Their letters give a glimpse of the struggle to keep alive the nationalist ideals in the face of frustrations
Here is an unusual book. People may have read a great deal about C. Rajagopalachari and much more about the Mahatma. But this book which largely contains letters exchanged between them promises to take the readers close enough to see the two baring their souls to each other, to listen to each other’s sighs and whispers, share each other’s hopes and anxieties about the country and the people, about the freedom to be won and the ways of winning it, and, in short, about the larger and smaller households they shared. CR, like the Mahatma, was a keen communicator, diligent, if not as prolific, writer of letters. And the letters show the man. If they unveil his love and devotion to the Mahatma, they no less reveal his independent spirit, his courage of conviction, or as the grandson-editor puts it, “a relationship between leader and follower that leaves both free to differ but not to part, free to berate but never to let down, free to persuade but never to dominate.” They not merely take us to an irresistible presence of history but also to fine affirmations of human values and sensibilities. None who can connect with these noble seductions will read them without feeling grateful for it.
Both Gandhiji and CR knew that freedom struggle was much more than a struggle to end the British rule. It was a struggle to understand freedom and a struggle to be worthy of it. That explains why there were so many dialogues and divorces among those who all wanted the British rule to end. The nationalist myth has it that the Mahatma was verily the Pied Piper whose tune could draw the whole nation behind him; but in reality it was a struggle to hammer out a course, find agreements and compromises and to keep alive the ideals in the face of contingencies and frustrations. The Mahatma knew it; so did CR. The letters they wrote to each other give a glimpse of it, as they also show why CR regarded Gandhi a Mahatma and Gandhi famously called CR his ‘conscience keeper’. He knew that CR was a true Gandhian but he was his own man.
The letters of CR throw up incidents, situations and persons — many familiar and some not so familiar — and the opinions of CR or the Mahatma on them. The Moplah Rebellion and its deleterious bearing on the crafting of Hindu-Muslim unity, the vicissitude of the Non-cooperation Movement, the Swarajist dissidence and the ways of handling it, Motilal Nehru, C. R. Das, Satyamurti, Swami Shraddhananda, Kelappan, Rabindranath Tagore, spinning at the Charka, temple-entry movement in Kerala, famine around Salem, the irritants from money-lenders, the Gandhi Ashram at Tiruchengodu, the Salt Satyagraha, and all figure as topics of discussion, quips and serious comments. Prison which frequently hosted the Mahatma and CR too provides the ambience for study and introspection. Some of his observations are interesting: “[Motilal Nehru’s] love for Bapu is great but his pride is strong”. “Don’t punish the nation for the sins of a few friends. Give them a fuller trial.” “I suppose every rule is observed best by the breach of the letter of it when an occasion demands it.” “I see that so many people are parodying you out of the habit of going on fast.” “I myself was feeling that I had grown cantankerous.” “As in armed conflict, so also in civil resistance, you must give up the general and apply yourself to the particular…” “It is not the salt but disobedience that you are manufacturing.” And so on.
The epistolary exchanges between the Mahatma and CR sometimes affectionately slide into family situations. Even before Devadas Gandhi became CR’s son-in-law the bond between the two was close. The Mahatma was ever concerned with the health of CR’s daughters. Sometimes the letters uncover the literary and philosophical inclinations of the writer, bringing in a comment or two on Kural, Sankara or Shakespeare. Then, suddenly the issue of their difference over Quit India surfaces. Neither is willing to yield to the other. “… keep back your consent — give me your love always,” writes CR. That indeed was never withheld.
CR’s letters to his grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, are full of affectionate concern for, and pride in his progress in education. He always wants to make sure that his grandson looks after his handwriting. “A clear nice legible handwriting is a great possession”, he writes. He advises him what to read in English literature, and sends boxful of books, some procured second-hand. When Gopu has to take the interview for IAS he advises him, “The ‘yoga’ of interviews is to be straight, free and easy, not caring for results, and carrying on as in private conversation.” Of course, offer a prayer to God before going to the interview.
The letters have been choreographed into a fine book. The editor of it has two strengths: one he is emotionally and genetically an insider, and second he has a fine mind of a historian which enable him to stand, provisionally, outside to evaluate the many relationships that they conjure up. The rich footnotes and perspicacious links he provides make these letters historically and emotionally cohesive. His Introduction to the volume is a fine piece of evaluation of the two stalwarts meeting, written in a style which occasionally harks back to Francis Bacon. Reading the letters strung together in the book one is reminded of the loss of a great tradition of letter-writing. But the pain is more than offset by the pleasure of savouring the fare on offer.