Much like the country he helped usher into existence, Mohandas Gandhi was a complicated and contradictory individual. He gave his life to the freedom struggle, but he was constantly embroiled in family matters concerning his wife Kastur, their four sons and their extended kin and clan, with as much gusto and attention as he devoted to the larger public environment.
Scorching Love is a collection and translation of Gandhi’s letters to his youngest son, Devadas, with whom he had the most straightforwardly affectionate relationship of all his children. The title is taken from Gandhi’s own words, ‘ dahakatiprem’, excessive love that scorches its recipient. He addressed these words to a nephew, Jamnadas, in 1914, rather than to any of his own children.
But Devadas’s youngest son, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who had many of the letters in his keeping, correctly assessed the aptness of this description for Gandhi’s mode of relating to whatever the object of his love: a family member, an institution, a cause, a country — ‘scorching’. Such intensity characterised all of the Mahatma’s attachments, whether personal or political.
For readers interested in Gandhi, the book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading. Here is a collection of letters, true, but each letter is embedded in a carefully reconstructed moment of time, lovingly translated from the Gujarati, and contextualised to such an extent that no minute detail of the writer or addressee’s life is left out.
The vast historical surround from February 1919 to Gandhi’s death in January 1948, and the microcosm of the familial, biographical and psychological world of the Mahatma are woven together in a tapestry of mindboggling intricacy. No contemporary scholar other than Tridip Suhrud has the control over Gandhi the man, or Gujarati the language to match this bravura performance of historiography and translation, stretching over 500 pages of riveting prose and copious footnotes.
Suhrud’s skill is really that of a biographer, not merely of an archivist, editor, translator or exponent of Gandhi’s writings, though in fact he is all of these, rolled into one. And this skill is one he has learnt by sitting at the feet of Ashis Nandy, the clinical psychologist, at one time Suhrud’s doctoral supervisor and effectively his lifelong guru. The key is to be able to read the mind and fathom the intent of Gandhi, through and sometimes despite his words.
For what you see is not necessarily clear, unless properly read together with what is left unsaid, what might have been said differently to others, and the opposite of what has been said on any given occasion. The subtlest cadences of Gujarati have to be retained in English, no matter how challenging this task. Lacunae in the historical record can pose additional problems of deciphering meaning and producing critical analysis. Only Suhrud is undaunted. In fact, he does better and better with each new volume he publishes (he has brought out two dozen books by, about or connected to Gandhi thus far, a labour of love unmatched in modern scholarship).
But this book, in particular, is like a child nurtured equally by both its parents, Tridip Suhrud and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Gopal Gandhi is the youngest son of Devadas Gandhi (1900-56) and his wife Lakshmi, daughter of C. Rajagopalachari or Rajaji. Following his father who was a dedicated nationalist, a genuine Gandhian and the editor of The Hindustan Times, Gopal Gandhi has been a distinguished diplomat, administrator, scholar, writer and teacher. He and Suhrud spent more than a decade building this volume, in a felicitous jugalbandi that allowed them to harmonise their extraordinary gifts of family legacy, archival access, close reading, inspired interpretation, and linguistic dexterity in Gujarati, Hindi and English.
Scorching Love is the history of a family, a movement, a nation, but most of all it is a story about fathers and sons. Gandhi had rather a different relationship with his son Harilal — the love there was ‘scorching’ too, but more in the sense of ‘destructive’ than ‘intense’. We note, also, that some filial bonds are inherited like those of Gandhi and Devadas, but others are elective, like those of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The destinies of these individuals are tightly intertwined with one another, their ties of interpersonal love and loyalty strengthened by a common investment in the shared values of swaraj, swadeshi, satyagraha and ahimsa.
The tenderness and mutual concern between Gandhi and Devadas is apparent in all their correspondence, but nowhere is the love of father and son more evident than in their last exchange. It is January 1948 and the Mahatma, now 79 years old, wants to go on a fast unto death. Devadas demurs. On January 14, Gandhi writes, “Rama who has prompted me to go on fast will bid me give it up if He wants me to do so. In the mean time, you, I and all of us should realize and have faith that it is equally well whether Rama preserves my life or ends it.”
On January 29, Devadas notes, “I had one of those rarest of rare experiences, that of being alone with Bapu for a moment. (After some conversation), preparing to leave, I said: ‘Bapu, will you sleep now?’ No, there is no hurry. You may talk for some time longer if you like.” On the evening of January 30, Gandhi was shot dead.
Note from Gandhi
A mere 75 years after Independence, we find ourselves adrift in a wilderness of hatred, anomie and selfishness. Political leaders have no demonstrable connections of family life, whether with parents, siblings, spouses or children. They lack an intellectual or moral education, leave aside the amazing erudition and vision of the founders of the Indian republic. Can those who fail to cherish, understand or accept their own be relied upon to find the threads that will weave together a society as diverse and complex as India?
Far from Gandhi’s glowing, jostling, exuberant world of prem, love, we have fallen into a terrifying prison cell of ghrina, hate. No messages of care and concern illuminate this dark, arid and lonely place. If only Bapu could send us a letter.
Scorching Love: Letters from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to his son Devadas; Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Tridip Suhrud, Oxford University Press, ₹1,495.
The reviewer is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.