‘Restless as Mercury’ – a perfect complement to Gandhi’s ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’
Vishnu Makhijani reviews Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s latest book on the Mahatma
“Original footage might be grainy and jerky but has a ring of truth because it is the ‘thing itself and not an image of it,” Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes in the Preface of “Restless as Mercury – My Life As A Young Man” that knits together the autobiographical observations scattered over several pages of the “Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi” and seamlessly complements “The Story of My Experiments With Truth” to bring into focus, the Father of the Nation’s descriptions of his life in its familial aspect.
“This autobiographical compilation does what it does for the sole reason that a story as first told is not a story, it is reality. ‘Original’ footage, howsoever grainy, jerky, starting and ending without notice, has the ring of truth. It is the ‘thing’ itself, not an image of it. A mint-fresh ‘feature’ film, for all its vivid fascination, is still a manufactured product.
“Gandhi’s life story in his own words and those of his contemporaries who quote him is heard best when heard directly. It is the organic truth. This book is not ‘Experiments with Truth’ taken further afield, nor is it a foil to the many remarkable biographies of him. It threads ‘Experiments’ into other autobiographical texts including, somewhat unprecedentedly, what he wrote within the fold of his family he so loved but did not privilege,” Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes in this scholarly 377-page book that has been published by Rupa.
To this end, “Restless as Mercury” is a candid and unflinching account of the struggles, experiences, and philosophies that informed and influenced the young Gandhi. It also details how he kept, not without stumbling, his love of family in step with his sense of public duties.
“Beginning at the beginning, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s autobiography moves rapidly from his recollections of his early years as a child, youth, husband, student, then enters real time. That is, the events he describes are happening around him as he writes about them. He includes events that are personal and ‘out there’ in the public sphere, as well as the seemingly small and the obviously momentous. Like two tracks of the many railway lines, he travelled on, the events and his descriptions of them move together. And then, like a train that is stopped by the pull of a chain, the narrative stops, abruptly, at year 1920. Gandhi is just fifty-one at that point and his most climactic years — nearly three full decades’ long — was ahead of him.
“He brings ‘these chapters to a close’ at that point because, he says, his ‘experiments’ are now indistinguishable from the life stories of Congress leaders and propriety requires that he not bring those into the account. ‘In fact,’ he says in his farewell chapter, ‘my pen instinctively refuses to proceed further’,” Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes in the book.
“But the ‘self’ cannot really disappear. Gandhi continues to speak and write about his life, incidentally, as it were. Plunged in political work, organizing his mass campaigns of satyagraha, undertaking fasts for public and personal reasons, getting imprisoned, freed, imprisoned again, traversing the Indian countryside to spread awareness of his political goal — Swaraj, freedom, for India — and also his ‘constructive’ work such as hand-spinning, the eradication of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim amity, Gandhi yet finds the time- and the need to look back to incidents from his life, about his family, himself,” says the Preface of the book, that is in six parts and covers the period, 1869 to 1914.
Glimmers about his life, his association with people and with his large and growing family, biological and ideological, slip through his public actions, speeches, letters, and other writings. “As do personal observations about his inner struggles, his relationships with people — both famous and not famous. With the same frankness as marks his autobiography, he shares in speeches, recorded conversations, articles, and in letters to the family and close friends, of the years ‘covered’ in his autobiography and beyond.”
“Those scattered narrations of his fill in and fill out the before-life, the real-time life, and of his autobiography’s story. Alongside ‘Experiments’, these cameos of his childhood, adolescence, student life, his mature years, show us the son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, mentor, friend in the man who was being hailed as a Mahatma. Starting from his early days, these go right up to what probably is the very last sentence — I hate being late’– spoken by him (in Gujarati) seconds before his assassin-to-be, Beretta in hand, stands facing him,” Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.
This compilation, says the writer, “may be said to carry one distinguishing mark: it brings into focus Gandhi’s descriptions of his life in its familial aspect. His life in the epic domain of actions for public causes has been and will continue to be written about. His life as lived within the fold of domesticities has had fewer tellings. And that cannot ring truer than in his own and his intimates’ words”.
Apart from selected borrowings from ‘Experiments’, mainly from the Gujarati original, and Gandhi’s own words occurring elsewhere, the narrations of five of his contemporaries – Prabhudas Chhaganlal Gandhi (1901-1992), Gandhi’s grand-nephew, who ran from Sabarmati Ashram, a journal Madhpudo (Honeycomb) during Gandhi’s lifetime; Joseph J. Doke (1861-1913) his first biographer; Millie Polak (1881-1962), author of “Mr Gandhi, The Man”, described as a remarkable work of first-hand observation; and the writings of his secretaries, Mahadev Desai (1892-1942) and Pyarelal (1899-1982) – have been incorporated in the book. Notes at the end direct the reader to the specific works and pages where these words appear.
“Restless as Mercury” is truly a treasure-trove of knowledge for the present and future generations and is a valuable contribution to the never-ending studies on the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at [email protected])