Thursday, February 10, 2005

Mira & the Mahatma: A review

Think Gujarat and you think of mass killings, massive lootings, militant Hindutva, and Narendra Modi. Of course, Gujarat looked very different long ago. We all know very well that this is where Gandhiji initiated his experiments to build a community of men and women who would adhere to the highest standards of non-violence and truth and strive to achieve their greatest spiritual potential. But there's always a danger of forgetting. Thus it is soothing and indeed apt that good writers take interest and throw light into the life and times of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi. Varied standpoints and new insights have to be welcomed, and these need to replace sheer hatred on the one hand and mere idolatry on the other. Sudhir Kakar's new work -- Mira & the Mahatma -- is a rich contribution in this direction.

Sudhir Kakar, famous for his many works -- The Ascetic of Desire, a novel based on Vatsyayana, and a translation of Kama Sutra (with Wendy Doniger), to mention just two of them -- does a fine job of a master storyteller in Mira and the Mahatma. It is about Mirabehn, Mahatma Gandhi, and their relationship spanning many years. It is also about Navin, the "highly educated, yet curiously naive" narrator of the novel, who was Mira's Hindi teacher at Sabarmati. Sudhir Kakar entrusts Navin to tell us about "the great modern mytho-historical epic that is Gandhi's life", a life characterised by a heartfelt concern for the poorest of the poor, a profound interest in engaging with everybody, an uncanny ability to publicly admit one's mistakes, and an admirable tendency to arrive at a consensus, "at the risk of exposing himself (and the author) to the ridicule of our cynical times."

Madeline Slade -- who wished "to hear the call of the Eternal", who loved Beethoven, who worshipped nature -- gets captivated by the Gandhian philosophy, after reading Romain Rolland's biography of Mahatma Gandhi. She decides to come to Gandhi's ashram at Sabarmati. Madeline arrives in Sabarmati, after practising the Gandhian way of life herself for a year, now renamed Mira by Gandhi, gets into the ashram work and the Indian independence movement. Through the eyes of Navin, and through the enormous number of letters and diary entries of Gandhi, Mira, Navin, and Rolland, the story develops: moving descriptions of the ashram life, Gandhi's fight against untouchability, the Dandi march, and activities at the Sevagram. Mira's "intimacy and ease of intercourse" with Gandhi, and the intensity with which she adores him often lead to tensions between her, the Mahatma, and Kasturba. Comes Navin, with his baggage of "problems", ranging from swapandosha to a love for academics and literature! In the Gandhian scheme of things, dabbling in fine arts and literature is a luxury, "a product of idle fancy", that one cannot afford before achieving swaraj; one should choose to do only what one must.

It is very interesting to notice certain points somewhat buried in the main body of the text. For instance, we see that when Gandhi plunges himself into social work, the educated urban youth starts to gather around the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru (who, according to Gandhi, likes mainly two things: politics and women). We notice, through Mira's eyes, that it is the rich who are worst at giving in the fund-raising events for combating untouchability. ("Most of them would search for a coin rather than hand over a note of high denomination from their bulging wallets.") Interestingly, the well-to-do were not hesitant in giving away their wrist-watches and rings when the appeal was for donations to the Gujarat Congress Committee towards the freedom movement. (Today, the same voices that praise a Dilip D'Souza for his reporting from the tsunami affected Nagapatnam, loath him for his Ambujwadi writings. Isn't there a striking comparison?)

When Gandhi returns to the freedom struggle, he searches for a form of collective action that would capture the imagination and rouse the spirit of the poorest of India's masses. He looks for something that touches the life of every villager, and decides on salt. Gandhi was truly a man of the masses. Indeed his belief in non-violent movements stems from his conviction that the masses will not respond to a violent revolution.

Skim through this book, and you get an acquaintance of numerous vivid characters like the legendary Hindi novelist Premchand, who greatly inspired Navin, and Mahadev Desai and Maganlal who were Gandhi's closest assistants at Sabarmati. Then there are many other interesting personalities who get a quick mention: Kaka Kalelkar (the walking stick that Gandhi used during the Dandi march was his gift), Pandit Jagat Ram who was jailed by the British for twenty one long years, Seth Ranchodbhai who paid a princely sum of Rs.525 for Gandhi's salt, aspiring Hindi writer Jainendra Kumar, Behram Khambatta who was Mira's host in Bombay on her arrival, Helen Haussding whom Gandhi had slapped in a moment of uncontrollable anger, etc.

Maybe it's also worth pointing out, in this age of human gods and capsuled spiritualism, what Gandhi felt about the so called spiritual gurus.

    "There are no perfect gurus we can turn to in our imperfect times. It is better to grope in the dark and wade through a million errors to reach the Truth than to entrust oneself to someone who knows not what he knows not."
The ashrams of these modern "gurus" lack the humaneness of a Sabarmati or a Sevagram. In Ramachandra Guha's words,
    "[their] exhibitionist Hinduism is in sharp contrast to the non- denominational but deeply felt spirituality which fills Gandhi's own place. Perhaps [their] inmates read and prayed, but it is difficult to believe that they ever argued or laughed."
Back to Mirabehn: as mentioned earlier she and Gandhi did have problems due to her seemingly possessive attitude towards Gandhi. Mira was often "saddled with the burden of choice", her head understanding Bapu's letters one way, and her heart reading it differently. Mira had experienced "a violent and passionate disturbance" with a Scottish pianist, an exponent of Beethoven, before coming to Sabarmati, and later she would have an intimate but failed relationship with Prithvi Singh, who converted to Gandhism from the Gadar party. I'm not sure about the significance of this, but much later at the very end of the novel, Mira now leading a retired life in Austria, we see her Indian (male) servant expressing a desire to leave her and return to India.
    "Was hers a tragic story whose heroine insisted on seeing it as a romantic quest in which, after withstanding the perils of the road, she had been rewarded by an exaltation beyond normal human experience?",
wonders Navin/ Kakar. But we cannot judge the success or failure of someone else's life. This perhaps is in the spirit of Gandhi, who once said (to Prithvi Singh):
    "I disbelieve history so far as the details of acts of heroes are concerned. I accept broad facts of history and draw my own lessons for my conduct as long as they do not contradict the highest laws of life, but I positively refuse to judge men from the scanty material furnished to us by history."


At 11:12 PM, Blogger Anand said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Anand said...

Two related links:

Mark Tully's review in Outlook (via Zoo Station)
Washington Post review by John Lancaster (via Sepia Mutiny)

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Ramesh Raghuvanshi said...

Sudhir Kakar orignally wrote only two good books.[1] inner world[2] Shamans and mystic. His all other books are corbon copy of these two books. He is constantly repeating himself. and making fools to western readers.Iam also ardent fan of kakar up to his frist two books. then Iam bore of his repeation

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