Three is company

The tripartite friendship between Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Charles Freer Andrews and the timeless lessons in fellowship they hold for us.

Written by Tridip Suhrud | Published: April 7, 2018 12:47:11 am

Three is company Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi in 1940 (Wikimedia.org)

Book name: Friendships of ‘Largeness and Freedom’: Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi- An Epistolary Account 1912-1940

Edited and Introduced by Uma Das Gupta

Publisher:Oxford University Press

Pages:502

Price: 1,495

On the evening of June 30, 1912, WB Yeats read Rabindranath Tagore’s  poetry — in Tagore’s presence — at the house of the English painter William Rothenstein. In the audience was Charles Freer Andrews, a Church of England missionary on furlough home. Later, he wrote a poem to celebrate the presence of the poet:

“Voiceless, but when the singer comes, the whole
People awake to greatness. Nought can stay
The might of the song on that victorious day,
When nations find at length their own appointed goal.”

This was the beginning of a remarkable fellowship — fellowship in its old sense of communion. Communion such that each recognises the autonomy of the other and maintains his own. Soon, within a year of their meeting, an equally remarkable individual was to join in this communion, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The Gandhi-Tagore dialogue is one of the most instructive and philosophically alive conversations of modern India. Both were deeply concerned with the question of human agency, its locus and its autonomy; both strove for freedom — creative, civilisational and personal — and both hoped to attain a state of freedom which also freed the oppressors from their need to deny humanity to others.

The Tagore-Gandhi dialogue has been the subject of two previously celebrated books: Truth Called Them Differently by RK Prabhu and Ravindra Kelekar and The Mahatma and The Poet by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. These two pioneering studies have a basic lacuna. They do not recognise that this conversation involved not two but three persons: Andrews was central to the conversation between Gandhi and Tagore, as also their long silences.

Uma Das Gupta’s epistolary account covering the period from 1912 to 1940 is based on this recognition of Andrews as necessary and intrinsic to this fellowship. Andrews was the only one to call the adult Gandhi ‘Mohan’. One can only imagine the sense of freedom and ease this gave to Gandhi, constantly weighed down by his Mahatma-ship. Friendship and communion is what Charlie gave Mohan. But he gave Gandhi more than that.

He made Tagore available to Gandhi in a way that sometimes even Rabindranath failed to do. Tagore, with his deep anxieties about mass politics, needed spaces autonomous of the political realm, a separate realm where he could imagine and create states of freedom not possible for politics. He often turned away from Gandhi and his demands of discipline and uniform action.

It was at such moments that Andrews carried the message of Shantiniketan to Sabarmati. And to Tagore, he gave glimpses of the life of interiority that Gandhi led which the “slum of politics” quite often obscured. Tagore was the “great sentinel” watching over Gandhi, ensuring that Gandhi never lost the capacity to stand at the door of the poor and the wretched and awaken them to hope and fearlessness.

Andrews had a role that was more of this hermeneutic, interpretative kind. He made a Christian life available to both. Andrews was, perhaps, the most acute, and hence tortured, of Christians; constantly searching for his calling among the poor, the dispossessed, the indentured and the forgotten. The Empire was to him the most non-Christian of institutions. It was he, more than Gandhi, who could communicate to Tagore the inevitably and the “beauty” of non-cooperation.

This relationship was about being in touch and at the same time capable of admitting periods of loneliness, produced not just by the strains of disagreements but also by the moral loneliness that each, as a seeker of truth, experienced and lived with. What they brought to each other were “broken lives”, as Andrews once wrote to Tagore. Uma Das Gupta recognises the importance of their silence, withdrawal and yet, a sense of deep communion.

This large work arranges the letters, sourced from archives in India and England, and occasional public writings, in a chronological as also thematic order, the latter following the order imposed by chronology. Each section is preceded by an explanatory essay which frames the exchanges in addition to a substantial scholastic introduction that elucidates this fellowship, which Das Gupta characterises as a friendship of “Largeness and Freedom”.

If there is a complaint that must be made, it is that this large work is, in fact, only a selection. Of the thousands of letters exchanged between the three, Das Gupta has made a representative selection. One hopes that her erudition and industry would give us a complete account.

It is tempting to speak of this remarkable book as an invaluable source book, a fundamental reference to understanding not only these three lives but also the quest for freedom. And yet, this would be both unfair and incomplete.

The book is a collection of letters of love and longing, of fellowship and loneliness, of a quest for truth and beauty. And it is these qualities that draws us to it, giving it a timelessness and universality that even the most beauteous of non-cooperation cannot achieve.

Tridip Suhrud has recently published a critical edition of M K Gandhi’s autobiography

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