Book: Farewell, Mahatma
Author: Devibharathi (translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Price: Rs 299
In one of the stories in Farewell, Mahatma, the Tamil writer Devibharathi talks about “the spiritual tension in the narrative”. It’s a remark that captures the essence of his craft. The short story for him is a medium to illuminate the complex reality of living. In his hands, it becomes a deep meditation on the human condition.
Each story in the collection — there are nine short stories and a novella — is a world in itself. With every work, Devibharathi seems to reinvent his craft. Every character has “a full corpus of memories”, which reminds him/her of the “dark-infested snake-pit of time”. In this personalised world of fiction, Devibharathi lays bare the violence that constitutes the morality of our times. We are left peeping into the abyss when he wraps up the story.
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Farewell,Mahatma is a poignant recreation of Gandhi’s last days. Part narrative, part interior monologue, it is an indictment of a people who betrayed Gandhi. The assassination of Gandhi is predetermined and the Mahatma is left with no option but to die because he realises that his life has ceased to be his message and his death alone can redeem his followers. The story opens a few days before his death in riot-ravaged Delhi, when an aide at the Birla House informs a restless Mahatma that impersonators are holding court in the streets. Devastated with the violence around him and the betrayal of the ideals of ahimsa by his own people, Gandhi walks out of his prison. The decision is inspired by thoughts about the death of one of his spiritual mentors, the Russian genius Count Leo Tolstoy. “If he wants to get out, he must follow closely in Tolstoy’s footsteps. He must discover his own railway station, his Astapovo outside this city famous for its ancient glories,” Devibharathi writes.
And, as in the footsteps of Christ’s journey to Mount Calvary and Tolstoy’s from Yasnaya Polyana, Gandhi takes a train to Amritsar, in the company of numerous “Gandhis”. No one takes his claim to be the Gandhi seriously. The “Gandhis” explain to him why so many are impersonating the Mahatma. One chap puts it bluntly, “Our man has decided to contest elections. Sir, there is no easier way to ensure your win!” A young fruitseller in the Gandhi disguise says it is good for business: “Isn’t it special to buy an orange from a mahatma than from an ordinary fruit vendor?” He also mentions that if he hadn’t put it on, he would have been killed along with his parents when their settlement was set ablaze. At dusk, he gets off the train at a non-descript station, not far from Delhi. The station master recognises him and implores him to return to Delhi. “It is there that everything must come to pass,” he tells Gandhi. The station master-Gandhi encounter, reminiscent of the inquisitor episode in The Brothers Karamazov, is almost an interrogation of Gandhi’s precepts. The station master warns the Mahatma that “we, your followers, will either betray you after your death or get killed”. He asks Gandhi to stay alive and complete his work. The story has an ambiguous ending with the Mahatma returning to Birla House in time for the final prayer meeting, while one of the impersonators is already waiting in the lawns.
Devibharathi wrote Farewell, Mahatma in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots in an attempt to “discover, through my imagination, how the spirit of Gandhi came to be extinguished from our land”. Influenced by communism in his youth, his entry point to Gandhi was Tolstoy. With these two men illuminating his thought, the short story became for him a tool to explore the morality of living and the violence in everyday life that undermines human relations. In stories like A Place Called Home, Reversal, Victim and A Person Named Das, in an understated manner, Devibharathi tells stories of scarred minds, desperately trying to be sane and normal as their inner world crumbles under the weight of demanding social and material conditions. Redemption becomes impossible in these dark times, and physical violence a normative condition.
N Kalyan Raman deserves a big thank you for introducing Devibharathi to the attention of non-Tamil readers. His interview with Devibharathi and the short note situating him in the world of contemporary Tamil fiction adds value to the collection.