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‘Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man’ review: A life of activism and service

“Outside the walls (of Porbandar), the sea was almost within stone’s throw.” For the boy who was born in a seaside town in Gujarat, travel would be in his destiny. Restless as Mercury is the story of the first 45 years of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life, from his childhood in Porbandar and education in London to his early career and growth as an activist, organiser and leader of a mass movement in South Africa. For anyone else, this itself would be the measure of a full and meaningful life. For Gandhi, who was sui generis, these were his formative years.

The special thing about the book is that it is in Gandhi’s own words. Put together by Gopalkrishna Gandhi from parts of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi and other writings, this bildungsroman of a volume is a valuable addition to Gandhi’s unforgettable autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The title comes from a phrase used by Gandhi’s elder sister Raliyat to describe her younger brother. “Moniya was as restless as mercury, could not sit still even for a little while,” she is quoted in Pyarelal’s biography of Gandhi.

Journey to South Africa

In keeping with Raliyatben’s words, this is a book about a life of action. Gandhi’s prose is simple and honest. “I was just a boy returned from England wanting to make some money,” he reflects about the first time he arrives in South Africa. It is 1893. He has come on a paid assignment as a lawyer. His client asks him to travel to Pretoria to meet the other party’s lawyer.

An incident at Pietermaritzburg begins his political engagement. Every Indian schoolchild knows the story of what happened in Pietermaritzburg, yet it is powerfully moving to read it again, every time. The smart young London-educated lawyer is asked to leave the first-class compartment that he has paid for — because he is brown. He refuses. He is thrown off the train. The experience changes his life, and in doing so, it changes the life of a nation. “I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty, I asked myself. Should I go back to India or should I go forward with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me?” Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Gandhi’s decision is “to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that date.”

Another life-defining phase in Gandhi’s life comes in 1899, when at the outbreak of the Boer War, he organises several hundred Indians into an ambulance corps. War correspondent Vere Stent’s vivid description of their work is quoted in a book by Enuga Reddy about India and the Boer War: “I saw the Indian mule-train move up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strange-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards, the grim duty of bearer corps began.”

It was hard, heartbreaking work; but Stent was struck by Gandhi’s calm leadership. “I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside — eating a regulation army biscuit. Every man in (General Redvers) Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, and had a kindly eye. He did one good... I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

Departure for India

The book is structured in six sections. The first recounts the story of Gandhi’s childhood and marriage; the next, student years in London. The third part recounts the years in South Africa, through two conflicts, with a brief interlude in India. The fourth section tells the story of one fateful year of struggle, 1909, spent between home and prison, when the great tool of non-violent resistance, satyagraha, was shaped. The fifth section is the story of Gandhi’s experiments with community living and the resumption of satyagraha. The final section, again, is the story of one fateful year — 1914 — a year of mass struggle, prison spells, and finally a settlement; followed by the departure for India, where a new future would await Mohandas Gandhi — and the title of Mahatma.

This is the story of a life of activism. It is filled with organising, persuading, debating, publishing, and community living. It is about the constant struggle between family responsibilities and public duty. It is a story of sacrifices and defeats, and some mistakes — but also about the feeling of victory. It is about building networks, mentoring friends, staying connected with fellow travellers, and retaining solidarity. It is about maintaining meticulous accounts — of transactions not only financial but also ethical; and in this way, building accountability to others and to oneself. In this 75th year of Indian independence, this account offers new inspiration.

Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph, ₹999.

The reviewer is in the IAS.


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