A moral compass called Gandhi

Another edition of Gandhi’s autobiography was released last week, and we excerpt its Introduction here, which re-examines the salience of the Mahatma’s writings in these fraught times

October 02, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Gandhi reading his correspondence at home after his release from prison in 1924.

Gandhi reading his correspondence at home after his release from prison in 1924.

Why should Mohandas K. Gandhi’s autobiography be published over and over again?

A publisher would say: ‘Because it sells.’

The bookseller: ‘Because it brings a kind of clean air to our shelves.’

A senior buyer: ‘Because my old copy of it is dog-eared and I want to own a fresh edition, printed on strong paper, with its text easy to read in clear, bold type and plenty of breathing space between the lines.’

Her college-going son: ‘So…because articles and speeches about him are, you know, B3—boring beyond belief. The guy, I can see, simply by looking at his pictures, is kind of, you know, different because he does not seem to care if his book sells or not, if it is read or not! He is, basically, cool! I want to read his own words one-on-one, straight from him to me, just to understand what makes him so different and, by the way, yes —to be able to question him on the weird stuff that is going on around us, driving us crazily to…to…suffocation and…death.’

His sister: ‘Because I noticed from my Mom’s old copy of the original book which has always been around, it has no blurb, no ‘Advance Praise’, no pictures of the man with other great people, or doing great things, just a simple story told simply… and as I could see when I turned a few brittle pages of it, told so honestly, not to project himself, of even justify himself… hiding nothing…’

A Gujarati expatriate in America: ‘Because I was blown by the fact that this amazing work in English was first published in 1927 and 1929 in Gujarati and priced at ₹1, selling 50,000 copies over five editions immediately thereafter and then after being serialized in newspapers continues, ninety-five years later, today, to be among the world’s bestselling books… The man starts his story by saying in its very first line that the Gandhis were originally grocers… His Bania shopkeeper genes would be pleased by that record… So, yes of course, new editions are only right…’

A young South African: ‘Because I want to read the life of the man whose real story started in my country but who just did not, could not, engage with my people — the African people — which is baffling and then went on to use the “K” word—you know what I mean — to describe Native South Africans when he should have known better and yet who has made my country’s founders —Luthuli, Mandela, Tutu — look up to him, receive their Nobel Peace Prizes acknowledging him, and draw inspiration from him….’

Gandhi as a satyagrahi in South Africa

Gandhi as a satyagrahi in South Africa

A British feminist: ‘Because I find his relationship with his wife very complex, I want to go back to his basic story as told by him to see how their lives unfolded into what seems like a partnership of great trust and reliance, moulding his attitude to the role of women in India’s struggle for freedom…’

A Dalit activist: ‘Because I want to get to know what it was about the man that made Babasaheb Ambedkar, despite his fundamental irreconcilable differences with Gandhi, and his opposition to hero-worship, refer to him at his discussions in London and then in Poona, as “Mahatmaji” and, despite his debilitating illness, rush on 30 January 1948 to Birla House in Delhi to offer his homage to the slain man and later walk behind the cortège till he could walk no further….’

These imagined comments form some of the reasons why Gandhi’s autobiography appearing yet again has a salience beyond its saleability. ‘Old’ readers re-reading it and first-time readers turning its pages for an inaugural reading will find it contains things they expected to find there as also many things which will surprise, in fact, startle them. For the following features of that text of austere richness:

The patent veracity of its self-descriptions.

The utter honesty of its self-evaluations.

The lucence of its introspections.

The frank admission of the author’s vulnerabilities.

The total absence of an intent to impress the reader, nowhere more telling than in the stark simplicity of its language.

Unusual and — to use a phrase in its current connotation — awesome as these five self-effacing features are in their ironically magnetic force, they are not enough to turn a book into a work of passionate power as this is. That accomplishment has to come from another dimension, one that exists outside the book. And that is the howling absence in our world of the very qualities that breathe so quietly, so gently, in this work. We find in this self-story what we miss around us and within us, in the stories of our times, our lives. It gives not just what it has but also that which we are so lacking in.

And that is also what makes the work ‘relevant’ — a much-used and worn-out word.

Each generation has and will continue to turn to it for more than the sense of fulfilment that comes from what is now called ‘a great read’.

Asoka’s Edicts, Marcus Aurelius, The New Testament , Jalaluddin Rumi, and George Orwell hold that power of transformative communication.

Orwell went on to pose a question in his astonishingly acute essay (‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Partisan Review , January 1949) that has struck many, namely, would Gandhi’s methods, his non-violence, his trust, work against dictators, against those whose methods are so contrary to standard human expectations of decency? Orwell asks and says: ‘…the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics? These and kindred questions need discussion, and need it urgently, in the few years left to us before somebody presses the button and the rockets begin to fly.’

The buttons are more varied and more deadly than when Orwell wrote those lines.

When Gandhi was killed, among the tributes that were made to him was one that has gone relatively unnoticed. It was from Mary B. Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women. She said, ‘As we mothers of the world stand in awesome fear of the roar of jet planes, the crash of the atom bomb, and the unknown horrors of germ warfare , we must turn our eyes to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.’ The emphases are mine, as is the fear behind it. But as is, too, the faith that the passion of the man whose life story this is has not been slain by the bullets that felled his body.

Gandhi’s autobiography and, indeed, his autobiographical observations made later in speeches and writings that can all be gleaned from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi are a moral compass for us to grab as, losing our way, we lurch in our befuddlement for the right turn, and miss that simple, trusty, and yet so elusive a guide to our survival on this planet.

Edited excerpts from the Introduction to An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth , by M.K. Gandhi, published by Aleph, October 1, 2021.

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