A book around Gandhi’s autobiography

A book around Gandhi’s autobiography

Restless as Mercury recuperates new occasions from Gandhi’s life and extends the familiar ones in valuable ways

In his preface to his newly edited book, Restless as Mercury (Aleph Book Company, 2021), Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the distinguished scholar, reminds us that Gandhi reminiscences are found outside his autobiography as well. Gandhi’s speeches, recorded conversations, and articles, letters and other kinds of writings contain, he writes, “Glimmers about his life, his association with people and with his large and growing family, biological and ideological… (and) personal observations about his inner struggles…” While biographers of Gandhi have worked with them over the years, Restless as Mercury is an exciting first attempt at gathering together many of his autobiographical “cameos” coeval with the time period traversed in Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, that is, from the time of his birth till 1920.

Restless as Mercury recuperates new occasions from Gandhi’s life and extends the familiar ones in valuable ways. We come away with new accounts of his parents, his struggles, friendships and prison experiences in South Africa, his visits to England. His relations with his wife and children and extended family, in particular, his difficult relationship with his eldest son, Harilal, who only finds a passing mention in his autobiography, find elaborate discussion. Initially involved in the political struggles in South Africa, Harilal increasingly grows distant. Focused on his moral quest, Gandhi’s unwillingness to see his family as separate from “the wider family of living beings” reveals itself across many, many moving moments in Restless as Mercury.

Besides, there are dozens and dozens of details present all through that newly illuminate Gandhi’s world. Gandhi had found consolation and moral inspiration in The Book of Daniel and Qisas al-Anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) on separate occasions. And, photographs of Jesus Christ, Annie Besant, Justice Ranade, Sir William Hunter and of the Indian contingent in the Boer War were found on the walls of his office in Johannesburg. And, he didn’t drink tea and coffee since they were products of slave labour.

Compiled and edited with abundant care and love, Restless as Mercury does not purport to be a companion volume to Gandhi’s autobiography, which the author famously claimed was written at the urging of a spirit dwelling inside him (“antaryami”). Still, the newly gathered first-person reminiscences of Gandhi in this book show a similar moral intensity in writing his self. The elegance in prose is seen here as well.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi establishes a narrative flow among the autobiographical segments taken from disparate sources before gathering them inside the chapters of his book. The painstaking effort of establishing linear narrative coherence, though, presents, at times, interpretive risks. Let’s take an instance. The chapter ‘My Mother’ shares a valuable childhood episode that Gandhi had narrated in an interview with Christian missionaries given in 1938: “Uka, a child from an ‘untouchable’ caste used to come to clean the lavatories in our house. My mother said to me, “You must not touch this boy, he is an untouchable.” “Why not?” I questioned back, and from that day my revolt began.”

If Gandhi’s response to his mother embodied the quality of “revolt,” it is reasonable to suppose that untouchability weighed on his mind from an early age. However, since his philosophical deliberations on the meaning of civilisational freedom in his celebrated Hind-Swaraj (1909), discuss caste without engaging the problem of untouchability, his childhood experience with Uka appears to have taken significance as memory, parable and event only in later life, after his return to India from South Africa.

Restless as Mercury resurrects curiosity and excitement about Gandhi’s life at a time when it seemed utterly familiar. By enabling fresh encounters with his world, through his eyes, its editor, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, lets us witness again his distinct styles of moral action, his ways of taking the world seriously. It isn’t a small gift.

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