Thursday, July 6, 2017

'Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles' : An American Journalist in Search of Gandhi's Influence

Ved Mehta told an interviewer that his book 'Mahatma Gandhi and his apostles' sold out in 3 days in India and 60 members of India's parliament clamored for it to be banned and even burned it in the parliament. Mehta's book was published in 1976 after being serialized as a 3 part biographical essay in New Yorker. The previous two years saw the publication of 'Freedom at Midnight' by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, 1975, and Nirmal Bose's 'My days with Gandhi' in 1974. Bose's book blew open a pandora's box that held within it the salacious details of Gandhi's Brahamacharya experiments.

None of those authors, to be fair to them, set out to right a tell-all biography to scandalize the Mahatma. The authors, especially Mehta and Bose, sought to tell a larger story within which they decided to be unflinchingly open about an extremely complex part of Gandhi's life and one that he himself had been open about.

"Why add to the pile", wrote Will and Ariel Durant in their preface to the final volume of their 11 volume 'Story of Civilization' that they called 'Age of Napoleon, referring to the nearly 100,000 volumes of books on Napoleon. Lives like that Napoleon's and Gandhi's are a biographer's delight irrespective of how well the field had been plowed. Mehta concedes the same by acknowledging the sweeping 9 volume biography of Gandhi by D.G. Tendulkar. What ground did Mehta, then, hope to uncover with his very slim attempt? What a Napoleon or a Gandhi does in his lifetime echoes into eternity and ricochets across the globe and Mehta attempts to catch a glimpse of Gandhi's echoes in the land he helped liberate.

It is said that the last Christian died on the cross but the Christian west, thanks to Romain Rolland, saw a Christ in Gandhi. Mehta uses the Christ metaphor and seeks to find how the apostles had carried forward the message of the messiah. At least a few key apostles of Gandhi, unlike Christ's, were still living in contemporaneous times.

An unnamed apostle details the life at Gandhi's ashram and vividly portrays Gandhi's daily habits. Gandhi, apparently, did nothing by himself. He was bathed, cleaned and fed by attendants, mostly female inmates. Abha cleaned the spittoon and even emptied the chamber pot used by Gandhi. The narrator bristles that some, including Gandhi himself, thought the inmates were misfits and 'mental-cases' and mentions how they worked hard to keep the ashram running. Coming to think of it none of Gandhi's famous lieutenants who carried on his political legacy in free India were ever inmates like Pyarelal Nayar or Mahadev Desai or Sushila Nayar. Sarojini Naidu probably had more pride in her to be like Sushila Nayar.

When Gandhi suggests to Sumitra, daughter of Ramadas, that she should be his secretary instead of going off to study she retorts "I don't want to become one of your inferior secretaries who wash your clothes and utensils". She told Mehta, "the really superior people, like Nehru, were never Gandhi's secretaries. The unnamed apostle also interestingly said that many ridiculed the inmates by saying "that healthy people like Jawaharlal Nehru, had no need of ashrams".

Mehta who had set out to understand how Gandhi's memories were preserved and propagandized goes in search of one of the most prodigious efforts to catalogue the voluminous writings of a man who lived more than three score years. He first met C.N. Patel, the deputy editor of what is now known as 'The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' or CWMG. Patel is an unimpressive indolent gatherer of everything Gandhi wrote. Then Mehta meets K.Swaminthan, the editor of the series and who is widely credited for having brought the project to a creditable completion with the writings numbering 90 volumes.

Ved Mehta (Image Courtesy
The effort to collect Gandhi's writings was lavishly funded by the Indian government and Swaminathan commanded, he said, "fifty researchers, thirty clerks, just here in Delhi, and there are many others in Ahmedabad". Swaminthan is uncle to Indian writer Ramachandra Guha and gets a dedicated chapter in Guha's book "An anthropologist among Marxists'. Refuting a characterization of Gandhi by Guha, Swaminthan wrote to him that "he (Gandhi) taught us (as Jesus taught the Jews) that love is light and only love can overcome the dark evil, hate". Familial relationship blinds Guha to compare Swaminathan's efforts to that of Engels's and Boswell's.

Pyarelal Nayar's voluminous memoirs are sheer hagiography says Mehta. Pyarelal, who had stopped using his last name, tells Mehta that he intends to suppress Gandhi's views on Israel. Amongst the many controversial quotes of Gandhi one of the most notorious was his suggestion that Jews should commit mass suicide to appeal to Hitler's better senses. A perennial parlor game is to ask if Gandhi could've succeeded against a Hitler or a Stalin. He would not have and he never grasped the nature of their evil. Mehta wonders at the hagiographic instinct of Indians and concludes that it is possibly rooted in the Hindu culture in which "preserving of data are still something of a novelty" having "in the past traditionally neglected history in favor of speculation".

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, called Rajaji, was hailed by Gandhi as his conscience keeper. Rajaji was an aging nonagenarian, a year away from his death, when Mehta met him in a South Indian city. Rajaji, for those who know his long and checkered career, had a reputation for being an acerbic wit. Rajaji's daughter had married Gandhi's son thus making them in-laws. Asked about Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments Rajaji was blunt that Gandhi was "over-sexed". He also remarked dismissively that Gandhi's secretaries "did not share in his intellectual life" as he did. He also added that those who went around still propagating Gandhi's ideas were "mostly cranks".

Rajaji's observation is spot on when one reads about Gulzarilal Nanda who takes to astrology when he was marginalized from politics. V.S. Naipaul made withering dismissive remarks on Vinobha Bhave who earned a halo in India for making large landowners donate lands for the poor. Mehta concedes that of the nearly "4 million acres" that Vinobha Bhave got most were practically arid wastelands. Vinobha Bhave was no intellectual and never made any conscious effort to become one.

Many who read Mehta's book do not realize that Mehta wrote this as a three part essay in New Yorker in 1976 and as such it was meant for an American reader, primarily, written in the American journalistic tradition that take a theme, approaches it from the periphery, zooms in on it in the central part and then zooms out again. Likewise Mehta, after journeying through the memories of an unnamed apostle and the chroniclers of Gandhi, turns to brief biographical sketches in lengthy chapters with almost no new information. The biographical chapters have been written mostly sourced from other biographies. That said one has to give some credit to Mehta for fleshing out a succinct narrative for not just an American reader but for any Indian reader even today who does not have the patience to plow through other voluminous biographies of the Mahatma.

Indians rarely give credit to Gandhi's western influences and Gandhi himself actively ridiculed Western civilization while cheerfully borrowing from Thoreau, John Ruskin and most importantly from Tolstoy. Gandhi, Mehta sharply observes, loved not the nuanced Tolstoy of 'War and Peace' but the Tolstoy who turned a cranky old man of later years. Gandhi read 'Kingdom of God is within you' and imbibed the philosophy eagerly and obsessively. He had never read the major works of Tolstoy, unlike, perhaps Nehru.

Mehta touches, in the passing, Gandhi's genius for drawing in every section of people into the protests, especially women. Gandhi's genius and artistry was in devising protests unique to each situation and being extremely adaptive to quickly changing political settings. Only those readers who have had such an idea of Gandhi from previous readings could recognize those fleeting moments in Mehta's narration.

The limits of Gandhi's genius are evident from the fact that nearly nothing of what can be called Gandhian idea has survived today and were too promptly discarded in free India as fads. Referring to Gandhi's ideas on economics his most prominent financial backer, G.D. Birla, said those were nothing more than 'hallucinations'.

To Gandhi political emancipation ranked way below personal emancipation of India's millions who were mired in poverty and lived a subhuman existence. Nothing depressed Gandhi as much as the unsanitary habits of Indians. Time and again he would tell ashramites that the toilet should be so clean that one would not mind eating there. Mehta writes glowingly of Gandhi's 'Constructive Programme'.

The Constructive Programme, Mehta says, was to help the impoverished millions to live a life of self-sufficiency and with dignity. To that end Gandhi preached simple life that did not demand anything beyond bare essentials and any superfluity was to be eradicated from life. That, in Nehru's views, extolled poverty and extinguished any lofty ambitions to reach beyond the station of life. Both views have their merits, the latter more so. Wherever Gandhi preached abrogation of property many women donated their jewelry but once Gandhi moved on the people relapsed into whatever they were before Gandhi touched their lives. Jamnalal Bajaj's wife complained to Mehta that Muslims and Harijans were unclean and that she could not eat what they cooked. She used to eat food cooked by them in Gandhi's ashram.

Writing closely after Nirmal Bose and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre Mehta went to great lengths, unlike the previous authors, to interview the women who partook in Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments.

Manu and Abha Gandhi were Gandhi's great-grand-nieces. Abha was married to Kanu Gandhi, Gandhi's grand-nephew. It appears that both Manu and Abha accompanied Gandhi during his tour in riot torn Naokhali. At Naokhali both teenage girls slept with Gandhi. Mehta specifically asks, as any good journalist should, Abha if she was naked. Abha replied that Gandhi requested her to remove her clothes but she still kept on her petticoat and blouse.

Sushila Nayar, sister of Pyarelal Nayar, was another famous participant in the experiments. Sushila, after an education in Johns Hopkins, headed the ministry of health in Nehru's cabinet. Though she did espouse Gandhi's ideas on celibacy as health minister she, in later years, popularized family planning and the use contraceptive device, 'the loop'. A Time magazine article in the 60s pays her a tribute for doing that in a socially conservative country like India. Sushila is blunt to Mehta that the excuse of 'Brahmacharya experiments' was invented by Gandhi after controversies arose.

Mehta goes to Austria in search of Madeleine Slade whom Gandhi had christened 'Mirabhai'. Mirabhai who had rediscovered her love of Beethoven bluntly said she did not want to talk about Gandhi. Raihana Tyabji, daughter of Abbas Tyabji (his daughter is the mother of historian Irfan Habib) who also shared the bed with Gandhi comes across, despite her aristocratic upbringing and learning, as a cranky sexpot.

All of these women came to Gandhi as broken or ignorant nubile teenagers and were swept in his aura. The women inmates of the ashram frequently bickered on who becomes Gandhi's favorite one. Mirabhai and Sushila literally become hysterical when Gandhi banishes them off and on. Gandhi's attempt to curb a simple natural impulse led him down a shameful road of deceit that remains a blot on his name.

K. Swaminathan tells Mehta that Gandhi "handed over the country to Nehru, who was an aristocrat, who had never lived in a village, who knew nothing about farming, so that today Gandhian ideas are completely forgotten by our government and society at large. Gandhi felt that ninety percent of our people didn't need to be governed. The only people who needed to be governed were the top five percent, made up of the avaricious, the hoarders....the rest were fit to manage their own affairs in the villages because they were godly men and women, the custodians of ancient Indian wisdom, of India's morality and religion".

That is arrant nonsense. Gandhi, too, never really lived in the villages and knew next to nothing on many things he so cheerfully pontificated upon. Gandhi's reading was sparse, whether it was on Hindu scriptures or anything else. Gandhi made up stuff as he went along from his ideas on medicine to diet to practically everything. This idyllic and utopian view of villages and villagers was in truth completely divorced from reality. This is typical Gandhian romanticization of a luddite lifestyle. Villages were cesspools of oppressive casteism and misogyny and the native farming methods, just to pick one, was backward. It is interesting to see how Nehru figures alternatively in the quotes of these apostles.

The greatest battles that Gandhi fought were Hindu-Muslim unity and the eradication of Hinduism's most ancient and most durable evil, untouchability. The blood and gore of partition showed that Hindu-Muslim unity will never be a settled question but an endeavor that required constant dedication. Likewise Gandhi's epic fast in 1931 that made upper caste Hindus to throw open temples to the lower caste who were hitherto prevented from entering was a turning point but not an enduring victory.

In 1915 Gandhi admitted Dudabhai Malji Dafda, called Duda, to his ashram. Duda belonged to the Dhed caste, dealers of animal carcasses and hides. Donors to the ashram stopped their donations and ashram inmates revolted. Gandhi did not yield. Mehta traces his daughter Lakshmi in Ahmedabad. Lakshmi was married to a Brahmin by Gandhi. In 1976 Lakshmi tells Mehta, "people here hold it against my children that their mother was born a Harijan". This is the reality.

Gandhi and Gandhians did not grasp governance or how a nation state interacts with its citizenry and could reorder social structures. This was alien to Indian tradition unlike England where such interactions sowed the seeds for something like Magna Carta. Nehru acutely grasped this difference in one of his writings on history.

Coming to the close of the book I wondered if Mehta should've included some Civil Rights leaders in America since they were as much Gandhi's apostles who, against an opponent much like the Colonial Raj, used Gandhian ideas. Beyond just non-violence Martin Luther King sent his confidant Bayard Rustin, as preparation for the March on Washington, to learn how crowds were controlled in Gandhi's rallies.

Nehru had clearly rejected Gandhi's ideas on economy and government directly to the Mahatma himself. Though Nehru is often vilified for walking away from Gandhi's shadow literally no one else, other than those Rajaji called cranks, were content to remain in that shadow or put to practice Gandhi's outlandish ideas.

Any discerning reader would consider the book a failure with sparse flashes of brilliance. A reader daunted by tomes could use the book to get a glimpse of who Gandhi was and progress to better biographies. Sadly we still have to rely on biographies or memoirs written by Louis Fischer, William Shirer or Joseph Lelyveld for readable versions. Ved Mehta is no historian or a biographer, much less an academic one, and it shows. I have access to archives of New Yorker and was able to locate the three issues in which the articles appeared in 1976. It is surreal to see a biographical article of Gandhi spread over many pages with opposing pages featuring ads for liquor and gambling.

The book is replete with very vivid descriptions of people, their faces, the dresses and the scenery. It'd not be surprising if one did not know that Ved Mehta is blind. Mehta lost his eyesight since age four. There have been controversies over how Mehta, in a way that suggests intentional over-compensating, gives vivid imagery despite his blindness. Publishers have never stated that Mehta was blind and this was seen as collusion to help fool the reader to believe what Mehta described. In extensive interviews in recent times Mehta has addressed this. He travels alone and has never used a cane that blind people use habitually. When he chose to leave for US to study, since India at that time would've been unsuitable for a blind school child, Jawaharlal Nehru personally gave a send off.

Men like Gandhi, just like a Buddha or a Christ, do not have a magic wand to change humanity forever but they leave humanity better than it was before they happened. While India may not have defeated inter-religious strife or caste oppression but it has certainly tamed them, largely and whenever it falls short the shadow of Gandhi shames their conscience. Unfortunately Mehta completely fails in leading a reader to appreciating Gandhi.

Mehta offers an expectant mea culpa in the foreword itself when he quotes Nehru, Gandhi's finest apostle and a fine student of history, to say that "no man can write a real life of Gandhi, unless he is as big as Gandhi". "Many pictures rise in my mind", wrote Nehru, "whose eyes were often full of laughter and yet were pools of infinite sadness. But the picture that is dominant and most significant is as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, regardless of consequence".


Interesting interviews and articles on Ved Mehta

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