Prophet, spiritual leader, secular saint, freedom fighter, social reformer, philosopher, healer and “Father of the Nation”—Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most deified political figure in modern history. Many were baffled by his masterful grip over statecraft combined with his garb of a religious ascetic—a loincloth and shawl, which he insisted on wearing even when he went to meet the English emperor in 1931.
While he is much written about, perhaps the only Indian most profusely written about, Gandhi continues to fascinate, confound and stupefy. For someone whose intellectual and political development crystallised outside India, who upon his return from South Africa was sent on an India study tour by his political mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale who considered him a “naive foreigner”, who came up with the phrase “non-cooperation” because of his unfamiliarity with Hindi at the time, Gandhi worked his way up to command staggering resonance across India. As Gandhi wrote in 1947, “For men like me, you have to measure them not by the rare moments of greatness in their lives, but by the amount of dust they collect on their feet in the course of life’s journey.” What are the lesser-known facets of his life’s journey from Mohandas to Mahatma?
Mahatma Gandhi was a tireless walker. Most statues of “Bapu”, including the iconic Gyarah Murti, has him marching ahead. But Gandhi was a voyager, too. Rajmohan Gandhi, author, professor and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, writes: “In Hind Swaraj one reads his attacks on cars. On planes. On trains. But there is no attack on ships!”
Interestingly, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Gandhi’s most important book on his political philosophy, was entirely executed in a ship called SS Kildonan Castle. It was, in fact, written in ten days, between November 13 and 22, 1909, while returning to South Africa from England after a failed lobbying mission. It is said that when he was tired of writing with his right hand, he switched to left; 40 out of the 275 pages of Hind Swaraj were written with his left hand. Apart from writing his most seminal work like a man possessed, he translated Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindoo on the same trip.
During his voyage back to India from England in 1891, after finishing his barrister’s degree in London, Gandhi wrote in his diary in the affected tone of a British snob about “a crowd of dirty looking beggars” in Malta, “rogues and rascals” in Port Said and waiters who “murder the Queen’s English”. In 1896, the voyage in which he took his family to Durban from Bombay, Gandhi witnessed the power of multi-faith prayer. A violent storm hit the two ships—the Courland and the Nadir—that were sailing together to Durban. As the ships rocked and rolled, everyone prayed to their own gods in their own languages.
When Gandhi was finally ready to head back home from South Africa in 1914 at age 45, his journey on SS Arabia was significant for a very special reason. Rajmohan writes, “On this voyage, for the first time ever since their marriage, Kasturba had her husband wholly to herself. This was the only journey—whether by road or rail or ship or in any other way—where Mohandas and Kasturba travelled just by themselves.”
ASPIRANT DOCTOR, IMPOSSIBLE PATIENT
Much has been written about his all-consuming desire to study law in London. However, not many know that Gandhi was equally interested in studying medicine. His family disapproved of the medical vocation; being Vaishnavas they did not want him to deal with dead bodies. Even while practising law in South Africa, he continued to harbour this vague desire to study medicine in London. But in 1909, he wrote to a friend that if pursuing a medical degree involved dissection of frogs and other living beings, he would much rather not study it. But this did not in any way diminish his interest in health, hygiene and nutrition. His youngest son, Devdas, born in South Africa on May 23, 1900, was midwifed by Gandhi himself after he read Dr Tribhuvandas’s book on safe labour. He advocated nature cure, fasting, hydrotherapy and earth treatment, and experimented a lot with dietetics. In spite of a disciplined lifestyle, Gandhi struggled with several health issues. This include pleurisy (1914), acute dysentery (1918 and 1929), malaria (1925, 1936, 1944), gastric flu (1939), influenza (1945), piles (1919) and severe appendicitis (1924), as compiled in the Indian Journal of Medical Research’s Gandhi and Health @150.
In South Africa, he often suffered from debility, rheumatic inflammation, constipation and frequent headaches. He once heard about the ‘No Breakfast Association’ in Manchester which helped improve the health of “Englishmen who ate too much” and this led Gandhi to start skipping his breakfast. “For a few days it was rather hard, but the headaches entirely disappeared. This led me to conclude that I was eating more than I needed,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Gandhi’s doctors have reminisced about their difficult patient who had abjured medicines, milk and eggs as part of his experiments. Dr G.R. Talwalkar once wrote how puzzled a team of doctors were when Gandhi refused injections of emetine for acute dysentery—the only treatment for the condition then. But Gandhi agreed to take enema. So the doctors added a full dose of emetine and morphia to enema water. The enema procedure improved his condition within the next 24 hours that he voluntarily asked for a repetition of the procedure for next five successive days. Gandhi added roti and chapatti to his regular meal only after Talwalkar convinced him that a diet of a dozen oranges a day would not support his body.
Gandhi once drew the diet plan for one of his staunchest critics, Subhas Chandra Bose. He recommended leafy vegetables to be taken as salads, dates for a healthy stomach, raw garlic for controlling blood pressure and lemons and honey to substitute for sweet oranges.
THE INVISIBLE HAND
In Gandhi’s accomplishments, the contributions of his longtime personal secretary, Mahadev Desai, cannot be overlooked. Though in principle Gandhi was self-reliant and shunned material possessions, he had a brilliant collection of books and people as resources to seek help from. When he returned from South Africa in 1914, he brought along many of his coworkers and 10,000 books and pamphlets. After he set up the Satyagraha Ashram along the banks of the Sabarmati in 1915, Gandhi was in search of a person who could be a helping hand in his intellectual, social and spiritual exercises. He found that person in Mahadev, a lawyer by training, who officially started working at the ashram in 1917. Writes the scholar Ian Desai in the paper Gandhi’s Invisible Hands: “[Mahadev] Desai was at the heart of Gandhi’s intellectual operation, helping him refine his philosophy.” He woke up before his boss at 4am to prepare the agenda for the day. He made notes on all of Gandhi’s meetings, drafted his letters and articles where Gandhi only had to change the authorial initials from MD to MKG. Gandhi wrote to Mahadev once, “You have made yourself indispensable to me.... It is for your efficiency and character that I have chosen you to help me in my political work and you have not disappointed me. Add to this the fact that you can cook khichdi for me, with so much love.”
Gandhi was an astute media strategist and social scientist, too. Nowhere is this streak more visible than the incredible background work he commissioned in the run-up to the Salt March of 1930. At the planning stage, he sent out notes to villages along the trail of the march asking for detailed information on the village population and its components based on gender and religion, apart from the number of cattle, khadi wearers, charkhas, the rate of land revenue, the size of grazing plots and the extent of salt intake. As Ian notes in his paper, “They plotted a trail for a three-week trek from Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad south toward the Arabian Sea, paralleling the railway line, which would be the primary means for maintaining communication—by both post and messengers—between the marchers and the ashram headquarters, as well as the conduit for the media covering the march.”
How did Gandhi come to acquire the simple, clean, pared-to-the-bone prose style? Much of it can be traced to his textual and printing experiments in South Africa. Gandhi helped set up the International Printing Press, which started producing the weekly Indian Opinion in 1903. Gandhi’s Printing Press, a book by Isabel Hofmeyr, gives an account of how he “experimented with an anti-commodity, copyright-free, slow-motion newspaper” called the Indian Opinion, which shunned bylines and dateline-driven reporting. Apparently, like other commercial enterprises, Gandhi also hired cheap African labour on printing days to handle the machines.
In this periodical, the staple format was that of the summary which was an everyday activity for Gandhi in order to espouse his radical ideas and concepts. He mastered the “art of condensation” where he constantly abridged stories from other papers, whittled down laws, statutes and policy documents, and crafted neat petitions and memorandums. More importantly, he interwove ethical extracts from writers and thinkers in between clippings and summaries from major papers. Gandhi intended this format to engender more contemplative reading.
It is interesting to see how Gandhi dealt with racism and hatred from the white-run press by embedding his ever-evolving ethos of nonviolence and non-cooperation in print. In the July 8, 1911, edition of Indian Opinion, an article from The Rand Daily Mail titled ‘The Sons of South Africa: A New Society’ referred to an organisation with discriminatory membership policies favouring people of “pure European descent”. Gandhi refrained from commenting on the story, but he created a “border of silence” around it that made the reader think about the racial colour of such an organisation.
NO SPORTS PLEASE
Gandhi was no fan of cricket. Or football, hockey, boxing or any sport for that matter. He did not understand the frenzy around football and cricket among “colonial-born Indians” and preferred the daily grind of “simple agriculturalists” to achieve fitness goals. Congress stalwart K.F. Nariman once called Gandhi “the least sportive saint”. When a reader of the Indian Opinion inquired why he did not carry any sports news, Gandhi responded that “... sport indulged in for the sake of developing the body is of some use. But we venture to suggest that agriculture, the inherited occupation of Indians—indeed of the human race—is better sport than football, cricket and all other games put together.”
Late 1930s and early 1940s saw Bombay hosting pentangular cricket tournaments which had teams from five communities: Europeans, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and the Rest (Indian Christians, Buddhists and Jews). The tournament came under attack for encouraging a communal consciousness at a time when Hindu-Muslim divide was on the rise. When Parmananddas Jivandas Hindu Gymkhana, a team of Hindus, sought Gandhi’s counsel to participate in a pentangular tournament, he dissuaded them. The Bombay Pentangular tournaments were finally stopped in 1946.
ALLIES FROM AMERICA
Gandhi never visited the United States in his lifetime. But he was aware of the importance of positive American public opinion to enlist allies for India’s freedom struggle. In fact, from 1905 through 1947, both British officials and Indian nationalists wanted Americans to favour their side. Gandhi consorted with visiting American missionaries, ministers, lawyers and journalists, turning some into fervent advocates of nonviolent resistance.
Today, with states curtailing abortion rights in the US, one can look back to a rather nasty set of exchanges between Gandhi and American birth-control activist Margaret Sanger in the 1920s when she visited India to gather support for her cause. She roped in Rabindranath Tagore on to her side, but could not convince Gandhi. His stand on the subject was derived from his life-long experiments with celibacy which continued into the old age when he took to the practice of taking consenting naked young women to sleep next to him at night. “There can be no two opinions about the necessity for birth control,” wrote Gandhi, “but the only method handed down from ages past is self-control or ‘brahmacharya’.... Medical men will earn the gratitude of mankind, if instead of advising artificial means of birth control they will find out the means of self-control.” Sanger called Gandhi “a reactionary moralist”.
Gandhi’s first radio broadcast was not on All India Radio, but on Columbia Broadcasting System on September 13, 1931, when he had decided against visiting the United States. He spoke about untouchability and Hindu-Muslim antipathy and sought help for the “poor peasants of India”. American journalist Webb Miller found Gandhi to be “the most fascinating and inscrutable” of all the leaders he met. Miller’s extensive dispatches from Uttar Pradesh and the Dharasana Satyagraha after Dandi March inspired the Times to run its Man of the Year cover on Gandhi in 1931.
In all likelihood, the last interview Gandhi gave was also to an American. Photographer-writer Margaret Bourke-White met him at Birla House on January 30, 1948. Towards the end of their chat, she wanted to know Gandhi’s view on the atom bomb. How would he meet the threat? “...by prayerful action,” he replied. Soon after their goodbyes, when she was just a few blocks away, Gandhi was shot thrice.