Catching up with Gandhi
CATCHING up with Gandhi is Graham Turner’s spiritual Gandhian odyssey. Turner travels through places and relives episodes of Gandhi’s life in an endeavour to undertake "a series of magical journeys in India and South Africa" accompanied occasionally by one of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandsons, Rajmohan Gandhi, and at other times by his granddaughter, Ela Menon.
Turner’s journey in India starts predictably from Porbandar, Gandhi’s birthplace, where his three-storey house with a large number of rooms is remarkably preserved for posterity. Associated with the house are the descriptions of his misdeeds: the well-rehearsed episode of the death of his father while Gandhi hankered after Kasturba is recounted by the author. Other facts of his life—his desire to become a lawyer rather than a diwan like his father, his wish to study in London, his subsequent outcasting by his community of Modh Banias as he set sail from Bombay—form an interesting commentary about the 18-year-old Gandhi.
Subsequent pages of his early life explore his years at the Inner Temple and his experiments with becoming an English gentleman, again events that are rather well entrenched in the Indian memory. This period perhaps turns out to be a precursor of his lifelong preoccupation with vegetarianism as he tries hard to stick to the vows his mother had him take before he left for England. At this time, his readings of the Bible went hand in hand with his experiments with vegetarianism. In his words, the Sermon on the Mount "went straight into (his) heart."
Gandhi’s years in England soon give way to his life in South Africa and his subsequent politicisation. A proud lawyer, trained in London, Gandhi would remain distant from the humble ways of Indians in South Africa, and thereby court eviction from the railway carriage at Pietermaritzburg, a provocative moment that was to change him forever and push him in the direction of mahatmahood. His multifarious experiences in South Africa led him to create Phoenix and Tolstoy farms—the latter with the help of his German-Jewish friend Hermann Kallenbach—which, in Ela Menon’s words, were set up to inculcate "the sort of discipline needed to fight non-violent battles .... Phoenix and all his later ashrams were used to help people develop that level of self-control and discipline".
What makes Turner’s a different kind of biography are his contemporary reflections on the significance of places with which Gandhi has always been associated in the Indian psyche. His impressions of the relevance of Pietermaritzburg railway station today, of the remains of the Phoenix Farm which Gandhi set up near Durban, or of Tolstoy Farm in the present-day South Africa, of which nothing remains except the concrete structure where Gandhi had once lived, contrast remarkably with the idealised idea of these places from what we know of Gandhi’s life there.
This was also the time when Gandhi’s family began to see him as an indifferent husband and father. His wife was already familiar with Gandhi’s "autocratic" ways and neglect; but soon Harilal, Manilal, Devdas and Ramdas would also hold grievances against their "eccentric" father whose overpowering personality resulted in creating their many vulnerabilities. As Turner writes: "The plain truth is that Gandhi often had a surer touch in dealing with India than he did in dealing with his own children."
Non-violent resistance and satyagraha, imbibed in South Africa, were to become the hallmarks of Gandhi’s later struggle to free India from the British. When Gandhi arrived in India in 1915, standing small of stature and dressed in a long cloak and dhoti, many like Vallabhbhai Patel were to regard him as "an inconsequential eccentric". But this man was meant to lead the nation to freedom: what followed was his involvement in the cause of the peasants of Champaran, Kheda and Bardoli where he had unprecedented successes. What further made him a champion of the masses was his initiation of the Non-Cooperation Movement, though it was called off after the episode at Chauri Chaura. The Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements were quick to follow upon the heels of such a massive following.
What prevents Turner’s book from seeming like old wine in a new bottle are the inclusion of incredible stories of Gandhi’s near-physical cravings for Tagore’s niece, Saraladevi Chaudhurani (which approximates in its scandalous content with Joseph Lelyveld’s writings of Gandhi’s eroticism for Kallenbach in his recent book Great Soul), of the British migration to Delhi from Calcutta and the construction of Lutyen’s new imperial capital, of Harilal’s conversion to Islam and Gandhi’s consequent dismay, and of course, of his memorable meeting with King George in London where, commenting on his own lack of modest clothing, Gandhi had remarked: "The king had enough on for both of us".
A book carrying on its
shoulders all the dimensions of Gandhi’s ideologies and policies is
difficult to write, but Turner’s eloquence succeeds in bringing
together Gandhi’s feats and errors of judgement, his enormous
accomplishments and his failed ideals which led to his marginalisation
by the Congressmen and the eventual partition of India, his deep-seated
experiments with brahmacharya and his occasional succumbing to
its formidable discipline.