A portrait of Mahatma as a young man

Digging his original writings, Gopalkrishna Gandhi weaves a coherent narrative of the early years of Gandhiji’s life

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Ashish Mehta | August 11, 2021 | New Delhi


#literature   #books   #Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi   #Gopalkrishna Gandhi   #Mahatma Gandhi   #Publication Division   #Jawaharlal Nehru  


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi: Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man
Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Aleph, xvi+377 pages, Rs 999

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) is a unique work. Spread over 98 volumes in English, and fewer in Gujarati and Hindi, it puts together all of Gandhi’s words – written, spoken, from letters and from speeches, and more. The compilation itself, carried out under a project initiated by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s, has a fascinating history, which needs to be told some day. Notwithstanding the limitations of the real world, the CWMG is truly the immortal part of that incomparable life. In Gujarati, the collection is called ‘Gandhiji-no Akshardeha’ – with a pun on ‘Akshar’: The immortal part of Gandhi or the Body of Gandhi’s Words.

Trouble, however, is that few can be expected to read a work that takes a good-sized shelf to store, even if it is made available at a very low price by the Publication Division of the Government of India. It’s not a question of shelf space alone: Its digital version is made accessible online by the Sabarmati Ashram (gandhiheritageportal.org). Scholars, of course, dip through it, usually via the index which takes two more volumes. For the rest, the formidable work is like a monument before which you stand full of respect and awe, impressed.

That is unfortunate, because the CWMG is a goldmine. The Father of the Nation speaks to us, to the world. He tells us how he as an average – often below-average – youngster looked at the world around him, made sense of it, found ways to engage with it, faced the darkness deep within and yet sometimes succeeded in his impossible endeavours.

Today, in our complex world, as we look bewildered at the injustices around us and at the global challenges, the immortal words of Gandhi can throw light on our path. But they mostly remain unread in large volumes.

To each generation, the world seems maddeningly more complex that before, but so it must have seemed to Gandhi too. And yet he found inspiration (or more likely confirmation of his own nascent beliefs) in scriptures of various denominations, of writers ancient and modern, eastern and western. He paraphrased Socrates (that is, Plato) and Ruskin, to make the writings available to others around him (“Read this! Read this!”). Today, we need to paraphrase, or in the parlance of our times, repackage Gandhi’s words, if an average reader is not going to read through the CWMG, beginning with the first entry in the first volume.

Anthologies offer a solution. ‘The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi’ is a time-tested anthology, compiled by R.K. Prabhu and U.R. Rao, with welcoming forewords by Acharya Vinoba Bhave and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Sixty years later, it continues to be in print, though used more as a desk reference. Navajivan Trust and others have prepared countless anthologies, compiling Gandhi’s thoughts on selected subjects. Another stellar landmark was Raghavan Iyer’s ‘The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi’ (1993). The final word in this area may as well be ‘The Oxford India Gandhi: Essential Writings’ (2007), put together by Gopalkrishna Gandhi. For a 98-volume work, there can’t be an abridged version but ‘The Oxford India Gandhi’ comes quite close to that description.

The anthologies, again, have a problem: They present Gandhi’s thoughts on a range of topics, devoid of context, whereas with him it is the lived life that provides meaning and weight to the words. ‘Hind Swaraj’ is called the seed text of Gandhian thought, but it is his autobiography that always has a wider readership. The autobiography, however, covers only a slice of his life. In fact, even for the years that he is writing about in it, there are many important episodes missing, and the author himself asks readers to consult, for example, ‘The History of Satyagraha in South Africa’ to fill the gaps.

Mahendra Meghani, a writer-publisher from Gujarat, experimented putting together these two books in one. In Gujarati and later in English (‘The Gandhi Story in His Own Words’, Lok-Milap Trust, 2008), he physically did cut-and-paste of pages from the two books, and then edited them to put those years in one coherent narrative, condensing about 300,000 words to 75,000 words. (He was partly inspired by Bharatan Kumarappa’s ‘Gandhiji’s Autobiography Abridged’ of 1952.) Scholars may not be happy at a merger of two narratives written with different aims: one is presented as a historical document of an event; the other is a testament of inner cultivation. The spirit of experimentation, however, Gandhi might not have minded.

Building on that spirit, Goplakrishna Gandhi has now put together a new ‘autobiography’ of Gandhi, which complements the Autobiography, filling out more episodes from his childhood and youth: His childhood, schooling, marriage, studies in England, activism for vegetarianism, eventful years in South Africa, and the final return to India in 1914, when he was no longer a young man but an acknowledged Mahatma.

For the compilation procedure, the editor explains, “Except when otherwise indicated in the footnotes, all the material in this work is traceable to the relevant entries in ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ (CWMG) from the Gandhi Heritage Portal or to the e-book ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ published by the Publications Division Government of India, New Delhi, 1999, in ninety-eight volumes.”

It is not explained, however, why the 1999 version was referred to, when the portal as well as new restored electronic version (2015) have been more easily available. [https://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/gandhi-word-now-in-authentic-master-copy] [https://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/gandhi150-gandhi-in-his-own-words] Given the controversy [https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/controversy/story/20041129-revised-edition-of-collected-work-of-mahatma-gandhi-insult-to-scholarship-789176-2004-11-29] surrounding the badly and questionably edited 1999 version and Gandhian scholars’ opposition to it, nearly half the references attributed to “(PD 1999)” calls for an explanation.

The situation calls for a Gandhian one-liner popular in Gujarati.

After a long time of laissez-faire, the Gujarati language was standardised in the 1920s, through the efforts of the Gujarat Vidyapith – the national university founded by Gandhi. On the publication of the ‘Jodani Kosh’, an orthographic dictionary, the Mahatma said now no one had the right to misspell Gujarati words. It’s a famous remark in Gujarati, applied jokingly to different contexts. No one should have the right now to quote the ‘PD 1999’ either!

A small misgiving for an otherwise excellent ‘autobiography’.

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