An ode to common salt
Jaswant Singh
The Romance of Salt, by Anil Dharkar. Roli. Pages 228. Rs 395.

A book on a substance as common as the common salt! Sounds strange. What could there be to write about salt? But the author has forged a romantic relationship with it and has discovered some amazing aspects connected with salt. He has divided the book into two halves. The first half describes in considerable detail Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha of 1930, popularly known as the Dandi March, and the second half digs into history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also salt making in modern times to complete the tale of the uncommon role common salt has played in the history of mankind.

But before you move into all these aspects, you read about Gandhi’s Dandi March in such absorbing detail that you start feeling that you are reading the history of India’s freedom struggle, particularly Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, and not a book on salt. But then, it does make sense to begin the book with Gandhi’s march to Dandi, and more sense to launch it on the anniversary of the 241-mile march of the Mahatma which lasted from March 12 to April 5, 1930.

The march has been described from its genesis that goes back to the appointment of the Simon Commission in 1927. The commission was set up by the Conservative Government in Britain to review the constitutional position in India. The national leadership of India decided to oppose the commission "at every stage and in every form". This set into motion a process that culminated in the Lahore Declaration of 1929, demanding complete independence. The All-India Congress Committee was authorised to formulate a plan and the Congress Working Committee appointed Gandhi "Dictator" of the future campaign. Here was sown the seed of the Salt Satyagraha.

The book records all the preparations that went on in Sabarmati Ashram before launching the march. The strict discipline imposed by Gandhi on the Ashramites is described in elaborate detail. Gandhi’s long letter to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, and the Viceroy’s criptic reply are reproduce in full and so are the rules of the satyagraha formulated by Gandhi.

When Gandhi chose salt as his weapon, the decision was received with derision by the British-owned English Press in India as well as the media in Britain. But as the day neared, enthusiasm grew and during the march Gandhi and his 78 associates were greeted by cheering crowds on the way.

When Gandhi scooped the first lump of salt at Dandi, he became the first lawbreaker and was joined by hundreds of thousands of lawbreakers throughout the country. That marked the beginning of a nationwide civil disobedience movement. Gandhi’s arrest was followed by raids by orderly volunteers on salt works at Dharsana and Wadala. Slowly and silently, they proceeded towards the salt deposits. Policemen, armed with steel-tipped lathis, struck them on their heads. Bleeding, they fell on the ground, and the second wave came up and was similarly struck. Then came the third wave and then the fourth... No sign of panic, no stampede, no cries for help. Volunteers carried the injured on make shift stretchers made from blankets, to a thatched hut which had been put up as a temporary hospital.

The western journalists watched this bizarre spectacle with wonder and amazement. Their account stirred the British and American conscience.

Thus ended Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha. It did not bring independece, but surely it formed the first step towards independence, which took 17 more years to come. It also made Gandhi a hero of the British working class. Thus ends the first half of the book, which reads more like a chapter from the history of India’s freedom movement.

The second part describes salt’s march through history, scanning recorded accounts as well as folklore, mythology, and literature. It shows how wars have been fought over salt, and won or lost because of it, how poets have written odes to this common substance, how it has been playing a role in religious ceremonies such as baptising babies, and superstitious practices such as banishing evil spirits.

The concluding part is devoted to the transformation of Okhamandal, near Dwarka, from a lush green forestland in Krishna’s time to the abode of a different kind of life. It describes the migratory birds that flock the Charakla Salt Works in the little Rann of Okhamandal. The author finds salt as a common link between Krishna’s Dwarka, Porbunder where Gandhi was born and Dandi where Gandhi concluded his famous march.