Turning to the father

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By UDDALAK MUKHERJEE in Gandhi
  • Published 13.04.07
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MAHATMA GANDHI: A HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHY By Bidyut Chakrabarty,
Roli,
Rs 350

How does one go about writing the Mahatma’s memoirs differently? Bidyut Chakrabarty, the author, dwells on this question at length and comes up with a plausible answer. This ‘historical biography’ posits Mohandas Karam- chand Gandhi at the centre of the freedom struggle alright, but, unlike other works, it strives to acquaint the readers with major theoretical premises that examine Gandhi and his ideas. This, Chakrabarty claims, is the key element that makes his book stand out in the crowd of literary projects devoted to Gandhi.

Chakrabarty greatly admires Gandhi’s mobilization skills, and, quite justifiably, anoints him as a true leader of the masses. Gandhi’s interpretation of India’s colonial experience (“The English have not taken India; we have given it to them”), his conception of passive resistance drawn on ‘soul force’ as a strategy to rid India of the British, his critique of industrial capitalism and a ‘mechanized society’ and his vision of the future Indian State based on the principles of ‘cooperative federalism’ are some of the aspects that Chakrabarty highlights in his attempt to uncover Gandhi’s politics.

Yet, it is the passages offering little-known facts about Gandhi’s fascinatingly contradictory persona that make the book interesting. Gandhi, despite his liberal political leanings, appeared to be conservative, almost dictatorial, in his private life. He resisted his wife’s attempts to educate herself and wanted her to emulate the virtues of the mythical Sita. He was also a conformist in some ways. When Gandhi went to England for a degree in law, he not only got a three-piece suit tailored from Bond Street but also started taking dancing lessons and playing the violin. An “experimentalist”, he was forever willing to try out new things. Once, when told that non-vegetarian food would make Indians as strong as the British, Gandhi, a vegetarian, tasted meat. Later, he complained that he had heard a goat bleat in his stomach all through the night. The greatness of the man lay in his ability to metamorphose into a leader who fought and defeated an empire.

Those who have read their Gandhi would not be terribly excited by Chakrabarty’s claim of shedding light on the “relatively unexplored dimensions” of Gandhi’s life. The chapters offer nothing more than a synopses of Gandhi and his times, beginning with his early days in South Africa to the last two years of his life, during which, Gandhi, though marginalized in the Congress, had not lost his following among the ordinary people. The critiques of Gandhi by Rabindranath Tagore and B.R. Ambedkar — two of his contemporaries — cited by the author in one particular chapter, would, however, be useful to those who are interested in examining how great men influence, and, in turn, are influenced by one other.

Significantly, Chakrabarty’s tome, notwithstanding its claim to be ‘different’, shares a trait with many other works on Gandhi. None of them has been able to provide a satisfactory answer as to why Gandhi, during the closing years of his life, found himself marginalized in the Congress, something which led him to grudgingly accept the partition of India.

There is something curious about the preface though. Here, the author has declared that his book is a “critical Gandhian response to those who tend to belittle the academic feats of any kind by referring to their ‘pipe-line’ publications”. It seems that the Mahatma can still be useful in a myriad ways, even during these distinctly unGandhian times.