Saturday, April 1, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

From Gandhi to Tolstoy
By Khushwant Singh

MAHATMA GANDHI acknowledged his debt to Tolstoy by accepting his ideas on passive non-resistance (Satyagrah) to fight oppression and named his commune in South Africa after him. I am not sure if he read all that Tolstoy had written : Bapu was given to reading novels and almost certainly did not have the patience to read Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War & Peace and his delightfully romantic tale of the liaison between a young army officer and an older woman Anna Karenina. The book that influenced his thoughts most was The Kingdom of God Upon Earth which he referred to in My Experiments with Truth. It would appear that the two men came to somewhat similar conclusions through their own ways on the existence of God and man’s relationship with other men: Tolstoy after toying with agnosticism came back to Christianity through belief in Jesus Christ but conceded that other religions were equally valid; Gandhi never questioned the existence of God or the divinity of Lord Rama and like Tolstoy concluded that all religions deserved equal respect.

Brian SilasA recent publication Tolstoy’s Search for Meaning of Life (Cyberians) by Professor Narendra Kumar of Panjab University questions Gandhi’s faith in non-violence as a moral principle binding for all times and believes that he used it as a method to use in exigencies of time against people with conscience. He writes, "There is very little reason to believe that Gandhi would have experimented with this method (Satyagraha) against a regime as that of Hitler, or even of General Franco." He also maintains that Gandhi or no Gandhi, the English would have left India as they left Burma, Malaya, Ceylon, Ghana and other colonies because they felt that they were no longer wanted and time for them to leave had come. The English were more sensible than other imperialist powers like the French, Dutch or the Portuguese who had to be thrown out of their colonies by force.

There is an element of truth in what Narendra Kumar has to say. Despite Gandhi’s lauding non-violence as principle of behaviour, he watched in silence as the Indian Army and Air Force clashed with Pakistani infiltrators in Kashmir. And Gandhism was buried soon after the Mahatma was cremated: Junagarh, Hyderabad, Goa were annexed by force; we fought three wars with Pakistan and one with China. We continue to pay lip service to the Bapu while preparing for the next violent confrontation with Pakistan.

  Professor Kumar has more to say about Tolstoy than about Gandhi. His thesis makes very good reading as he analyses Tolstoy’s mental conflicts from their origins to their synthesis. Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born in Yasnaya Polyana, a large estate which he inherited on his father’s death in 1847. After four years’ service in the army, he resigned to farm his own land as he believed that living off the soil was "the only basis for a rational and honest existence." He was only eight when his father collapsed and died of a fit of apoplexy in a street. Nine months later his father’s mother died of grief over her son’s death. Young Leo brooded about life and death since his childhood. The quest for truth about birth, purpose of life and what, if anything, remained after death haunted, him through the rest of his days. He first came to believe that the purpose of life was to achieve perfection, the way to happiness was living for others through love and sacrifice of one’s own selfish interests. He practised what he taught; he worked alongside his serfs, ploughed his land and harvested it. After a hard day’s work, he joined his wife and children over the evening meal, then retired to his study to read and write. He summed up his quest in the following words: "My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep, and I could not help doing these things, but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfil my desires, I should not have known what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had, as it were, lived, lived, and walked, walked till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death — complete annihilation."

It reminded me of lines, probably by Javed Akhtar:

Hum nay ja kay dekh liya, rahguzar say aagey bhee
Rahguzar hee rahguzar hai, rahguzar say aagey bhee

(I have gone and seen what lies beyond the end of the road;

It is another road yet another and another one beyond it.)

Tolstoy read other philosophers, watched how the highly evolved and the utterly ignorant dealt with the questions of where we came from, why, and where we go after death. He found his answers: There is a father God, strive for excellence as best as you can by serving mankind. The corporeal body perishes but the soul within lives on. Gandhi accepted most of Tolstoy’s explanation of human existence.

Homage to Mukesh

Among the many great sons of Delhi was Mukesh Chand Mathur (1923-76) known popularly by his first name, Mukesh. His first love was the stage. He acted in many plays before he took to singing. His inspiration was Kundan Lal Saigal. He rose to the top as a playback singer in Hindi films. Saigal who regarded himself as the baadshah of light classical vocal music recognised Mukesh as his heir-apparent.

I rarely go to cinema; on the rare occasions I am obliged to do so, I usually slip out unnoticed during the interval. But listening to Hindi film songs was once my abiding passion. Most afternoons I used to have my little radio transistor beside me on my pillow and heard Aap ki fermaish through my fitful siesta. Usually I only caught the opening lines of the ghazal, but the lilt of the song and the melody lingered on in the memory for many years. It was Saigal, Talat Mahmud, Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Vani Jairam — and, of course, Mukesh. To me these golden voices without bodies became just singing spirits because apart from a few brief meetings with Lata and Asha, I did not see them. I met Mukesh once when I happened to go to Chandigarh. He had been invited as the chief guest of the local Rotary Club: he was an ardent Rotarian. He was very smartly dressed in a suit and tie, rose bud in a buttonhole: very modest, shy and a man of few words. When he died in distant Canada while on a singing tour with Lata Mangeshkar, I heard her tearful tribute to her singing partner. Ever since my favourite film song has been Saawan Ka Maheena.

Memories of Mukesh were revived 22 years after his death at a piano concert by Brian Silas on an evening entirely devoted to melodies sung by him, Woh Subah Kabhie to Aayegee, Aa Laut Kay Aajaa Merey Meet; Kabhi Kabhi Meyrey Dil Mein Khayal Aata Hai and O Jaany Vaaley Ho Sakey to Laut Key Aana.

I can’t think of anyone who could have brought those songs alive on any alien instrument like piano except Kanpur-born Brian Silas. He is self-taught, the only musical background he had was his father who played the organ in church. And humble beyond belief, he was contented with playing in noisy restaurants of five-star hotels like Le Meridien and Maurya Sheraton till he ran into Ravi Singh who runs an ad agency, Rainbows. She rescued Brian from these expensive dhabas and put him in concert halls, took him on tours across the country and overseas to countries which had sizeable communities of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. She marketed his tapes; you can hear them on Shatabdi Express trains. It was inevitable the two would fall in love with each other. They plan to get married as soon as she gets her divorce from her doctor husband. She being Sikh, (she is the niece of Bibi Jagir Kaur, first woman President of the SGPC), the couple will have an Anand Karaj, then a civil marriage, followed by a wedding ceremony in church. Brian has found a Sikh beauty, Ravi has found a Christian gentleman and a genius.

As they say in Mumbai

What do you call a westernised Maharashtrian? Western Ghat.

What do you call a Maharashtrian tailor? Sadashiv

Which Maharashtrians wrote the book Apartheid in South Africa? Dhaval Gore and Krishnakant Kale.

(Contributed by Amir Tuteja, Washington)