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Updated: March 15, 2011 11:14 IST

The Gandhi pilgrimage

R. Devarajan
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The Hindu

Many biographies of Mahatma Gandhi have appeared, but the one under review is rather unique in its presentation of the story about the man and his mission. It is a pilgrimage to all the places hallowed by the presence of arguably the greatest political messiah of the 20th century.

The author, Graham Turner, a reputed newspaperman from Britain, has had the advantage of collaborating with two of Gandhiji's grandchildren — Rajmohan Gandhi in India and Ela Gandhi (daughter of Manilal Gandhi) in South Africa — in writing this book.

In the Preface, Turner says: “However much one reads about a great figure of history, it is not like being there, standing where he stood, walking where he walked, seeing something of what he saw, talking to some of the people who knew him. Then, in some small measure, you are given the chance to get a real sense of his life.” Indeed, he seems to have achieved what he set out to do.

As in the famous movie by Richard Attenborough, the book opens with the assassination of Gandhiji. Thereafter, it is a compact and chronological configuration of the life and times of the man who Martin Luther King once described “the greatest living Christian.”

Interesting facts

The language is so simple and the style so inviting that one will feel compelled to finish reading in one go. Some of the facts it mentions are interesting and may even be news to many. For example: he languished for as many as 2,238 days in prison in South Africa and India; he had worked for not less than 21 years for the emancipation of Indian immigrants in South Africa; and, by his own statement, “once walked 51 miles in a single day,” while establishing the Tolstoy Farm.

Personality

There are also references to some intriguing and unflattering incidents, which earned the wrath and strong disapproval of even the closest of Gandhiji's colleagues like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Rajaji. These episodes are delineated in detail probably because of the “one basic ground-rule” Rajmohan Gandhi had insisted upon, which is that there shall be “no hagiography — there should be no attempt to gloss over Gandhi's weaknesses and failings.”

In fact, an entire chapter (“An experiment with Brahmacharya”) is devoted to a discussion of this aspect of Gandhiji's character and personality. He considered it a wager on his will power. Indeed, he conducted those experiments with the disposition of a dispassionate scientist. Curiously, in the opinion of Ela Gandhi, it was “the stupidest thing that he ever did in his life.”

It was Gandhiji's firm and unflinching conviction that a national leader ought to reflect and symbolise the average citizen in lifestyle and living standards. Hence it was that he chose to dress like a peasant and adopt the simple habits of a villager. True to style, Sarojini Naidu commented, with tongue in cheek, that enabling the Mahatma to live in poverty proved quite expensive.

In India, not a day passes without Gandhiji being quoted in articles published in newspapers or in speeches delivered by leaders from different platforms. “He promised that he would speak from the grave… and he has certainly kept his promise,” says the author.

Turner concludes his book with this telling observation: “No, we have not heard the last of Gandhi, the man who gave so much, and took so little; who loved his country and all its people as no one else has; who lit up the whole world with his life and his ideas. His stature is undiminished. His inheritance will neither wither, nor fade away.”

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