Mahatma's footsteps

Mahatma's footsteps

Catching up with Gandhi Graham Turner Penguin 2011, pp 329  350

His life has been gone through with a fine comb, virtues eulogised and warts exposed. Gandhi, however, was not the kind to hide his shortcomings in a web of lies and deceit as most modern politicians are wont to do. His life remains an open book and most writers have marvelled at his sense of discipline, resilience and  fighting spirit. The latest to join the big league of writers about Gandhi is a veteran journalist Graham Turner whose Catching up with Gandhi is a faithful and candid account of a man who, despite his foibles and weaknesses, led a nation to freedom.

At another level, it is a breezy travelogue and a guided tour at that for Turner has been generously helped by Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi and Rajaji’s grandson, himself a journalist of repute who travelled with him through the length and breadth of the country, starting from Porbandar where the Mahatma was born. Gandhi lived and worked in South Africa for over two decades fighting tooth and nail against racism and apartheid and Turner has been assisted by Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela, the daughter of his son Manilal, an educationist and vice chancellor at the Durban University, in covering this stretch of Gandhi’s life, which kindled in him the overwhelming desire to rid India of the British yoke.

The book, however, is not short on detail and the canvas is wide enough to cover the leader’s entire journey through life starting with his birth, his marriage to Kasturba at the age of 12, his training to be a barrister in London, the trip to South Africa which was to transform his life, and his return to India to spearhead the freedom movement. The author has made no attempt to whitewash even the negative aspects of his life and has revealed the fact that Gandhi was by no stretch of imagination a perfect human being. As Rajmohan Gandhi himself admits in his interaction with the author, “We might like Gandhi to have had a glorious record on all fronts, but he did not. His record on his wife and sons was pretty poor.”

In fact, Gandhi’s innings as a paterfamilias was abysmal and his relations with his illiterate wife, Kasturba, whom he almost treated as a vassal, forcing her to extend hospitality to untouchables, Muslims and Christians which went against her grain, steeped in orthodoxy as she was, proved that he too belonged to a class that treated women as second class citizens.

Gandhi admitted to his shortcomings and was devastated when Kasturba died, for she had been his shadow ever since she came into his life. Gandhi even thought of a spiritual marriage with one Sarala Devi, whom he befriended, smitten as he was with her charm. His sons too received short shrift from him. And, his sermons on the need to forge close bonds with other religions dithered quite a bit when his son Manilal fell in love with a Muslim girl and wanted to marry her. Gandhi finally put his foot down, breaking Manilal’s heart in the process. His relationship with his other son Harilal too was extremely strained. Gandhi, engrossed as he was in the freedom struggle, had little time to spare for his wife and children.

Graham Turner has also touched on Gandhi’s experiments with brahmacharya, where he tested his abstinence by sleeping between two nubile women, something that earned him a lot of flak, not just from his family, but other leaders as well. Gandhi, in his final days, had also to bear the ignominy of being given the cold shoulder by other prominent leaders like Patel and Nehru who at times overlooked him and took decisions on their own at working committee meetings of the Congress.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with whom Gandhi conducted several parleys seeking his nod to keep the country united, would not budge an inch and it was with a heavy heart that Gandhi had to finally agree for Partition. The post-Partition riots that resulted in widespread killings of innocent men, women and children shattered Gandhi and he rushed to places like Naokhali in an effort to restore peace. Gandhi’s weapons like satyagraha, fasting and his firm convictions rattled the British Raj and though he had to endure long terms in prison, his steely resolve never wilted, records Turner in his book.

Juliet Boobbyer, an artist and writer, has chipped in with her illustrations that are a value addition to the work. Says Turner about his subject, “He is a man of the past but his ideas may be our best hope for the future,” words which will ring true for a long time to come. Gandhi’s remarkable achievements and his impact on the world was summed up by Albert Einstein when he observed, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that a man such as this ever walked the face of the earth”. Those who know their Gandhi might leaf through this book with a sense of déjà vu, but for others, especially those belonging to the younger generation whose knowledge of Gandhi remains stunted, the book could serve as a mine of information.

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