Mahatma Gandhi wrote to convey, not to impress
His words did not have the literary flourish of either Churchill or Nehru because they were deliberately designed to be effective
As we mark 150 years of his birth, Gandhi’s transcribed word, whether written by him or taken down as he spoke, acquires a new significance. ‘My life is my message’, he famously said suggesting that he should be judged by what he has done rather than by what he has said. But we should demur both because of the great power of the content of his word and, equally, for its great literary worth. Gandhi wrote with seriousness as to the content, diction, grammar, spelling (of course), and style. The result was writing of high quality. A compilation of his writings must note that. It is difficult to single out a Gandhi statement as being his most effective or powerful or memorable. As with St Francis of Assisi, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Ruskin, the syntax and structure of Gandhi’s written, or transcribed words are influential rather than memorable, impactful rather than quotable.
It is difficult to find a passage from Gandhi which like Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, or Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech gets glued on to our memories like a cerebral fresco-secco. His words are rather more like the chunam lime plaster of old Madras, made of the calcined shells of experience and then after being baked in the kiln of thought are rubbed by the closed fist of instinct into the finest paste for a clear, mirror-like surface of the illumined text. The lack of what may be called word-power, word-voltage or word-art makes Gandhi’s literary style frugal rather than prodigal, sparing rather than demonstrative, prudent rather than indulgent. Nourishing rather than lavish, it seeks to convey rather than impress.
Understatement with Gandhi is not a device, it is his bani. Non-exaggeration in words is a branch of the tree of his non-violence. To be chronological, Gandhi’s life with words started from the incident at school in Rajkot when during an educational inspector’s visit his teacher encouraged him through signs to correct a word – ‘kettle’ – that he had misspelt, and he refused. It continued to count to the last word he uttered – ‘Rama’. Then comes the celebrated statement of confession to his father. Mohan was fifteen when he “stole” a bit of gold from his brother’s amulet to clear debt the same brother had run into. The gold was sold, and the debt cleared but Mohan, troubled by his guilt, wrote out a confession and presented it to his father who was seriously ill and in bed. “I wrote it on a slip of paper,” he says in his autobiography “and handed it to him myself. He read it through, and pearl drops trickled down his cheeks, wetting the paper. For a moment he closed his eyes in thought and then tore up the note”. I have wondered : Had that slip, its torn-up bits, survived, gone into a family box of such things, forgotten all about, then discovered decades later, by which time Moniya as he was called as a child had become Mahatma, then kept by doting amanuenses, then forgotten for some more decades, re-discovered in the post-Attenborough world by grasping fingers and sent to auctioneers in London, what a price they would have fetched! But such is the alchemy of the man that the money would have turned, figuratively, to ash in the recipient’s hands. Ashes?
Why? Because Gandhi’s words are public property. Not to be framed and worshipped but studied and reflected deeply on. I say this for the reason that Gandhi’s word, written or spoken, had in it a strong content and a distinct style. His written word may be said to be his bani, his very own in-house signature style. Gandhi’s Gujarati writing is his natural ‘field’. He is not only using words there that are his for the asking but using them to differential effect, choosing one over the other, now descriptive, now interpretative, with deliberation and – delectation.
His style has this characteristic: a physical, factual, bare-bones description is followed by a reflection. The first autobiographical work of his, Satyagraha in South Africa, (first edition, 1928) which pre-dates his autobiography marginally (first edition, 1929), was written in Gujarati. It’s very good English rendering by Valji Desai was gone over by Gandhi, making it, as it were, his. But the original is ‘something else’. It is not just in his bani, but is his bani, pure and simple. I will share but one example, that which describes a turning point in Gandhi’s life, transforming him from a barrister no one noticed to a leader none could ignore.
The ‘train incident’ as it is called, in Pietermaritzburg, has been vividly portrayed by biographers, illustrators, filmmakers. Its dramatic core has been mined to the full, overmined. But the protagonist himself devotes no more than half a dozen almost incidental lines to the episode’s factual re-telling. In a chapter in his autobiography (written as you know, originally by him in Gujarati) that is called Pretoria Jatan, or On The Way To Pretoria, he says matter-of-factly that after he refused to leave his first class compartment, the disapproving railway official got a constable to move him. Sipai avyo. Tene hath pakadyo ne mane dhakko marine niche utaryo. Mahadev Desai has rendered that, accurately, as “The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out.” That is about all there is, in Gandhi’s words, of the actual ‘assault’. No drama, not to talk of melodrama. No tossing out, pitching out, hurling out, throwing out, tumbling down, no abusive words flung at him, no stoic silence in return described. Nothing of any hurt sustained, either or attire dirtied, torn. No description of trauma, shock, rage. No ‘hu-ha’. Just those two austere lines. Typical Gandhi. Factual as factual can be. Actual as actual can be. But there is art. Unintended again, perhaps, but there.
I cannot but point to the three yo-s in it. Avyo Pakadyo Utaryo With another o between them, exactly as in the sequence of happenings – dhakko. That nine-word line with its emphatic yo ending words gives in Gujarati Marconigram the entire episode, the experience, the outrage which not only saw a lawyer fall down and a leader rise in his place but road-signed the commencement of global de-colonisation itself. Truth does not need dramatisation. It only needs narration. Truthful narration. A banyan grows from but one seed. Part of a simple literary style’s attributes has to do with the accessibility of its vocabulary.
Gandhi’s Gujarati leaned towards the language of daily speech, inclusively, rather than that of the library, exclusively. Opening his South African memoir at random, on page 172, I find the following words of what may be called Hindustani (Persian, Arabic or Urdu admixed) origin: shahar, khabar, jang, lalach, nuqsan, nasib, marhum, bahosh, bahadur, salah, qaum, darya. He could have, instead of these, used nagar, samachar, yuddha, lobha, nashta, svargiya, sachetan, sahasi, mantrana, samaj, samudra. The point is that his style of vocabulary was not ‘extreme this or that’, not ‘one way or the other’.
It was as he was, in a contemporary phrase – inclusive, instinctively inclusive. He could move from one register to another depending on his instinct to pick the most effective, the simplest, the most natural conveyance. He was no pedant; he was, simply, Indian. Gandhi also uses, to achieve his purpose, a technique that startles. This may be called as a technique of messaging, a precursor to the modern tweet. This is his genius for coining names for journals, institutions, movements, agitations. They are all brilliant passwords. Take, for instance, his description of the Great Salt March as an occasion for Right to put Might in its place.
Right against Might, as a three-worded gentle inversion of the classical ‘Might is Right’, has the rhyme retained, with the message turned on its head. Writing for an article or drafting a speech saw Gandhi’s drafting abilities reach the acme of his style. His speeches at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931 show him at his best. The one towards the end, when he announced the talks’ failure is a masterpiece of his bani. It has the courtesy, it has strength. It has modesty, it has self-respect. It should be read by all who value the integrity of expression, of form and content. It was written in the wee hours of the morning after no more than a couple of hours of sleep. The revisions in it were minimal. Gandhi’s bani may be described as classical in the sense of being imbibed, assimilated, absorbed from old tradition, unsparingly adherent to the given matrix, the result of lessons, both pedagogically received and self-taught, learned through ardor and effort, not ‘picked up’.
Selfdenyingly conservative in form, it is audaciously original in content. It may also be described as modest in the sense of being free of all opacity, having no sententiousness, avoiding of hyperbole, containing zero rhetoric or ornamentation. It is clear in the sense of being direct, using, invariably, the first person singular is propositional, even when propounding a theory, moderate in the employment of quotations, economical if also telling and educative in the use of legal and Latin phrases. It is also altogether masterful by packing large messages, deep thoughts, into few words, appealing to the reader’s veracity, not vanity, stressing his own vulnerabilities, claiming no infallibility, stating his intention to proceed with or without the reader by his side. Gandhi spoke or wrote because he needed to. He wrote because the writing was part of the activities that grew around his convictions. Which is why Tolstoy, Rolland, and Tagore were for him kith, rather than kin. His words, like those from the New Testament, ring true for they hold the reader’s or listener’s attention. His instinct grew into a style. In his last year or two when age and a deepening depression about fellow Indian’s actions grew upon him, he strayed from his ‘classical’ style to an untypical mode- rumination.
For the most part however of his articulated life, that is, from when he started writing on public causes in South Africa till about the end of 1946, he became the creator, albeit unconsciously so, of an M K Gandhi style of choosing words when speaking or writing. Here truth demands, Gandhi’s truth demands, that we note something that causes not a little pain. Gandhi uses in his Gujarati, for the native African, the term Habshi. And in his English writings, Kaffir. Writing in Indian Opinion on April 1905, on the Zulu Rebellion, for instance, he says “The Kaffirs in Natal rose against the poll-tax”. And, “Though the 12 Kaffirs were put to death, the rebellion, instead of being quelled gathered strength…” These words – Habshi, Kaffir (and Negro, which is used in English translations of Gandhi’s Gujarati) cannot but strike the modern reader as being what they are –jarring. But Nelson Mandela, writing for an ICCR volume on Gandhi’s 125th birthday, said something very important: “All in all, Gandhi must be judged in the context of the time and the circumstances”. And while quoting Gandhi, Mandela consciously and with due respect to today’s time and context, substitutes Gandhi’s ‘Kaffirs’ by ‘native Africans’. Mandela’s wisdom is a help but not a complete answer to our discomfiture with the otherwise far-sighted Gandhi’s un-farsighted self-shackling to derogatory descriptions of the African people. What is wholly unacceptable, however, is the tendentious and propagandist use of this nomenclature by Gandhi-skeptics to depict him as being prejudiced, racially, against native Africans. Gandhi’s literary corpus for all its legal honing is formidable for a reason that he describes best in a letter he wrote to his “conscience-keeper”, C Rajagopalachari. “If you act merely”, Gandhi wrote, “as an advocate no matter how brilliantly but without conviction, the battle will be lost.” And then gave a Gandhi clincher “I write not a line”, he said in the same letter, “without deep conviction”.
Published: 28 Sep 2019, 3:39 PM