16 November 2007

Remaking the Mahatma


Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire
Viking/Penguin
Pages 672
Rs 650

Rajmohan Gandhi, one of the Mahatma's grandsons, joins the most exclusive club in India, one that admits a select band licenced to take liberties with the most untouchable of Indian icons, with this excellent, laboriously detailed biography of the Mahatma. Rajmohan's deconstruction is not just an act of daring for its refreshing iconoclasm, but for its ambition, fulfilled in full measure, to attempt to subvert a whole culture around the reductively entrenched myth in our history -- that of Mahatma Gandhi, the saint.

Rajmohan’s achievement is of collating, analysing and organising numerous extant sources into a thoroughly gripping narrative that interweaves the personal and the public personae of the Mahatma to reveal many downplayed aspects of arguably the most misrepresented man in history. And all this comes with the irrefragable ‘Gandhi’ imprimatur.

The biography is also a proof that for all the cynicism about Gandhian ideals and the silent but determined rejection of his legacy, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s story is a smacking good read and one that still inspires. And though part of its appeal lies in it being the greatest story ever told of self-improvement, the real pull is the complexity of a man who, as Rajmohan writes, “was neither simple to understand nor easy to live with.”

The story of an unruly urchin who picked beedi and cigarette butts off the streets and struggled like a wild animal to escape the orthodoxies his “worldly-wise” mother and an early marriage imposed on him; of Mohandas the compulsive dabbler experimenting with meat-eating, vegetarianism, Fabian ideas, and Tolstoy -- not to mention the much talked about experiments with sexual abstinence; of his fulfilling his sense of destiny by freeing India from foreign yoke, is an oft-repeated one, but a remarkable one.

Rajmohan duly fleshes out the otherwise sketchy account of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth. He paints an attractive picture of Gandhi as a suave, with-it networking lawyer, and a foxy activist, who took pride in dressing well, travelling first-class, and launching grand campaigns to defend universal principles. A man with astounding physical courage (the numerous beatings he received at the hands of individuals and mobs in South Africa are the most well-kept secrets, revealed here), and uncanny ability to anticipate and pre-empt his adversary's every move, an ability which helped him in his biggest battles from winning rights for miners and migrants in South Africa, to bringing the Empire crashing down in India.

But there are darker, more human strains of the Mahatma that the biography does not flinch from documenting. These mostly have to do with Gandhi’s difficult equation with his wife and sons -- the dysfunctional relationship with his sons especially makes his other flaws pale in comparison. It begins with Kasturba and his sons joining him in South Africa where, instead of getting the benefit of western education, Gandhi forced them to study at home. This set off a long-term resentment in Harilal and Manilal.

In midst of his political crises, he would have to handle a major surprise from his sons. On Gandhi’s arrival in India in 1915, he and Harilal at last parted company. Gandhi gave him Rs 45 and wrote to an associate saying the parting was not bitter. But soon Harilal wrote Gandhi a ‘half-open’ letter, having simultaneously circulated it among a known circle. It is full of bitter charges like, “You have suppressed us (sons) in a sophisticated manner,” and, “You never encouraged us in any way.” The last perhaps referred to the fact that Gandhi had sent his associate Maganlal’s son to study law in London on a scholarship. Harilal, the eldest son had expected his father to have chosen him.

While it is easy to feel infuriated at the shabby and totally unjustifiable way Gandhi treated his sons, his relationship with Kasturba are less ambiguous, rather familiar -- the usual story of the ambitious careerist with an uneducated wife straggling in tow. One of the reasons for the conflicts with Kasturba, and generally his family, was over Gandhi’s principles.When Kasturba grew ‘restive’ after Gandhi admitted a young untouchable couple to live in his newly-established Satyagraha ashram, Gandhi is reported to have told her that “she could leave me and we should part good friends.” Kasturba relented.

Though by this time husband and wife had grown together having been through a lot in South Africa, Kasturba had remained the same untameable young wife whom Gandhi, as a jealous young husband, had tried to control and educate. Rajmohan shows us a Gandhi unable or unwilling to relate to his wife. From South Africa he wrote to Kasturba, dictating the letters to his secretary and trusted friend, Sonja Schlesin. Kasturba had to find someone to read and translate these ‘personal’ letters. He spent more time with his white friends and colleagues than with his family. Though he had managed to force Kasturba to adopt the Parsi-style sari and clothes westernised Indian women wore in those days, much to his regret Kasturba remained unconverted to Gandhi’s abstract principles.

So when the biography makes the disclosure about his affair with the forty-seven-year-old, married, Sarladevi Chaudhurani, Rabindranath Tagore’s, bluestockings niece, just as he began his Indian chapter on his return from South Africa, the reader hardly blinks, thanks to Rajmohan’s laying the ground for it. Sarladevi, called 'the greatest shakti in India' by her jailed husband, edited a journal who edited a journal Hindustan in his absence. Gandhi was dissuaded from it by his sons and friends as associates, who warned him of the consequences. Gandhi wrote to a 'shattered' Sarladevi ‘annulling’, what he called, their ‘spiritual marriage.’

Gandhi at his most vulnerable. A flesh and blood Mahatma. Nothing could resuscitate the Mahatma more effectively. As a man who loved makeovers and using image as strategy, Gandhi would have approved of Rajmohan’s efforts.

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