What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? In many ways, this is a rhetorical question, for to most Indians the answer is obvious – ‘Mahatma’.
I was no different during my childhood and remember staring dumbfounded at my text book when I first realised that ‘Mahatma’, in fact, was not Gandhi’s actual name, but an appellation meant as a tribute to his unparalleled greatness.
In the years since, my understanding of Gandhi has revolved around this title, fluctuating between its blind endorsement and its outright rejection, wondering what exactly it is that makes Gandhi definitively human and, simultaneously, an unquestionable icon.
History books in India can be a dangerous place. The mundaneness with which they paint the past in broad strokes of black and white leaves little room for impressionable minds to appreciate the contingent greyness of life. Growing up as a kid, I found Mahatma Gandhi’s achievements plastered all over my books. While there was only a couple of paragraphs on Subhas Chandra Bose, a handful of lines on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a chapter (at best) on Jawaharlal Nehru, and forgettable, sporadic references to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Gandhi was more ubiquitous than a comma, subsuming the entire narrative of Indian Independence.
As a result, even before I had arrived at figures like B.R. Ambedkar and M.A. Jinnah, I began admiring Gandhi – the apostle of non-violence, satyagraha and civil disobedience. Representations in popular culture, from Richard Attenborough’s hagiographic portrait to Bollywood’s valorisation of the Mahatma in films like Lage Raho Munna Bhai, only served to perpetuate the idea that here was a man who, if not unmistakable, was at least irreproachable. A sublimated essence of everything that was good about the Indian spirit.
But as I progressed through my teenage and started to leaf through pages of tomes never recommended in my school syllabi, I came across revelations that were as startling as they were appalling which inverted my entire perception of Gandhi. In The South African Gandhi, written by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, I learnt that Gandhi was an unapologetic racist and a pro-British lawyer in South Africa, who had little more than disdain for black people.
Arundhati Roy’s scathing dissection of Gandhi in The Doctor and the Saint depicted the man as a hypocrite, who, notwithstanding his campaigns for the abolition of untouchability, believed in the occupational rigidity of the caste system. The polemics of journalist Christopher Hitchens threw fresh light on Gandhi’s repugnance for economic industrialisation, making the case that Gandhi was not a “friend of the poor [but] a friend of poverty”.
Away from the fine print of historical scholarship, the coffee house addas in my native Kolkata were peppered with sustained rebukes of Gandhi, whose machinations apparently cost Bose presidentship of the Indian National Congress. Then, to my greatest horror, were the accounts I found online, of Gandhi’s perverse experiments with Brahmacharya, during which he would lay naked with young girls (including his niece) as a way of testing the strengths of his sexual abstinence.
Convinced that Gandhi’s image had been whitewashed in the public domain on grounds of political correctness and convenience, I actively withdrew from using the term ‘Mahatma’ while referring to Gandhi in speech or in writing, as a symbolic protest against my systemic miseducation on Gandhi.
Upon entering my twenties, however, I decided to scrutinise my take on Gandhi once more, trawling through his own writings as well as ostensibly objective reflections on him by the likes of Ramachandra Guha and Pankaj Mishra.
I discovered that for all of Gandhi’s stubbornness and, at times, patronising attitude (especially towards Nehru and Bose), his was a political leadership that animated the anti-imperial struggle without equal. Gandhi may have committed many strategically perplexing moves, such as calling off the Non-Cooperation movement hastily in 1922, but he remained the unmovable anchor of a freedom fight that may not have emerged with its halo of moral legitimacy were it not for his personal tenacity.
The fact that Gandhi went on to inspire leaders across the world, from Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama, speaks volumes of the accessibility of his ideals- in a century of great revolutionaries and political thinkers, Gandhi was, by some distance, the most enduring.
Had it not been for Gandhi’s mediations between Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, two of the most important personalities in independent India’s first government, the country would have tottered, if not tumbled, in fulfilling its tryst with destiny.
Besides his political contributions, I also began to comprehend the horizon of Gandhi’s intellectual pursuits, how he had assembled within him a compendium of philosophies. Nestling in his mind were the exhortations of sacrifice pronounced in the Bhagavad Gita, the spirituality of Leo Tolstoy, the transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau, the duty-bound compass of Giuseppe Mazzini, to name but a few.
But what struck me far more than the eclectic nature of Gandhi’s intellectual appetite was his willingness to be challenged and questioned. A testament to this desire to be taken on and debated against is located in the trivia that both of Gandhi’s most recognisable honorifics – ‘Mahatma’ and ‘The Father of the Nation’ – were conferred upon him by two of his biggest philosophical and political critics, Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Bose, respectively.
Capable of being credited with oracular pronouncements like “be the change you wish to see in the world”, Gandhi was also not shy of uttering less exalted but equally sharp witticisms, as in the case of his reply to a British journalist who had asked him for his take on Western civilisation. Gandhi, for the record, had quipped: “I think it would be a good idea!”
Having moved from awe and admiration to despair and disgust in the preceding years, I have now settled on a more tenuous middle ground in my evaluation of Gandhi – a position that has complicated my understanding of him to the extent that I can respect him without revering him, appreciate the explanations behind his actions without necessarily accepting the justifications.
I have come to realise that there is no uniform lens through which to view Gandhi. He can be, at once, inspiring yet repellant, antiquated yet universal. No other Indian, to my mind, is as inherently paradoxical as Gandhi, which makes him a suitable surrogate for comprehending the contrasts that underpin India itself.
As the present political dispensation of the BJP, like many governments before it, tries to appropriate Gandhi as a totem for goodwill, I can only hope that India broadens its interpretative canvas to resist the blunt simplification of Gandhi by debating his legacy in every sphere, at every opportunity.
As a man who contained multitudes and was the locus of so much of the conflict shaping India, Gandhi deserves much more than the crude myth of greatness we have thrust upon him.
If there is one decisive truth that I have acquired through my ambivalent relationship with Gandhi, it is that he is someone who eludes binaries and classifications, who cannot be encompassed within the narrow confines of unadulterated adoration or unquestioning hatred. A figure, who, for better or worse, is no ‘Mahatma’, yet remains far beyond the realms of ordinary mortality.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty