Halfway through Part II of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, we see Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, still only 24, preparing to leave South Africa in 1893 after the successful resolution of the court case that originally took him there.
Gandhi has, by this time, won not just the respect but also the love of the Indian community in South Africa. His unusually stringent and holistic approach towards authority, law and morals; his keen interest in matters well outside his brief, such as racial discrimination, religious division and sanitation; and his enthusiasm for petitioning and pamphleteering, organizing meetings and travelling has made him many friends and admirers. In Natal, his friends, the merchant community in particular, pester him to stay back and set up a legal practice there. They are willing not only to send private legal work his way, but also organize funds for the “public work” of reform and improvement that so preoccupies him. Gandhi mulls over their offer, and then refuses the second part of it: “My work would be mainly to make you all work. And how could I charge you for that?”
Photographs by Riyas Komu. ‘Two Fathers from Gujarat’ is a mixed media work in which the artist superimposed vintage photographs of Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah on linen and pasted them on canvas. He stained the canvas with tea and used other materials to achieve the worn-out look. At Saffronart Gallery, Mumbai, till 15 February
My Experiments with Truth was first published in English translation in 1927, and in its ninth decade, it still retains the capacity, just like its author, to make us work should we come within range of it, to make us newly reflective, newly ambitious. It is, as Gandhi himself writes, not “a real autobiography” but a spartan, goal-directed one, closely focused only on those incidents and encounters in his life “which bear upon the practice of truth”. It reflects its author’s impatience with inessentials and his constant search for first principles; it is rich in lessons and maxims, in speculations about root causes and deep connections, and in an infectious moral restlessness and urgency. It can sometimes be vexing and cranky, as in the author’s obsession with matters of diet and sexual self-control, or his imputation of a divine will at work in the most mundane matters. But, as Gandhi himself writes, “The useful and the useless must, like good and evil generally, go on together, and man must make his choice.”
The autobiography was written or dictated in haste, during the fallow years of the 1920s, when the energy of the independence struggle had subsided somewhat but the demands on Gandhi’s time remained immense. It was published piece by piece from 1925 onwards in Gandhi’s Gujarati weekly Navajivan (which explains the book’s often arbitrary division into dozens of three- and four-page chapters). Gandhi’s faithful associate, Mahadev Desai, translated it almost concurrently into English, supervised by Gandhi himself, but the paradox remains that the autobiography of one of India’s greatest writers of English comes to us in an English translation by another hand. The copies of it available in most Indian homes are the unsophisticated, homely, cheap editions published by Gandhi’s own press, the Navajivan Trust, but they are in keeping with the spirit of the author, who honoured substance and economy over show and style.
Notwithstanding the fact that most of it is set in England and South Africa, the autobiography is the most quintessentially Indian of books—indeed, it might be usefully prescribed as the foundational book for anyone approaching Indian life or literature for the first time. This is in part because of the range of fundamental Indian experiences with which it engages critically—that of travelling in third-class railway compartments across the length and breadth of India, of agonizing over the filth and squalor of public and community spaces, of walking through temples and observing religious festivals, of reflecting on the inequity of power relations in Indian life all the way from marriage (beginning with the author’s own marriage) to caste and class. But it also demands to be read because of Gandhi’s own creative attitude—the insight offered by his specific strategies and responses—as a negotiator between the forces of tradition and modernity, as a seeker of a common ground where inter-religious dialogue can take place, as an enthusiast when it comes to the multiplicity of Indian languages and systems. At different points in the book, we see him trying to learn Tamil, the better to deal with indentured labourers from south India in South Africa; speaking in Hindi (or Hindustani) at a viceregal meeting where the accepted practice was to speak in English; and trying to win over a predominantly Muslim audience in faltering Urdu. Gandhi always goes one step further than one would expect in dealing with the other; he always seems to be urging, “You can do it too.”
An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: Navajivan Mudranalaya, 420 pages, Rs100.
Among the aspects of Gandhi’s nature that emerge most clearly from the autobiography are his considerable talents as propagandist, pressman and editor. Gandhi’s Collected Works run into a hundred volumes, yet relatively few of these were conceived as independent books—they all made their first appearances in newspapers and periodicals, often those run by Gandhi himself. Although Gandhi began to read newspapers only in his teens, very early in his career he seems to have become conscious of the enormous power of the printed word to disseminate information, to stoke reflection, to offer considered criticism, and to forge durable relationships without the necessity of the reader actually meeting the author.
But—and this is characteristic of him—he also saw in the written word a means of pinning himself to the highest standards of fairness and justice (which are only other words for what he would have understood as “truth”). Writing about the journal Indian Opinion, which he ran for over a decade in South Africa, he recalls, “Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns... The journal became for me a training in self-restraint... The critic found very little to which he could object. In fact, the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen.” Here, as at many other points in the book, we see Gandhi advance a sophisticated understanding of the dialectical relationship between one’s own actions and those of others, such as when he says, “My experience has shown that we win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.” Gandhi often asks the impossible of us but—as the 2006 film Lage Raho Munnabhai reasserted, albeit in a highly contrived manner—his appeal is in the radical possibilities he opens up before us; he expands our moral playing field. After reading Gandhi, we come away with an enhanced view of our connections to the world.
Under Indian law, the copyright of an author over his works expires 60 years after his death. Thus, on 1 January, all of Gandhi’s works entered the public domain, and anybody can now compile and publish them in whatever form they think fit. Although this would probably deal a blow to the revenues of the Navajivan Trust (as of January, a total of 1,489,000 copies of the English edition had been sold), one feels that Gandhi, with his ideal of aparigraha or non-possession, and his evident pleasure at holding a mass readership, would actually have been quite pleased to be released from the bounds of copyright and to become— notionally at least—a free resource like air or water.
Gandhi interpreted the word “religion” not just as a belief in god, rituals, beliefs and doctrine, but “in its broadest sense, meaning thereby self-realization or knowledge of self”. Looking at his own book similarly in the broadest possible perspective, we can locate it in a venerable tradition of ambitious human seeking and questioning. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for impiety and for corrupting the youth with unsound ideas. The main line of Socrates’ defence in court—“The unexamined life is not worth living”—has rung across the centuries as an ideal of human life.
My Experiments with Truth might be seen not just as the central book in modern Indian literature, but among the most Socratic?books?in?world?literature, with its insistent questioning of both self and world and its rousing call for us to listen “to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience”.
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