Have we forgotten Gandhi? In this year, when we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth, the answer has to be a resounding “No!” The spate of articles on him, the debates, discussions, lectures, the books that continue to be published on him — all these make this abundantly clear. Even otherwise, Gandhi was always very much among us. We live in an age of documentation, and all school children know about his fight for India’s freedom, his twin weapons of Ahimsa and Satyagraha. There are, besides, millions of images and pictures. Gandhi has always lent himself easily to the artist; a few lines can provide a beautiful minimalist picture, often enhanced by a tuneful, soulful Vaishnava Jana To playing in the background.
Unfortunately, in time, even this picture becomes a cliché, and stories harden into legends, they become banal and tired. If we want to get to the real man, we need to get rid of all this clutter and go to his story as he told it: The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
It is a dramatic story, even in his own plain, unexaggerated words. From being a shy young man from Kathiawad to becoming a barrister in London, from going to Africa to earn some badly needed money for the family and becoming, overnight, another man who knitted together a whole community, from being a man who came to India looking up to giants like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and, in the course of a visit to Bihar, because of an importunate poor farmer, discovering the weapon of civil disobedience with which to fight the British and awaken a whole country — it is a roller coaster ride like none other. As if these were not enough, he branched off into matters like a vegetarian diet, sanitation (he and his team were always there to clean the latrines), brahmacharya, the swadeshi and khadi movement.
What does one make of a man who dabbled in such disparate matters? Not so disparate to him, because for him all these elements were linked to his obsession with the Truth. His deep interest in them was part of his search for the truth.
To describe the truth as it has appeared and in the exact manner in which I have arrived at it has been a ceaseless activity.
Indeed, it was a ceaseless activity. The word Truth resounds throughout the book. Over and over again, he questions himself, asks if he has strayed from the Truth. To read about the incident when he left his dying father to go to his wife because of what he bluntly calls his lust is to wonder where he got the courage to be so honest. For this was the early 20th century, when India was still caught in the grip of Victorian morality and prudery. The story of his giving in to his doctor and agreeing to drink goat’s milk is equally fascinating. Why did I agree, he asks himself. Did not my vow include all milk? What sophistry made me separate goat’s milk from the other kinds of milk? He was more scrupulous about keeping the vows he made to his mother (no meat, no wine, no women), observing them in the spirit, not the letter. When he realised he had kept back the fact that he was married from an English woman who had befriended him, he wrote to her, confessed the truth and apologised. Endless self-questioning, endless weighing himself on some unseen moral scales, and finally admitting he was wrong if he thought he was wrong.
A devotee of truth must always hold himself open to correction and whenever he discovers himself to be wrong he must confess and atone for it.
If this is the real Gandhi, the man who believed in admitting to one’s own fault and then atoning for it, we lost Gandhi long back. I doubt whether, even then, in the heyday of Gandhism, there were many who implicitly followed all of Gandhi’s teachings. There was often impatience even among his co-workers at Gandhi’s mixing up of the big issues with small ones. But nothing was small to Gandhi if it was about truth. According to Gandhi, Truth, Ahimsa and God are the same.
This idea of Truth, the reality of it, has been the biggest victim of our times. Not only do we no longer care about Truth, we will not be able to recognise it even when it appears before us. Lies have become the common currency of public life, there is a mass culture of denial and refusal to take responsibility for one’s words. By this one standard alone, we have failed miserably, we have abandoned Gandhi. Perhaps it requires a Gandhi to have the courage of absolute honesty. In fact, this is the time of liars, of lies which prompt a person to say, I never said that, or, I never did that, or, I was misquoted misrepresented, quoted out of context.
This is a time when rapists walk with a proud swagger, men and women who cheat and loot the country brazen it out, a person in power is arrogance personified and hypocrisy is rampant. How, then, do we dare to say that Gandhi lives among us? We have had our chance. Perhaps there is a tiny chance that we will look for the Gandhi in ourselves. That, indeed, would be a greater miracle than the miracle of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 29, 2019 under the title ‘Abandoning Gandhi’. The writer is a novelist, whose most recent book is Shadow Play
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