Soul talk in alien tongue
 Reviewed by Abhishek Joshi

Reading Gandhi in Two Tongues and Other Essays
By Tridip Suhrud. 
Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Pages 214. Rs 250 

Describing an incident that is a telling reflection on Mahatma Gandhi's bilingual mode of thought, Tridip Suhrud, in Reading Gandhi in Two Tongues, says he was in South Africa when the Transvaal Government proposed changes in the Asiatic Act. The changes made registration of all Asiatics compulsory and demanded that they submit impressions of all their fingers, a clause seen as humiliating. Describing his response, Gandhi says: "I took the Transvaal Government Gazette Extraordinary of August 22, 1906 in which the Ordinace was published, home from the office. I went up a hill near the house in the company of a friend and began to translate the draft Ordinance into Gujarati."

"This is remarkable. A Britain-trained barrister practising law in a South African colony translates a legal ordinance into his mother tongue in order to comprehend the true significance of it! He knew that the Ordinance was intended for the Asiatic community, particularly the Indians. The humiliation inherent in that cold, bureaucratic document could be fully internalised fully only in his own language. It was only after its translation not only in a linguistic sense but also in a cultural sense that any effective opposition to it could be thought of," writes Tridip.

Gandhi wrote his key texts in Gujarati. But his conceptual universe was deeply informed by his reading of European civilisation and European thinkers. As for what had set him on writing his autobiography, the Mahatma is said to have stated, “It is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth... If the experiments are really spiritual, then there can be no room for self-praise. They can only add to my humility.”

Gandhi, Tridip says, takes the Western form of writing about the self and translates it in his own idiom. The Gujarati word for autobiographical writings is Atmakatha. The term translates as not autobiography but as "the story of the soul".

He rendered Hind Swaraj into English, while other key texts were translated by his closest associates like Mahadev Desai and Valji Govind Desai. Gandhi debated, revised and authenticated these translations. Gandhi wrote an account of Satyagraha in South Africa as Dakshin Africa Na Satyagraha No Itihas (in Gujarati). Its exact translation in English would have to be A History of Satyagraha in South Africa. The title of the book in English reads Satyagraha in South Africa', thus omitting the term history. Gandhi saw these two as separate. Itihas means: “It so happened”. History has to do with the doings of kings and emperors. A fascinating look at how expression in multiple languages turned out to be one of the many challenges the Mahatma faced in his lifetime.