Name: Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility
Author: Sudhir Chandra
Publisher: Routledge India
Price: Rs 506
If the period immediately preceding the independence of a nation is a good indicator of its future, India offered some ominous signs. In his last two years, the man who led the freedom struggle suddenly found his ideals being almost denounced both by the people and the polity. The mantra he had maximum faith in — fast unto death — achieved little beyond the areas he was physically present in; many other parts of the country plunged into a vortex of horrific violence. Worse, independent India could not secure the life of the Father of the Nation, who wanted to live for 125 years, even for six months.
Historian Sudhir Chandra’s Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility, an English translation of his earlier book in Hindi, traces the Mahatma’s last 27 months and his anguish as his organisation bypassed him on crucial issues. “Who listens to me when I speak?” he asked. Chandra rightly observes that upon Independence, Gandhi’s “biggest sorrow was the failure of ahimsa”, which he believed to be the final word all his life. “The struggle we waged over the last 30 years was not based on the strength of ahimsa…We were non-violent on account of our helplessness, but our hearts were filled with violence. Now, when the British are withdrawing, we are expanding that violence by fighting amongst each other,” he noted with anguish.
For Chandra, it’s not just another book of history, it’s an introspective journey. For him, Gandhi is a metaphor for the last hope. Through Gandhi, Chandra seeks to look within and identify the zones that push a human being to self-destruction. The book assumes a poignant tone when it becomes a personal document, but the narrative fumbles when it becomes a mere historical account and recounts Gandhi’s last days. The translation, by Chitra Padmanabhan, remains impeccable throughout and captures the nuances of Chandra’s Hindi.
A major portion of the book is devoted to Gandhi’s fasts, his biggest “weapon”. If seen without context, one might ask what wings would flutter if a man stops eating. But such was the moral authority behind this fast, a rarity in human history, that the mightiest empire would fumble, an entire nation would come visiting the man. Yet, this fast was not an absolute truth in itself. A highly personal act, it was not without some political motive. Gandhi’s fasts were not for “self-purification” alone. They were meant to persuade, pressure or coerce (one may choose the verb of one’s choice) the people into fulfilling his wishes, or what he believed was right. It is a different matter that his sense of righteousness has, indeed, been proved right by the self-destructive mode humankind is in, but that does not negate the underlying “violence” that emanated from Gandhi’s threat to his own life. As his own followers later observed, his fasts did bring an immediate truce but caused “no change of hearts”.
Thus, Gandhi’s dejection in his final years, indeed tragic, was perhaps inevitable. It was inevitable that his heir Jawaharlal Nehru would find Hind Swaraj “completely unreal”, the Congress Party would increasingly replace his ideals with realpolitik. Gandhi would not have been unaware of this. He must have known that he would be reduced to being an impossible possibility — an ideal one cannot discard, but cannot embrace either. Gandhi’s last lament reminds one of Kabir: “Sukhiya sab sansaar hai, khaave aur sove. Dukhiya daas Kabir hai, jaage aur rove (The world is so happy, they eat and sleep. Kabir is so sad he keeps awake and weeps).”
Chandra searches for the possible spaces in our collective or individual consciousness that still carry some possibility for a return to Gandhian principles. But is there any space left for ahimsa today? “Even the violence that is being witnessed today is the violence of the impotent… (when) armed men attack a village and cut down unarmed people, including women and children.” These were Gandhi’s words at the Partition violence. That these words ring so true for the violence India routinely sees even 70 years later confirms that the nation has betrayed not just its Father, but also its tryst with destiny.