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Posted at: May 13, 2018, 12:06 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 12:06 AM (IST)

Authors who came under Gandhi’s spell

AS I PLEASE
They not only wrote at length about him but spread his message throughout the world
Authors who came under Gandhi’s spell

By K. Natwar Singh

THE first worthwhile book on Mahatma Gandhi was written in 1924 by Romain Rolland (1866-1944). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1916. For the better part of his adult life he lived in an enchanting village not far from Geneva. He was attracted to Gandhi’s Satyagraha concept in the early 1920s. They did not meet till December 1931. 

Gandhi was on his way back to India after attending the Second Round Table Conference. He broke journey to meet Rolland in Switzerland. Romain Rolland kept a diary of Gandhi’s week-long talks at his home in Villeneuve. Each day the two met for several hours discussing the situation in Europe, philosophical questions, the gospel of non-violent Satyagraha, Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth and Hindu scriptures.

In 1927, Gandhi wrote to Rolland, introducing Jawaharlal Nehru to him. Rolland knew Tagore well. He also met Subhas Chandra Bose. Gandhi had liked Rolland’s biography, of which he said it had made him better known in Europe. The book was translated into several languages. Its title is Mahatma Gandhi: The man who became one with universal being. The two carried on regular correspondence till Rolland’s death in 1944.

EM Forster wrote of Rolland “…a quarter of a century back…he almost seemed to have the stature of Tolstoy.”

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Four exceptional American correspondents came under the spell of Gandhi. They spread his message throughout the World. These were William L Shirer (1904-1993), Louis Fischer (1886-1970), Vincent Sheean (1899-1975) and John Gunther (1901-1970). Their books sold in tens of thousands.

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Third Reich is the best book so far written on Hitler’s Germany. Shirer was 27 years of age when he first got to know Gandhiji. He had extensive talks with the Mahatma on the outcome of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed on March 5, 1931. Jawaharlal Nehru was openly critical of the pact. As always, he soon joined his master in approval. 

Shirer in his Gandhi: A Memoir writes at great length about his discussions with Gandhi on the implications of the pact, Gandhi’s non-cooperation crusade and much more. He sailed on SS Rajputana on which Gandhi was sailing to Europe. From Brindesi in Southern Italy where Gandhi landed, he asked Shirer to accompany him to London by train. Gandhiji was representing the Indian National Congress at the Round Table Conference in London.

I met John Gunther in New York in 1963, courtesy Santha Rama Rau. Her father Sir Benegal Rama Rau was ambassador to the US soon after Independence. Santha was educated in England and America. She made New York her home. RK Narayan introduced me to her. On a sultry day in September 1961, Santha took me and RK Narayan to a cocktail party (we were both teetotallers) given by the Gunthers. Assembled were the famous, the powerful, beautiful sexy women, artists, authors, the rich, the go-getters, the magnanimous and the lionised. I remember being introduced to a middle-aged lady. I asked Santha who she was. “Greta Garbo, you dope”. I had grown up hearing her name. She remains one of the outstanding film personalities of all time.

John Gunther’s two books, Inside Europe and Inside Asia, sold the world over in huge numbers. The former ran into 27 editions between January 1936 and November 1937.

He wrote much about Gandhi. The first sentence of the chapter on Gandhi in Inside Asia reads: “Mr Gandhi, who is an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father, is the greatest Indian since Buddha”.

Louis Fischer, I met only once. He knew Gandhi better than any foreign correspondent. He stayed in Wardha for a week in June 1942 and met Gandhi twice a day at his hut (no electricity) in Sevagram. A comprehensive account of the Gandhi-Fischer encounter is given in A Week With Gandhi.

Vincent Sheean, I met in New York for a few minutes in October 1962, when he came to pay homage to Rajaji who was staying in my apartment. He was present at Birla House on January 30, 1948. He wrote in a mood of doom and gloom about Gandhiji’s assasination, in his book Lead Kindly Light.

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Surprise and more surprise! The first US President ever meets the North Korean leader in Singapore next June. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is back at the helm at 92 years of age. With Robert Mugabe in the cold storage, Mahathir Mohamad is now the oldest head of government in the world.

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