When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left South Africa for India, South Africa’s Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, declared: “The saint has left these shores, I hope forever.” That cryptic comment showed the astute strategist knew his man. When Smuts died in 1950, it was found that he had kept a pair of sandals Gandhi gave him more than 30 years earlier. If Gandhi hadn’t also appreciated the connection, he would not have instructed Vijayalakshmi Pandit to seek Smuts’ blessings before launching a global attack on apartheid at the United Nations.
This complex relationship between two enigmatic men was beyond the grasp of Indians who found it simpler to worship a larger-than-life cardboard cutout. Reverence is big business on which gurus and godmen, mahants and mantris thrive. Exalting myth above the man, a short suffix transformed Gandhi into a venerable Gandhiji, on a level with panditjis and swamijis who receive their periodic quota of flowers and incense but whose words are ignored.
That’s the problem with iconography. An outsize Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel remains a lifelong Congressman, not a pracharak steeped in saffron. The cause Nathuram Godse espoused didn’t make a hero of a murderer. Some Hindus blamed Sir Jeremy Raisman, the Leeds slum boy born to Lithuanian Jewish refugees who joined the Indian Civil Service and became finance member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, for Godse’s crime. It was Raisman’s thankless task to divide British India’s financial assets. Gandhi saw it as his moral duty to insist that India handed over Pakistan’s share.
He gave India a new idea of itself and the world a new idea of India, largely because in his popular incarnation Gandhi was the quintessential Indian. He personified the virtues we boast of and the vices we do not talk about. Ignoring the contradiction that Sarojini Naidu’s affectionate jibe hinted at, he made poverty appear holy.
Since studying Gandhi and Gandhism is also a big industry, devotees see austerity as a convenient substitute for achievement. Spiritualism banishes the need for honesty. R.K. Narayan says of Jagan, a corrupt trader: “If Gandhi had said somewhere, ‘Pay your sales tax uncomplainingly,’ he would have followed this advice, but Gandhi had made no reference to the sales tax anywhere to Jagan’s knowledge.”
Deviations from the accepted narrative reveal Gandhi at his most pragmatic and help to explain why the Mahatma appellation may not have been inappropriate. Three simple examples suffice to explain that the ordinary can be more relevant than the exceptional.
On returning from South Africa in 1916, the still relatively unknown 43-year-old barrister toured India to canvass his views. It was not yet the age of public rallies, and, in any case, Gandhi didn’t have the necessary support base. But his keen awareness of a politician’s need for publicity was only whetted by the short shrift that Calcutta’s nationalistic Bengali editors gave him. Aiming higher, Gandhi met the British correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph. The paper was arch Tory but it was influential. The correspondent was staying in the (then) whites-only Bengal Club; jemadars, khansamas and bearers were the only Indians allowed to cross its threshold. A lesser man would have stood on his dignity. Not Gandhi. I have always wondered if he was in disguise when he allowed himself to be smuggled into that bastion of racial superiority so that his message could be beamed to the heart of Britain’s power elite.
The second incident concerns the racially mixed Calcutta Club, then the ultimate in Indian social aspiration. When Deshapriya Jatindra Mohan Sengupta’s English wife, Nellie, who also became Congress president, complained that people were gossiping about the time her husband spent in the club, Gandhi retorted robustly that it was a very nice club, and he wished he himself were a member. That took care of the non-anglicised Indian’s predictable carping about his social superiors.
Finally, Richard Symonds, the Oxford historian who came to India with Horace Alexander’s Quaker mission, got to know Gandhi quite well, especially when he fell ill. Gandhi took him into Birla House and nursed him back to health, saying that a public hospital would kill him. The most revealing of Symonds’ many tales of Gandhi’s unorthodoxy concerns his posthumous legacy. Having heard a great deal about Gandhi’s exploits as a student in London, Symonds was pleased to see that some of the murals outside his place of martyrdom showed him dancing with demi-mondaine women in decollete dresses. Symonds was relieved. “They haven’t deified Gandhi!” he told me. “They are showing him as he was.” His next visit to Delhi shattered that illusion. The dancing images had gone. Instead, Gandhi was presented as the epitome of middle class Hindu respectability. That is how India has chosen to remember him. It accords well with the bourgeois prosperity that marks the national lifestyle.
Foreigners are probably more realistic on the whole for they have fewer axes to grind. A projection of Gandhi’s supposedly homosexual bias may reflect Hermann Kallenbach’s own predilections. But disregarding fantasy, a rhyme that was popular in the streets of poorer East London — where there were plans for a Gandhi statue long before the bust in Tavistock Square and the newer life-size figure outside the Houses of Parliament — put it nicely on the eve of World War II: Hitler with his Brown Shirts riding for a fall Mussolini with his Black Shirts back against the wall De Valera with his Green Shirts caring not at all
Three cheers for Mahatma Gandhi with no shirt at all.
Neither the bullying threats of the two European fascists nor the romantic recklessness of the revolutionary who rehabilitated himself in Ireland’s constitutional politics matched the appeal of the shirtless leader who had no sleeve on which to wear his heart. Gandhi kept the world guessing. But there is no doubt that the three cheers for him mentioned in the ditty are widely echoed. It is as well not to forget on this 150th anniversary that it was in India he had to pay the supreme price for loving all humanity irrespective of religion. And that price was extracted by a killer who professed allegiance to today’s ruling philosophy.