Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Autobiography - My Story of My Experiments with Truth - M.K. Gandhi

I read the book many years ago, almost twenty years if I am not wrong, borrowed from Vardha. When I saw the book on Indialog's list I instantly asked them to send me a copy and at the first instance started reading it. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's autobiography gives a glimpse into the making of the man, his beliefs and his convictions, his experiments and his sacrifices. It is told in his voice, which is humble and full of wonder, curious and even self deprecating at times. The biggest events, his greatest triumphs are downplayed in a humble manner and he focuses more on his thought process and his actions as he searches for truth.
Indialog Publications, Rs. 150, 312 p

Born in Porbandar in Kathiawar, Mohandas was fourth among his father Karamchand Gandhi's progeny, having an older sister and two older brothers. His father Karamchand Gandhi was a Prime Minister at the Rajkot court and they did have a decent living. Mohandas was married off in a child marriage to Kasturba when they were 13 and 14 respectively. His childhood dalliances with smoking and meat eating, his Muslim friend who coaxed him into those habits, his mild straying from the path of truth and conviction that he chose later are well described. But then came his father's ill health, his own coming of age, the discovery of marital pleasures and his father's untimely death which changed his thinking. Upon taking the advice of his father's friend Gandhi left to England to be a barrister in law and it was here that the painfully shy young man started blossoming a bit.

His struggle with overcoming his shyness and his steadfastness in keeping the vow he made to his mother - to remain vegetarian, to not drink alcohol and to keep away from women - were tested, and led him into some awkward situations. But from these situations grew Gandhi. He joined a vegetarian club (where he attempted to speak but sat down before uttering a word - something he'd do many times in his early life), got himself fitted with English clothes, enrolled in French classes and even dancing classes - all so he would be accepted. After finishing his graduation he returned home when he found that his mother had died. Gandhi tried to practice law but could not, neither in Kathiwar nor Bombay, again due to his great shyness to speak and it was then that he got an opportunity to go to South Africa.

Nothing in Gandhi's life until then had indicated that he was destined for greatness. But in his first train journey in South Africa in 1893, Gandhi faced the severe oppression that Indians and other colored people were subject to. He was thrown out of the train at Pietermatizburg despite carrying a first class ticket. Adamant, he shivered in the cold all night, refusing to pick his bags that were thrown on the platform along with him and travelled first class the next day. Frail and fragile, shy and silent, but he was resilient and tough and never suffered injustice if he could help it. That incident changed him. He organised meetings of Indians and empowered them to ask for social justice. While at this he gained both the love and affection of the Indians and the British and even helped the British army in two wars with ambulance services just to prove to them that Indians were a courageous lot too. Gandhi had grown into a popular figure known for his fairness and his persistence, despite his mild mannered ways. He was seen as a man who would not give up. Gandhi started the Natal Indian Congress and opposed the bill that denied Indians and others a right to vote.

He got his family to South Africa and continued his work. Inspired by the works of Tolstoy and Ruskin, Gandhi started living a life of minimalism and started experimenting with his food, practices, medicines and lifestyle. He began the Tolstoy farm, used homeopathy and hydropathy to treat illnesses, had a system of taking baths, avoided milk and dairy products, subsisted on fruit and nuts. He believed in home education for his children and in offering his services, including scavenging services, for his guests. To show the importance of hygiene he would clean latrines by himself and slowly grew into an institution where he would stick by the truth and practice it in word and deed. His taking on the brahmacharya and his feelings of not being pure when thoughts of sex entered his mind sub consciously were of great worry and distress to him and he would purify himself with fasts. Gandhi experimented not only on his own body but was severe on his family and made them practice all that he believed, denying them medicines even when doctors recommended them, many times letting them lie on the deathbed almost. But they survived and increased his faith in his methods. Was he adamant - yes.

It was in South Africa that he fought for the rights of Indians. It was there that he and his small gang of people  on Tolstoy farm thought of the word satyagraha - as a means of expressing themselves non violently. Ahimsa to him was the way to reach love and salvation. In 1915 he returned to India, and was part of the Congress where he mingled with great leaders  such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lokmanya Tilak, Gokhale. Taking up the cause of the indigo farmers in Champaran in Bihar and in Kheda later on in 1918 gave an indication of things to come, just as he got his ideas of non-violent struggle adopted and accepted by the Congress. He led the Indian National Congress in 1920 and gave it a broad vision of erasing poverty, fighting for women's rights, religious amity, ending untouchability and of course freedom for India. The Dandi march of 1930 where he defied the salt tax and the Quit India movement of 1942 which earned him a time in jail were significant turns in India's struggle.

Gandhi had a great affinity for the Tamil and Telugu people with whom he worked in South Africa. From there he grew in stature, experimenting with himself on the side, with ahimsa and truth on the other, as he championed the cause of India's freedom with the British with whom he served in the War. His own life became minimalistic in terms of food, clothing and shelter, and he barely wore enough to cover himself. He started travelling in third class. His experiments with the charkha and khadi to promote self sustenance, as editor of the news magazine bring out the man behind the Gandhi we know and the fears and doubts he faced while making his own choices.

If there is one thing that comes across it is the power of being steadfast in the face of fear and doubt. An extremely shy man, Gandhi had nothing but the power of convictions that he drew from his mother, religious books and the books by Tolstoy and Ruskin. Once he found a way where violence can be replaced by ahimsa or non-violence and where the unceasing quest for truth will manifest in the right outcome, Gandhi stuck to his guns in all spheres of his life. He himself confesses that he is unreasonable but such ideas can only be implemented by a mad faith. If his people or followers moved away from the vow of ahimsa, Gandhi would fast and that act would bring the followers to tears and back on track again. His convictions however cost his family because he could never give them the education that he had the access to. Many of his thoughts and actions were born out of love and common sense, fairness and an understanding of life.

Another thing that strikes one is the commitment to a cause he has started. Without a second thought to his future, his career or his family, Gandhi would embark on long campaigns upon the mere request of the people. These campaigns would take years be it in South Africa or in Champaran and he would stay until the issue was resolved to satisfaction. He raised funds to finance these campaigns as he had a loyal band of friends in Mumbai who supported him generously. Gandhi always chose the opposite of what we practice today - he gave freely without asking for anything, sacrificed something to get something each time, always took a fair view of every situation and gave both parties something to take home, communicated articulately and voluminously, never tired of helping the poor and standing up for injustice. His views on women empowerment and the caste system are well known. In many ways his is a life that not everyone can live, and though a part of it had been thrust on him, Gandhi proved that by remaining committed to the truth, a fair outcome would emerge from any situation. However not many global leaders today who pay lip service to Gandhi have the conviction nor maturity to achieve what he did. It may not be far from the truth to say that we do not have anyone who remotely even comes close to practising a fraction of the legacy he left behind.

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