Economy of words and writing

LESS-KNOWN... AND MUCH-REPRODUCED: A sketch by Feliks Topolski of Gandhi writing with concentration as an attentive Pyarelal peers at the evolving text. The artist gave the sketch to Devadas Gandhi who published it in "The Hindustan Times' Sketches of Gandhiji".  

Pencils, pens, reed-pens — these and other styluses, were his constant companions. He bought them, received them, lost them, made them.

And he used them, with telling effect, unceasingly. Right from when mis-spelt ‘kettle’ in his Rajkot school until a few hours before his death when he penned what has come to be known as his ‘Last Testament’.

If his working hand were to be imagined, it would be at the spinning wheel or, in the act of writing.

Writing in different scripts, mostly in ‘his own’ Gujarati, and then in Devanagari or in the Roman, with scripts like Bangla, Tamil and Nasta’liq Urdu, following experimentally.

One hundred volumes of his Collected Works contain some 17 million words in nearly 50,000 entries — letters, articles, telegrams, notes and transcribed speeches.

Using diverse pieces of paper including, famously, the backs of incoming envelopes, he had strong writing instruments and used strong inks. Dark blue was the colour of ink generally used as were, less frequently, green and a kind of purple. He advised his grandchildren to write in ink rather than in pencil, for the lead can be faint and rub off, which would be, he said, unfair to the reader.

Economy marked his writing — whether in terms of words used or writing materials. But Gandhi clearly liked the process of writing. And he became an adept in it.

There is a famous photograph, much reproduced, of him writing with his pen firmly-held.

No one quite knows that pen’s brand of make. A restraint unimaginable in our times has kept the manufacturer of that pen from unveiling its identity.

Then there is the less-known sketch by Feliks Topolski of Gandhi writing with concentration, as an attentive Pyarelal peers at the evolving text. The artist gave that sketch to my father, Devadas Gandhi who published it in The Hindustan Times’ Sketches of Gandhiji.

Satis Chandra Dasgupta, Gandhi’s foremost associate in Bengal, was a chemist. A pupil of Acharya P. C. Ray, Satisbabu was passionate about pens and indigenously produced inks. To him, Gandhi writes on 8 September, 1924:

I have written this with your pen. The first you sent me I prized very much and always kept it with me. In the gaol, I lent it to Indulal. It got spoiled. He sent it out for repairs. The friend whom he entrusted with the precious charge lost it. Krishnadas has therefore given me the one I am using…

Gandhi, like others, used the ‘pen’ as a metaphor as well. As for instance when Deshabandhu C.R. Das died, in 1925:


June 17, 1925

When the heart feels a deep cut, the pen refuses to move. I am too much in the centre of grief to be able to send much for the readers of Young India across the wire...

And, later the same month, to comment witheringly on a Raj pronouncement.

July 18, 1925

Lord Birkenhead’s pronouncement is deceptive in a double sense…I am an economist of speech, pen and thought. When I am ready, I shall speak freely…

Young India, 23-7-1925

The literal ‘pen’ having been lost, perhaps stolen, he took to using a reed-pen. A decade later, in a letter to his distinguished Andhra colleague, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, he describes the improvised stylus he is using at the time, and the circumstances surrounding the scene:

December 19 1934

Dear Dr. Pattabhi,

This is village paper. The ink is village-made, and the pen is made of village reed…

Yours sincerely,

M. K. Gandhi

Incidents of Gandhiji’s Life, p. 224

He writes to his Quaker friend, Agatha Harrison, the very next day.

Not that the fountain pen had become taboo; far from it. When Jawaharlal Nehru went to meet the Mahatma in the Noakhali region on 27 December 1946, he presented him a fountain pen. If the company which made that pen knew this, it might have been tempted to advertise the fact. ‘ We help Bapu write’! But perhaps it may not have, for the firm may have learnt of the Mahatma’s general attitude to advertisements and advertising.

In the afterglow of the Dandi Salt Satyagraha, in May 1931, M. Rebello & Son wrote to Gandhi for permission to use an image of his on roofing tiles. Gandhi replied on 31 May 1931, tersely:

I have your letter of 22nd instant. I have no copyright in my portraits but I am unable to give the consent you require.

If a manufacturing group wants to use the Gandhi image on an object of sale, it would do well to recall what Gandhi told Rebello & Son. And if that firm feels that no copyright law now binds it, let it ask itself if a copy-duty does not.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is Governor of West Bengal.)

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 3:57:19 PM |

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