A writer considers the wisdom (or folly) of looking for truth in autobiographies, given the reactions to Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth and Fakir Mohan Senapati’s The Story of My Life.
I was just a few inches behind him. The bullets missed me by inches. Somebody in the crowd may have said, ‘Hey Ram’ or ‘Aiyo’. I don’t know. But I don’t think he said, ‘Hey Ram’.
V. Kalyanam, Gandhi’s personal secretary (The Hindu January 31, 2013)
In 1927 two autobiographies appeared: one was the first volume of Gandhi’s Atmakatha or Autobiography in Gujarati; the second one was by a relatively obscure (in the pan-Indian context) Odia writer, Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843-1918). As is well-known, Gandhi’s autobiography had first appeared in parts in the Gujarati journal, Navjivan before making its appearance in book form in 1927. What is not so well-known is that Fakir Mohan’s posthumously published autobiography, Atmajivancharita or The Story of My Life had already been excerpted in parts and serialised in different Odia journals before his son Mohini Mohan expurgated and published it in 1927. It is the first-ever Odia autobiography in the European sense of the term. The unexpurgated version has now been put together both in Odia and a wholly new English translation by the NBT. Many have expressed the view that Mahadev Desai’s English translation of Gandhi’s autobiography is not a happy one.
Gandhi’s autobiography begins with his admission that, initially reluctant, he agreed to write the story of his life at the behest of some of his nearest co-workers four or five years ago. Fakir Mohan uncannily begins in a similar vein “For the last four or five years, a few friends and some educated young men who are like my sons have been urging me to set down the story of my life. I find it hard to ignore their requests.” Both finally agree to go ahead with the task, but reluctantly and not without some self-doubt: Fakir Mohan about the lack of the necessary skill on his part, and also the absence of important events in his life. Gandhi’s reluctance is induced by a “God-fearing” friend. Fakir Mohan undertakes the task aware of the newness of the genre: “I am certain that this sacred motherland of ours will see many autobiographers in the near future; I am merely laying the foundation for them to build on.” I should perhaps mention here that Fakir Mohan also wrote one of the earliest Odia novels and the first Odia short story, and the statement above is an indication of the author’s self-consciousness about the pioneering role he was playing; the motherland in question being the then emergent modern linguistic state of Odisha or Utkal. Gandhi’ hesitation could well have sprung from his awareness that writing about oneself was foreign to the culture he was writing in.
Though both narratives begin with a deep sense of communal affiliation, whereas in the case of Fakir Mohan it stays that way all through, in the case of Gandhi, beginning with his sense of belonging to a Gujarati, Vaishnavite Bania community, his narrative quickly moves into an ever-expanding political and communal sphere, from the particular self to a transcendental self, so that he cannot be pinned down to any communal identity if looked at from the perspective of higher truth that he experiments with. Fakir Mohan begins and ends his story with his sense of belonging to the Odia community. Being an Odia, he wants the reader to see the history of Odisha through his eyes
Gandhi famously undertook the task simply because he “wanted to tell the story of [his] numerous experiments with truth.” He, therefore, relentlessly delves deep into his inner life and tries to reveal as much of it as he possibly could, through the description of real-life incidents in successive chapters, where the real events lose all significance for him, and even for the reader. In the case of Fakir Mohan, all details revolve around his own community. His narrative tells more about his historical circumstances, and lends little insight into his inner turmoil. For example, he writes about the maritime activity in the coastal town of Balasore, the setting up of one of the first secular Odia printing presses, the fight against Bengali hegemony, his family, but mostly his public life, including a narrative about how he was held hostage by the Bhuyan rebels, and how he escaped from captivity.
Gandhi forestalls his reader’s expectations of historical accounts of his tale by saying “my experiments in the political field are well-known,” and so “I should like to narrate my experiments in the spiritual field which are known only to myself.” His description of his involvement in active politics in South Africa or the Boer War is subservient to his “experiments with truth.”
I think the motivating factors in each case underline the differences in their methods and purpose. The Odia novelist often deploys novelistic techniques including the way he uses suspense, humour and irony. In fact, the two autobiographies represent two distinct ways of construction of the self; and have therefore influenced their subsequent reception. Whereas Gandhi’s work is almost like gospel truth, in spite of all the realistic details, specifying time, place and historical personalities, Fakir Mohan’s construction of his historical self is now considered by a few left-wing historians as highly dubious. Many of his claims, his detractors point out, are not borne out by the other life stories that have appeared. For example, it has been pointed out that since Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian by John Beames does not mention a word about Fakir Mohan, the latter must have lied about his friendship with the colonial administrator. Similarly, the section where Senapati describes the coded message that he had sent out when under seize by the Bhuyan rebels has been seen as pure fiction and a deliberate attempt on Senapati’s part to paint himself as a hero. This has led to the cynical joke among Odia readers about Senapati’s autobiography being his fifth novel.
My point simply is that, to use the absence of evidence in the narrative of a colonial administrator as evidence against the truth claims of a colonised subject, is itself a questionable enterprise. Added to that, not to question Beames’s version shows how we have internalized racist stereotype, that the native is an unreliable narrator. It is interesting to note how in several crucial sections in his celebrated novel, Fakir Mohan has questioned, and is even dismissive of, the representation of Indian history in major colonial historians such as Todd and Marshman. Even more ironically, in his autobiography Fakir Mohan talks about how many readers of his novel, Chha Mana Atha Guntha, when it was being serialised in the magazine, Utkal Sahitya (1899-1901) mistook its realistic details to be true and thronged the premises of the Cuttack High Court where the “court proceedings” were supposedly in progress. In the context of this strange reversal, one wonders whether Gandhi disapproved of Mulk Raj Anand’s attempts to write a novel because of his suspicion that novels tell lies about the world. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde celebrates the art of telling lies and laments “The Decay of Lying”.
Finally, what is it about Gandhi’s narrative and Beames’ that makes their truth claims unquestionable, and that of Fakir Mohan dubious? Is it because, through his life and work Gandhi has constructed a self by which the world is expected to judge him? Similarly, does Beame’s “professional” training as a historian make him immune to accusation of untruth? After all, it is the successfully constructed self outside the narrative that bears its own testimony and judges the scripted self.