Rating: 4 Stars
[Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai]
Recently, TIME/CNN released its list of top 25 political icons. Topping that list was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948). It’s hard to reconcile the image of the frail and cherubic- looking senior with the iron-willed patriarch of the Indian nation, who forced the most powerful empire of the age to back down and walk away. Once we read his memoir however, it’s easier to understand.
Gandhi’s ‘An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ covers his life from early childhood to 1921, and portions of it were written when he was imprisoned by the British government for his pro-freedom activities. It was originally written in Gujarati, and was intended by Gandhi to lay out the case for ‘Satyagraha’ (Abidance in Truth), the name coined for his non-violent and peaceful resistance of British occupation. Gandhi’s language is unostentatious, as can be expected by a man known for his ascetic simplicity. The reader is of course always at the mercy of the competence, or otherwise, of the translator. But the plain, factual language lets the unadulterated essence of Gandhi shine through.
Born in the village of Porbandar, in Gujarat, a state on the west coast of India, the Gandhis had for three generations been in public service. His father having passed away when Gandhi was relatively young, the responsibility for his education was assumed by his elder brother, who supported him in going to England to study for the bar. Once Gandhi returned to India, he was unable to find satisfactory prospects, and went to South Africa to pursue a career in law. He stayed there for several years to champion the cause of the disenfranchised Indian community. On his return to India, he joined the struggle towards a Free India. From being a marginal figure, his influence rapidly grew to spearhead the movement, on his own terms – under the banner of Satyagraha, based on the principle of Ahimsa (non-injury).
The reader has to contend with some obscure details of the Indian Resistance movement, many of which may not be of popular knowledge, but Gandhi always ties these incursions into Indian history to the subject of his autobiography – the application of Satyagraha, and its results. He mentions many of the stalwarts of the Resistance, but the main body, the Congress, comes across as a flabby, lumbering, and ineffectual piece of political machinery. Gandhi’s intense love for his country and compatriots does not blind him to the challenges he faces both within the country, as well as without. When he does speak of the English, there is a remarkable lack of rancor in his statements.
Gandhi, the private man, is as interesting as Gandhi, the public figure. He was married at the age of thirteen to the unlettered, but spirited Kasturbai. Kasturbai had his passionate devotion, but he ruefully acknowledges tyrannizing over her. Theirs was an enduring marriage that weathered many storms. He admits to having made some mistakes in the raising of his four sons, and there is a note of pain in his mention of his estrangement from the eldest. One doesn’t doubt that it would have been hard living up to the Mahatma’s standards.
His influence on his family and friends is that of a benevolent dictator. Once he was convinced that he was on the right track, he spared no pains to persuade all around him to join him in his choices. This sounds autocratic, but we can easily credit that only a man possessed of this unique combination of unbending conviction and mesmerizing charisma could have galvanized a nation onto the path of Satyagraha.
He certainly had his share of quirks. His dietary experiments seem to have gone beyond principles and eccentricity, to border on a reckless disregard for common sense and well being. Gandhi was also an enthusiastic proponent of home-schooling. While one can hardly argue against the need for active parental involvement, and values-based education, his execution of these ideas seem woefully ill-conceived, as well as inadequate. The education of children is no undertaking for unprepared amateurs. One would wonder if perhaps, the Mahatma could have practiced moderation in these issues and others, but it seems to me, that like those who are addicted to extreme sports, he applied an ‘all or nothing’ philosophy to everything he did.
He was not comfortable with the title of Mahatma (Great Soul) bestowed on him by his adoring countrymen. He seems to feel that he didn't deserve it. He was a man acutely conscious of his own shortcomings. His reticence seems quaint in that it’s in such marked contrast to the public and private behavior of today’s elected officials, many of whom aspire to lead without ever having served.
Gandhi, from his earliest years showed both patriotism, as well as an all-embracing humanitarianism, but it is a revelation that many of the other qualities that we associate with him - his adamantine integrity, his courage, faith, abstinence, vegetarianism – were all hard-won, through a process of trial and error. They were in short, the very experiments that established him in the Truth so dear to him. Gandhi grew into his principles. Therein lies the beauty of his message and the power of this book.