was one that would be followed by later writers: the small emaciated man, with a shawl over his naked shoulders, the shaved head, the big ears, the ‘rather foxy’ features, the easy laugh.
He was talking about the position of Indians in South Africa, but to Huxley’s surprise there had been no great welcoming applause for him and no respectful hush while he spoke. People talked and fidgeted all the time; some called for water; some got up and went outside and came back again. Huxley, as a traveller too concerned with interpreting the externals of things, had not thought to provide himself with a translator (which would have been easy), and so we have no account from him of what Gandhi said.
The Gandhi who had presented himself to Huxley and the Kanpur Congress was iconic (the word can’t be avoided) and complete, someone who might have been thought to be perfectly Indian, always there. But the emaciated small man in a dhoti with a shawl over his bare shoulders was a creation; he had been created step by step, personal experiment by personal experiment – in London, South Africa, and India – over thirty years; and the book he was dictating in these weeks to his secretary Mahadev Desai, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, one small chapter a week, was the story of that creation. Huxley would not have known anything of that work, which was appearing in a small-circulation Indian weekly the mahatma had founded. And yet, with his interest in mysticism and spirituality, Huxley could consider the externals and arrive at an original and rather fine appreciation of the figure and the Indian setting before him.
Huxley saw a lot. The Kanpur occasion – which should have been solemn, and yet wasn’t, with delegates chatting and moving about while their great man spoke about the pain of South Africa – put him in mind of the Edward Lear rhyme about an old man of Thermopylae, / Who never did anything properly. The rhyme leads into a discussion of the apparent Indian disorder, where too little attention is paid to appearances – where the palace is grand but the decoration casual and out of key, where the maharaja’s Rolls-Royce makes its own statement, but the driver is ragged, blowing his nose in the end of the stylish long tail of his turban. Huxley doesn’t
mock; he doesn’t stay with the simple observation. He wonders whether in India externals aren’t merely allowed to be externals; which is remarkable for a man of his background in 1925.
But Gandhi, remarkably for a man of his limited origin, had long before grown to see in India what Huxley saw.
In 1901 Gandhi, after eight years in South Africa, had gone back to India; he intended that return to be permanent, but it wasn’t. Gandhi was thirty-two (more or less the age of Huxley of Jesting Pilate). The Congress was meeting that year in Calcutta; and Gandhi, young as he was, and with no Indian reputation, thought he should go there to talk about the position of Indians in South Africa (twenty-four years later this was again his subject in Kanpur: he was pertinacious).
He had introductions to important people and he was given five minutes to introduce his resolution. He had developed speaking skills in South Africa; but he was horribly nervous in the great Congress with its many famous orators. He had been talking for three minutes when the bell went. This was to warn him that he had two minutes more; but he took it to mean that he had to stop, and he stopped and sat down. He was wounded; other people had spoken for half an hour and more, and no bell had rung for them. Still, he was applauded, hands were raised, and his resolution was
passed. It was something, though in 1901 every Congress speaker was applauded and every resolution was passed.
More unsettling to him than the speech he had had to make were the ‘appointments’ of the occasion – Mahadev Desai’s old-fashioned word for the lodging arrangements and the cooking arrangements and the sanitary arrangements. In the autobiography he writes about them before he writes about the speech. He was put up in Ripon College (named after a viceroy). There were ‘volunteers’ everywhere, to help the delegates. But neither the delegates nor the volunteers had any idea of service. The delegates, a little bit at sea, called ceaselessly for volunteers to do this and do that, and the volunteers, at sea themselves, tried to pass on the requests to other volunteers. So Ripon College rang with people calling for volunteers and giving orders and nothing happening.
It wasn’t like South Africa at all. Gandhi – only thirty-two – made friends with some volunteers and tried in the short time they had together – the Congress lasted just three days – to tell them about the secret of service and what he used to do in South Africa. In his autobiography he says the volunteers were ashamed when they heard what he had to say. My feeling is that Gandhi, writing in 1925, when it was in his power to persuade people to do anything, was pitching it too strong. The Calcutta volunteers of 1901 wouldn’t have understood what the young stranger from South Africa (only a five-minute man or a three-minute man in the speaking hall) was saying. They would have been bemused rather than ashamed by his attempt to instruct them; though, in the Indian way, they would have been polite.
There were other ‘appointments’. The Tamil delegates were exceedingly fearful of pollution. They had worked out that the rules of their caste forbade them being seen cooking or eating by anyone else. Heaven knows what rites or penance they would have had to go through to undo the pollution if it had occurred; and so a windowless wicker enclosure – a ‘close safe’, Gandhi says in his wicked way – was set up for them in the grounds of Ripon College. Within this enclosure, smoke-filled and choking, they cooked and ate and washed and by their lights were perfectly secure.
Gandhi was appalled. He had spent eight years campaigning against anti-Indian racial legislation in South Africa. It was the worst kind of let-down to find this travesty of the law of caste, as he saw it – comic and absurd, but as bad as anything he had found in South Africa – here in Calcutta, in the heart of the Congress, which was meant to show India the way ahead.
As for the other ‘appointments’: twenty-four years later, when he was dictating the autobiography, he was still oppressed by the stink of the latrines in Ripon College. The volunteers, when he mentioned it, said the latrines were not their responsibility; that was for the sweepers. He asked for a broom and, already the complete Gandhian, he began to clean the latrines. He seems to suggest that he would have cleaned the latrines for everybody, but the rush was too great, with all the delegates, and he decided in the end to clean only for himself. The other delegates didn’t mind the stench, he thought. During the night some of the delegates fouled the verandahs. In the morning he pointed out the spots to the volunteers; but again, they were not interested. Gandhi took it on himself to clean up, and he found no one willing to ‘share the honour’ with him. It was said of Indians in South Africa, to explain the prejudice and the legislation against them, that they lived in insanitary conditions. Gandhi was sensitive on this point.
Being Gandhi, he couldn’t deny what was said. But it might have been thought that in Calcutta in 1901, when he saw the dreadful latrine behaviour of the Congress delegates, he would have wondered about his cause. It would have been understandable if he had thought of washing his hands of the Indian cause in South Africa and India; if he had decided that eight years of hard public life were enough, that the people weren’t worth the pain, and the time had come for him to withdraw, to stick to his law practice and live privately. But he didn’t; it is his greatness.
His cause didn’t shrink; it became bigger. It grew far beyond the disabilities of Indians in South Africa. He looked inwards: from South African abuse and the business of the latrines in Ripon College to the all-India problems of caste and the sweepers, which were as old as history, and explained the attitudes of delegates and volunteers. He looked hard at broken-down, static, cruel India; he took nothing for granted.
He saw the cruelties done to the sacred cow and the underfed, overworked oxen – still true today: India took some of his ideas, ignored others. He became a great Indian reformer even while working against British rule; he didn’t allow one thing to work against the other. And in the third strand of his extraordinary development he looked deep into himself, to his soul, his spirituality, which increasingly he saw as an expression of his social and political work.
His mother was a woman of simple rustic piety. She loved rituals and embraced all that came in the course of a year. These rituals could be arduous. Sometimes they lasted a month, sometimes months, and they came with a series of fasts and half-fasts. She did them all, and on occasion, depending on her mood, added vows and fasts of her own.
She might, for instance, during the incessant rains of the monsoon, vow not to eat if she didn’t see the sun. The unhappy children would watch for the rain clouds to break. If the sun peeped out, they would run to their mother with the good news. She would go outside to look for herself, but by that time the sun might have gone in again. Then she would say cheerfully, ‘It doesn’t matter. God doesn’t want me to eat today.’
This story occurs on the second page of the autobiography. It contains the seed of Gandhi’s later experiments with food, which were to lead to his discovery as a politician and the mahatma of the power of the fast. He was his mother’s son. Contrary to a received idea, he liked his food, but it was easy for him to cut down, to do without, to push himself to the limit, to simplify and simplify.
In Johannesburg in 1903 he used to have three square meals a day, in addition to afternoon tea. But he didn’t feel well. He had headaches and was using laxatives. One day he read in the paper about the formation of a No Breakfast Association in Manchester in England (in those days there seemed to have been associations or societies for everything).
He liked what he read. He gave up breakfast, suffered a little, but got rid of the headaches. The constipation was more stubborn; it had to wait until a German who ran a vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg (or someone like that: Gandhi wasn’t sure) recommended Return to Nature, a book about earth treatment. Then, following the book, Gandhi applied poultices of wet clean earth (spread on linen) on his stomach at night; and was cured.
His ascetic ideas drew from many sources. He went to jail for the first time in 1908; this was in Johannesburg. Africans and Indians were not given tea or coffee and their last meal in jail had to be finished before sunset. This was hard, but Gandhi grew to think it was something he might add to his own daily discipline. Prisoners could use salt to season their food, but nothing else. Gandhi, pushing at the laws, as always, asked the jail medical officer for curry powder and also to be allowed to put salt in the food while it was cooking. (He knew, or had found out, the form: he knew who to ask.) The officer refused. He said, ‘You are not here for satisfying your palate.’ Gandhi played with that idea, of not satisfying the palate, and was pleased with it. When he left jail he adopted two of the jail restrictions: eating dinner before sunset, and doing without tea and coffee.
Later in South Africa he founded a commune and called it Tolstoy Farm. At the farm in 1912 he and his German friend Kallenbach gave up milk. (Kallenbach, a seeker after spirituality, was entirely under Gandhi’s thumb. Gandhi, holy man and commune-leader as he had become, had begun to radiate a great personal authority. Two years later, in 1914, when they had left South Africa and were going to England, sharing a cabin, Gandhi and Kallenbach began to talk about the simple life. During this discussion Gandhi took Kallenbach’s cherished binoculars and threw them through the porthole into the sea.) At Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi used his authority to make everyone vegetarian. Having done that, he pushed a little harder: he decided on a pure fruit diet, the fruit being the cheapest possible, so that they could live like the very poor.
It was with clothes as it was with food. He wished now to more than simplify, to dress like the very poor, whom he represented and who had given him his authority. He had begun in South Africa, wearing a shirt, a dhoti, a white cloak, and scarf, all of cheap Indian mill cloth. He wore that in England in 1914. In India in 1915, because he intended to travel third class on the railways, he got rid of the cloak and the scarf as being too showy.
He became at last as Huxley saw him ten years later in Kanpur, and Huxley would not have known what a complicated journey the small man with the shawl over his bare shoulders had made. He had drawn from many sources, some of them very strange – not only Ruskin and Tolstoy and Thoreau, but also his mother’s rustic religious ideas, the No Breakfast Association of Manchester, and the South African jail code. He had created his own idea of spirituality and holy living. He hadn’t stamped something out from the Indian pattern: the long hair, the saffron robe, the sandalwood castemarks.
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Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893, five or six months before he was twenty-four; and he left in 1914. It is possible that if he had not spent all those years in middle life in SouthAfrica many of the spiritual and political developments that led to the mahatmahood would not have come to him. His three earlier years in London as a law student, from 1888 to 1891, had in the main taught him thrift. He was confirmed in his old ideas and was changed in no important way. When he went back to India he was as gauche and tongue-tied as before. He found himself unable to speak in the Bombay court when at last he got a petty, thirty-rupee case; and he decided, with his unhappy brother, who had paid for the three years in London, that his best bet as a lawyer would be to go back to Rajkot and draft applications and memorials. South Africa overwhelmed him. He had read very little; he hardly knew the history of India. He was unprepared for the racial insults and the racial legislation of South Africa; they taught him in the most brutal way about the political shape of the world, and his unprotected place as an Indian in the general scheme. In India he had picked up a few ideas about British rule; but they were simple ideas; they did not undermine him or (except in one case) wound him. In South Africa he was assailed in the core of his being; he found himself in a kind of political quicksand, which was also like a spiritual quicksand. If he didn’t act he was going to sink. Overnight, then, he became a doer; he lost his shyness; shyness was like a luxury from another life. He became a true lawyer; the law indicated how in this bad situation he might best act. He became a drafter and organizer of petitions, real petitions now, about people’s lives, and not the petty memorials he had been writing in Rajkot as a country lawyer just a few months before. If he had been a little more evolved, a little more used to the ways of the world, a little more like the Gujarati merchants who had asked him to come to South Africa, his ideas might have been more like theirs. They said simply that this was how it was in South Africa; one had to work around the law and live with the bad manners, find the areas of privacy, keep one’s head down and make money.
But Gandhi was a country boy, in spite of the years in London. He was raw; his nerves were raw; he wasn’t clever enough or experienced enough to adapt.
The theme of rebellion is one of the great themes of Western European literature. The true modern novel arises when the rebel, the man apart, feels himself strong enough to take on the established order, and when that order is fluid enough and secure enough to make room for him. At the very end of Old Goriot, Balzac’s great novel of ambition and failure, Rastignac climbs the hill at evening above the cemetery of Paris, looks down at the ‘hive’ of the famous city, now twinkling with lights, and declares war on it. It is a false declaration; even as Rastignac makes his vow, he can taste the honey of the hive on his lips. He wishes to possess the city.
Gandhi’s rebellion is not at all like Rastignac’s. He has no idea of the unbearable beauty of the hostile city. Gandhi in South Africa has small, manageable, political aims. (He is particular about that: he likes his petitions to be concrete and precise, without rhetoric, and about a specified small matter.) But then, as Gandhi’s vision widens, the nature of his rebellion grows. His politics becomes indistinguishable from his spirituality. There has never been any taste of honey on his lips.
If Gandhi’s journey can be compared with anyone else’s, it is with that of another Indian, the Buddha. Both these men make wounding journeys. Gandhi leaves his secure smalltown life to travel first to England, which is all right, but then to South Africa, which changes his life. The Buddha, a prince, leaves his cosseted palace life to explore the town outside. He discovers sickness, old age, and death. These are the things from which by his father’s orders he has been shielded all his life. He sets himself to meditate on the fact of pain, and he does so until he has an illumination.
The Buddha’s journey is more overtly spiritual than Gandhi’s, but Gandhi’s political cause in time acquires a spiritual tinge; and Gandhi’s journey is more human and understandable. His political achievement is immense. He raised consciousness about caste and made possible the reforms that were carried out in India after independence; he failed completely in the matter of cruelty to animals, but that nastiness runs deep in humankind. The Buddha’s illumination is opaque; it is so in Ananda Coomaraswamy’s sympathetic exposition (published, it should be said, in the last year of Coomaraswamy’s life); and it is so again in the book of another sympathetic religious scholar, Trevor Ling.
I am attracted to the Buddha story, and I would like to understand. There are times when the repetitive Buddhist scriptures make me feel that I do understand this great story of India, where the mysterious faith, for reasons I cannot fathom, ruled for a thousand years. But after a while I know, with these Buddhist scriptures, as with the poetry of William Blake (giving this just as an example of something attractive and baffling), I have failed again. Between the basic, beautiful story of the prince, his discovery of human pain, and his renunciation, and the complicated, even top-heavy theology of the organised faith I can see no clear link.
Everything about Gandhi is clear, even when wilful and irritating. A certain amount is even funny.
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