Looking beyond the traditional image of the Mahatma, The Oxford India Gandhi tells Gandhi’s story in his own words. Exclusive excerpts from the Introduction to the book compiled and edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, to be published in October.

I knew that he was an average student known better for his good nature than for brightness of mind or speech.

“Not another book of Gandhi sayings, please!” I can hear a bookstore browser say…

And the reaction would be right…

What (I asked myself) should my approach to a new selection from Gandhi be? There are many more qualified to do a thematic compilation of his great and transformational ideas…. If it is to give me satisfaction, I realized, mine will have to be a story—in his words. The story of his life as Gandhi might himself have narrated it, to a restless grandson. Narrated in time snatched between visitors, meetings, marches, mud packs, bursts of temper, explosions of love. A story as expressed in speeches and articles, but also in diary entries, letters and, most importantly, in conversations.

While I thought upon all this (as is my wont) I hallucinated. ‘Relate to me please, Bapu, the life within your Life. The actual thing about you, not just your discourses.’…

Marking out the story

After a pause, came this reply: ‘Very well, then, but on one clear understanding. You will honestly and sincerely try to read as much as you possibly can of what I have said or written, heavy and dull though it may seem. And as you do that I, on my part, will place in your hands a little pencil that will mark out for you the “story”, as you call it.’

The dream ended with that. And work began…

With millions the world over, I had read Gandhi on his father, Karamchand Gandhi, the karmayogi. I had carried a mental image of the brave and principled Diwan who ran the Durbar at Porbandar for twenty-seven years, at Rajkot for eight, and at Vankaner for one. But this time, the Gandhi ‘pencil’ marked out something I had missed in his description of ‘Kaba’ Gandhi’s human side: “Our household was turned upside down when my father had to attend the Durbar during a Governor’s visit. He never wore stockings or boots...then called ‘whole boots’. His general footwear was soft leather slippers. If I was a painter, I could paint my father’s disgust and the torture on his face as he put his legs into stockings and his feet into ill-fitting and uncomfortable boots. He had to do this.” I could now better understand MKG’s distaste for heavy footwear and passion for making, with his hands, simple sandals.

I had also missed young Mohan’s comment on the ways of his father’s workplace, the Durbar: “I knew then, and know better now, that much of my father’s time was taken up by mere intrigue...Everyone talked in whispers.” I could now see the origins of his utter openness whether in the spoken or written word, as well as in action…

His mother’s image, firmly etched in the lampblack of a widow’s piety, is that of an ascetic. I was, therefore, delighted to learn in Pyarelal’s work of Gandhi’s remark on being shown a 3000 years’ old pair of silver anklets by the museum curator at Taxila: “Just like what my mother used to wear!” I had not associated Putlibai with silver anklets. Of course she would have worn them as she, the Diwan’s wife, went in and out of the Rajkot palace. How good it felt to know of Putlibai’s ornaments! Putlibai combined a religiose nature with a restless particularism in household matters… There can be no doubt that something of the restless ‘manager’ in Gandhi came to him from his mother…

Early life

Like all those who have read biographies of MKG, I knew that he was an average student known better for his good nature than for brightness of mind or speech. But there was more to learn about the Diwan’s youngest son from his own writings. I did not really know he had “roamed about the villages in a bullock cart and been treated by villagers to jawar roti, curds, and eight anna pieces”. This, for me, was news. Did the future village-roamer’s collecting of donations for public causes begin here? Likewise, did his preoccupation, verging on an obsession, with hygiene begin in Porbandar as well? “I have seen in my childhood in Porbandar cows freely eating human faeces. The practice appeared to me to be revolting and the feeling has persisted to this day”…

Marriage and Kasturba occasion much retrospection in Gandhi’s writings. That is known. Wanting to go beyond Nandkunvar’s instructions, Mohan, at the age of sixteen, had acquired a booklet on the subject. (His acquiring of ‘primers’ and ‘self-instructors’ was to be a lifelong trait)…

Harilal, the eldest son was born when Kasturba and Mohandas were going on nineteen. Gandhi has described that parentage in terms that bear his unique stamp. Ramchandra Gandhi in his unusual Foreword to Tridip Suhrud’s translation (Orient Longman 2007) of C.B. Dalal’s Gujarati classic Harilal Gandhi: A Life says:

“On one point (Harilal’s being born to the teenage couple) Bapu seems to me to be theologically wrong. He thought that his own carnal nature as a youth was punished by God in the form of a bad son. Surely God must have more things to do than punish fathers with recalcitrant sons!”

Mohandas left for England when Harilal was not quite one year old. The three years between 1885 (when Kaba Gandhi died) and 1888 (when Mohandas sailed for England) occur in the autobiography sketchily. But the essential story of that intervening period can be pieced together from his comments that lie scattered elsewhere than his Autobiography. Dominating that story is Sheikh Mehtab a classmate of Mohandas’ elder brother Karsandas, later to become his own friend and an influential one at that. Gandhi says “Sheikh Mehtab...kept me under his thumb for more than ten years...” Of those ten the three years – 1885 to 1888 – saw that influence at its most intense…

Mohandas’ threefold ‘promise’ to his mother on the eve of his departure for London in 1888 is, again, well-known. Not so Mohandas’ description of the parting from Kasturba: “I kissed her and she said ‘Don’t go’. What followed I need not describe.” Our plaster-saint image of Mahatma Gandhi is the poorer without the Mohandas who could be reckless, tender, and passionate. It misses, too, the amazing transformation of that passion from its strong physical roots to its stronger emotional bole and, in time, to the even stronger canopy of spiritual energy.

I have found Mohandas the son, the young husband, the crusader for the rights of Indians in South Africa, the leader of India’s freedom struggle to be, most consistently, a man of intense passions…

If passion was at work in Mohandas, a rarer draw of another, contrary passion, also began to make itself felt very early. Gandhi describes his making the acquaintance in Bombay, at age twenty- three, of Raychandbhai. The Jaina jeweller-cum-ascetic had a passion to see God face to face. Gandhi says “no one else has ever made on me the impression that Raychandbhai did.” If Mehtab had dominatedthe baser instincts in Mohandas at age seventeen, Raychandbhai was impacting on him with the same force, six years on.

The essential passion in Mohandas changed and alternated but never lost its intensity. Passions, both temporal and spiritual, were at work in the young Mohandas. The former yielded quickly and decisively to the latter. Raychandbhai is but a cameo in Gandhi’s life, but one that is central to the story.

Understated style

An essentiality about Gandhi’s narrative style is its leanness. Gandhi’s understatements are far stronger than dramatization can be. The famous refusal to remove his pugree in Durban, so effectively portrayed in celluloid and in print, is described by Gandhi in but two short sentences:

“The magistrate kept staring at me and finally asked me to take off my turban. This I refused to do and left the court.”

The two words “refused” and “left” say it all.

The even more celebrated Pietermaritzburg episode has been the very soul of Gandhi theatre, screen, and legend. But how has the protagonist related it? The actual moment of eviction is captured in just three sentences:

“The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out.”

After the verbal resistance offered by Gandhi to the constable at Pietermaritzburg, he had been outdone physically although his spirit had remained unbowed. The next day, when at Pardekoph he was again manhandled in the stagecoach by the white man in charge of the vehicle, he refused to be physically defeated.

“I clung to the brass rails of the coachbox and was determined to keep my hold even at the risk of breaking my bones ... He let go my arm.”

Unlike at Pietermaritzburg Gandhi won at Pardekoph both spiritually and physically. He has said, “My active non-violence began from that date.” This “activeness” was also to include something else he describes doing — for the first time in his life – between Pietermaritzburg and Pardekoph. Which was to employ a civic amenity, the telegraph office, for sending out wires by way of public complaint and private communication against the abuse of power by authorities.

Gandhi’s ‘essential writing’ in the public domain can also be taken to have begun with this act. That style of writing matures, very quickly, from an articulation of complaints over a personal hurt to issues affecting the public. When, barely a year after Pietermaritzburg and Pardekoph, he is pushed off President Street in Pretoria by a guard, Gandhi refuses to proceed against the man saying: “I have made it a rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance.”

He is already a rule-maker and, by the law of opposites, becoming a rule-breaker. And a rule-amender as well. Describing the brutal attack on him by a group of white youths on a Durban street on 13 January 1897, Gandhi once again holds on to a railing as he is battered. “If I had lost hold of the bar, I would have struggled on, would perhaps have slapped or bitten the man and would have resisted till death”…

Wielder of authority

Barrister Gandhi was a casque of very contrary acids. An opponent of public wrongs and a defender of individual rights in Durban, he was quite a wielder of authority at home. Throwing his childhood friend Mehtab out of his Durban home with excellent reason, he very nearly did the same to Kasturba – with no real provocation. She had said to him, “Keep your house to yourself and let me go.” “I forgot myself. I caught her by the hand, dragged the helpless woman to the gate, which was just opposite the ladder, and proceeded to open it with the intention of pushing her out. The tears were running down her cheeks in torrents, and she cried: ‘Have you no sense of shame? Must you forget yourself? Where am I to go? I have no parents or relatives here to harbour me ...’ I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her.”

How do we know of this unacceptable behaviour of Gandhi towards his wife? Not from her, not from witnesses. From him. From the ‘essential’ Gandhi. In all these episodes we see Gandhi employing force, the personal force of his mind-actuated body. We see a Gandhi who is putting his hands to a use we do not quite associate with him. He is no different here from the rest of us who have used or do use force in one form or the other when outraged, disdained, or insubordinated by those over who we feel we have some authority. But it is significant that…it is Gandhi himself who has recorded the incidents as being part of those experiments which made up the sum total of his evolving personality.

And lest it be thought that Gandhi stood for the use of physical force in those or similar circumstances, it is important to see that he was constantly making new tools for his satyagrahic intervention, tools which used his sense of outrage but sublimated it into something other than rage, into a greater and more potent energy, a capacity to turn the arrow of hurt into himself, to bear the resultant pain and use that pain to transform people and circumstances…