Prannoy Roy Speaks To Gopal Gandhi On Mahatma Gandhi's Early Years

PUBLISHED ON: March 27, 2021 | Duration: 37 min, 10 sec

  
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Dr Prannoy Roy talks to author and Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Gopal Gandhi, on his book "Restless As Mercury", which talks about Mahatma Gandhi's early life. In the interview, the author sheds light on Mahatma Gandhi's formative years, his parents, his wife Kasturba Gandhi and his transition from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to the Mahatma.

Here is the full transcript of the NDTV interview with Gopal Gandhi:

NDTV: Gopal Gandhi thank you very, very much for joining us. I've just read your latest book Restless As Mercury, and I really enjoyed it immensely. I learned a lot actually. It has so much new information, gives one a new perspective and contains a lot of insights into Gandhi's character, especially his honesty. In Gandhi's own words, he doesn't say he's the greatest thing that ever lived and that he never ever made a mistake. He accepts and writes very honestly about his own mistakes. It's actually a remarkable characteristic.

Gopal Gandhi: That's exactly right. I think it was his honesty, his utter frankness about himself that has marked his life, that marked his words, and his autobiography and other autobiographical. He's ruthlessly honest. And not to score a point in the book of honest quotes, but that's how it is. That's how he is.

NDTV: Yes, yes. He wasn't doing it for effect. He was just being absolutely honest and we can all learn from that actually. 'Restless As Mercury', this book is about his early life and his first 40 or so years. So not so much is known about that period, but that's a period when he was made, When Gandhi was actually made. Right?

Gopal Gandhi: The book is about his earlier years, I would say, till he's about 45 and about the time when he was discovering himself, and discovering his role in life, his talents, his abilities, and also his failings and failures. The title 'Restless As Mercury' comes from his sister, his only sister who lived into her late nineties and she, in an early description of her younger brother, Mohandas said in Gujarati that he was restless as mercury, that is very, very correct. That is how he was. Something very restless and in the sense of always wanting to do something with the time that he had. Always wanting to do something with the circumstances in which he was. So that was an apt description of his only sister.

NDTV: Right. Just before we get into the book, I just wanted one perspective from you, on what was your inspiration for writing it. I know you started five years ago and then intermittently, and you really worked hard, for the last year and a half or so. What was the motivation behind this book?

Gopal Gandhi: The motivation came in a chance conversation that I had, but it really synchronized with my sense of Gandhi being lost in the saintly hagiographic depiction of the man as a perfect human being, who had almost been born complete, ready to transform India. Now that has obviously and correctly been critiqued by people who have gone to the other extreme of portraying him as the very opposite of a person who is transformational, as a person who is doing great things. Now, I did not want Gandhi to be the subject of polar opposite contestations. I wanted to see the man Mohandas, in the Mahatma, and to see how the person who is born into very simple and ordinary circumstances, but with some extraordinary opportunities also, has a tussle with his conscience, with his ambitions about himself, and wants to get on with whatever he has, and to make something of his life. And also, to site him in the aftermath of the mutiny. 1857 was just 12 years before he was born. The mutiny, and all that it had meant to the pride of India and especially to princely India, was a very real factor. And his father was finding it very difficult to adjust to the subjugation of his princely state, to the British Raj. And Gandhi was born in that tension and he grew up with all those tensions. And I wanted to just show him to be Mohandas Karamchand, son of this extraordinary man who would have been something, even if he had not become the father of somebody who was going to be called the Father Of The Nation.

NDTV: Well, I never have seen two differing views on Gandhi. As far as I'm concerned, he's the greatest leader the world has seen in the last, over 200 years. Anyway, what I'd like to do is, to ask you, what were the influences in his early life, the people, how they influenced him and how they changed him. And I think let's start with his father.

Gopal Gandhi: Yes, that is a really good place to start Prannoy, because the father was an extraordinary influence on him. Gandhi says about his father, in his different writings which are in this book, that he can picture his father finding it very difficult to get into those hard, strong boots, to prepare for the visit of the Governor. My father was used to soft slippers of the Indian kind, but getting into this attire just to be able to offer tribute to the visiting Governor was like torture for my father. And then he says his father was a man of tremendous will power. Having protested to an English official when the English official was being saucy with the ruler of Rajkot. The ruler said, I don't mind, but Gandhi's father, Karamchand Gandhi, said this is wrong. I will not tolerate an official being insolent to the ruler.

NDTV: So, while the ruler of Rajkot didn't protest, Gandhi's father spoke up against the offensive Britisher, that was a tough, in fact a very brave thing to do in those days. What happened, were there any repercussions of publicly taking on the British like that? So that bravery was one lesson from his father, among many others, right?

Gopal Gandhi: He was punished. He was detained. The Diwan was detained and he did not mind that. So, a kind of lesson in non-cooperation was received by Gandhi from his father. There was also another lesson which he received from his father, and that was in total integrity. His father left very little money. He didn't amass any wealth. I mean, amass is the wrong word. There was very little in the family by way of wealth. And another, and final, influence of the father on him was his sense of a higher purpose in life through a realization of God. And Gandhi writes about his father, that there were people of all different faiths, Muslims, Parsis, and Jains, visiting his father. And he got a sense of India being the home of many faith traditions, and that he got from his father. And he got a sense of austerity from his mother. So, these were the starting points of persons influencing him. I am very glad you asked this question, because we think of Gandhi as a person, who's influenced others, a person who is like Paras, a philosopher's stone, whatever he touched turned to gold, but actually he was being touched by people.

NDTV: Exactly. That comes through so clearly in this book. And I'd like to go through Gandhi's childhood experiences, including his school friends, good and bad. And the book makes it clear that he went through quite a turbulent school life.

Gopal Gandhi: Yes, you are right. Among the school friends that Mohandas had, not too many, was Shaikh Mehtab who tells Gandhi, tells young Mohandas, you are very weak. Look at me, I'm a runner. I jump, I do pole vaulting. I am so strong. And that's because I'm a meat eater and you are not, you're a puny fellow. Now this touched something in Mohandas, coming from a vegetarian family, and he very sportingly tried eating meat. Didn't last very long. Shaikh Mehtab also introduced him to very predictable lines of what Shaikh Mehtab thought was the ideal life of a youth. None of which really stayed with Gandhi. But the most important thing which Shaikh Mehtab did to Gandhi, which Gandhi realized was awfully wrong and in every way objectionable, was to come in between Gandhi and his young wife, Kasturba. Kasturba and Mohandas married at the age of 13. And, Mohan says in the honesty which you spoke about, brutal self-criticism, Mohan says, I was really afraid of the dark. I was afraid of creepy crawlies. And Kasturba was not, she was least afraid. She would go into the dark, unafraid of serpents or anything that she might come by.

NDTV: So, actually Gandhi says openly that his wife Kasturba was stronger and braver than him. How did Shaikh Mehtab come between them and what were Gandhi's own words about his wife?

Gopal Gandhi: 'And I was not like her. She was much ahead of me, but Shaikh Mehtab sowed the seeds of suspicion in me.' And he says, 'I am not going to go into all the things I did, but I was under Shaikh Mehtab's thumb for 10 years.' Now, it's important that we speak of Shaikh Mehtab in two stages. One when he was a school friend. And another much later in South Africa. When he came to South Africa and became a colleague of Mohandas in South Africa. And Mohandas has reason to ask Shaikh Mehtab to exit from his life. And then he says, almost gratefully to Shaikh Mehtab, that 'Shaikh Mehtab has taught me that exclusive friendships are not right for somebody who wants to be in the public field, who wants to work for the larger good, and who wants to befriend society.' And so, Shaikh Mehtab, in a way, also influenced him through a very negative route, but he influenced him very, very strongly and made him embrace a much larger circle of friends than he otherwise might have.

NDTV: That actually showed a strength in Gandhi to say, look, I have a wider purpose in life. And to achieve that, you must exit my life, no matter how much I like you or not, but you can't be exclusive, not even an exclusive friend, extremely strong words.

Gopal Gandhi: Yes, you're absolutely right. And in fact, Kasturba slowly becomes kind of a friend and a colleague as well. And the evolution of their marriage shows how inside marriage it is much more important for a spouse to be a companion and a colleague and a friend rather than just the mother of his children. But another person who became a very strong friend of his in South Africa, was his eldest son Harilal. It is very different for a son, who is only 19 years younger than his father, to look upon his father with anything like awe. So Harilal was a very critical son. He was just 19 years younger. But in South Africa, once the struggle starts, Harilal understands the magnetism of the cause, the injustice being suffered by the Indian community, which Gandhi is now helming, leading, and joins the struggle. In fact, as a leader and gets to be called 'Chota Gandhi' by his compares, by the Indian community.

NDTV: Right. So, Gandhi in a sense admired his son Harilal, in fact he must have been torn seeing his son being sent to jail again and again, for the struggle.

Gopal Gandhi: Gandhi begins to see his son as a role model and says, I want every Indian in South Africa to be like Harilal. And Harilal spends many terms in jail during the Satyagraha movement, in hard labour, and hard labour in South African jails was hard labour. And the father sees this, and has just, admiration, is a very small word, for what Harilal is doing. And he says, now Harilal is in jail. And some people have seen him in jail, and he's smiling. And he seems to be very happy with what he has done and not in the least resentful. So Harilal was a very close friend himself, much different from the image that we have of the later Harilal who was a rebel and very tragic rebel.

NDTV: It is amazing that he went to jail so many times, his father defended him in court, and his wife. Gandhi's wife Kasturba, she also went, she also played an important role in the struggle, especially with the women's movement and she too made many sacrifices and went to jail and did hard labour, right.

Gopal Gandhi: She did indeed. She told her husband, when the new judgment came from the Cape Town court that Indian marriages are not to be recognized in South Africa, marriages that have not been solemnized according to Christian rights or registered in the South African officialdom will not be recognized, there was an uproar in the community. So, she says to her husband, so I am not your legal wife. And our children are not our legal children. So, he says, yes, that's right. Then let's go back to India. So, he says, no, we have not come here to go back to India. That would be a cowardly thing to do. So, she says, in that case I'm going to oppose this. So, if others are going to jail for this, I'm going to jail myself. And she goes into jail. And she goes to jail with a batch of other women, including her young son Ramdas, who's only 16. And she too gets hard labour. And she has laundry work assigned to her, is washing clothes of fellow prisoners. And she does that.

NDTV:So, Kasturba Gandhi had her circle of friends and fighters for the cause, some of her women comrades and fighters had a major influence on the Gandhi family, especially after Kasturba Gandhi came out of jail.

Gopal Gandhi: When she comes out, she's a physical wreck. But there it is, colleagues who become friends, relatives who become colleagues and friends. And Kasturba is in jail with a great Tamil freedom fighter in South Africa, Valliammai. I call her freedom fighter because she was more than a satyagrahi. She was in jail for the same cause, this judgment about Indian marriages. She's an unmarried Tamil girl and she dies two days after she has come out of jail. Coincidentally, the date she dies is 22nd, February, 1914. And Kasturba is to die on the 22nd of February, 1944, 30 years later, again in another jail in India. So Valliammai and Kasturba, a Tamil girl and a young Gujarati woman, are in this fight in South Africa for the honour of Indian communities' most sacred institution of marriage. And are in jail with others in the larger cause that has been discovered for them by Mohandas. And Mohandas attends Valliammai's funeral. And she is an extraordinary character. She is a person who, had she been in India, would have been known much more. But since she is in South Africa, and in this part of the life of Mohandas, which needs now to be rediscovered for the sake of our own sense of where our freedom has come from, from the sacrifices of very simple people, unlettered Valliammai, and the highly educated barrister Mohandas, all in the same struggle.

NDTV: Yes, and the book makes it clear that there are a lot of South Africans, in fact, Zulu leaders, who he interacted with or even learned from and was inspired by. Right?

Gopal Gandhi: That is absolutely right. There was something about Mohandas that we have to admit. He describes himself, as a young boy, as having been a good boy, not a bright boy. But that word, good, this has sort of dropped out of current vocabulary. Nobody uses these words very often now. But there was something about Mohandas's goodness that appealed to people across the board. What is this goodness? It is just frankness, the lack of guile, lack of strategic ambitious manipulation, and just an honest expression of his desire to mend things. And this goodness brings the goodness out in others. And they in turn impact on Mohandas.

NDTV: Absolutely. Actually, what amazed me while reading this book was that even before he became globally famous, there was something about him, which everybody was struck by. So many people clearly loved Gandhi, loved what he was doing and loved his method of fighting.

Gopal Gandhi: That is exactly right. And I'm so glad you used the phrase love. They loved him. They loved the goodness in him. And I think they also saw in him the complete absence of any personal motivation. And it was just this desire to set something right, which was so horribly wrong. And they say to Mohandas, you are our brother. And Mohandas says I was called 'Bhai' in South Africa. And that is the greatest compliment that could've been paid to him. He was called Bhai. This is much before he came to be called Mahatma or the Father Of The Nation, as Netaji Subash Chandra Bose called him. He was just 'Bhai'. So, camaraderie, being in the same fight together as equals, was what marked his time in South Africa. It's all these people being his equals and peers and their lives, as emerge in Mohandas' descriptions, are lives of just titans. That's the only word I can use.

NDTV: Right. That's beautiful. And it's not just Indians, there was an influence of the Zulu chief, right? Chief Bhambatha. In what sense was that an influence on Gandhi's life?

Gopal Gandhi: That is exactly the personality I wanted to come to. And, I wanted to say that the question of the larger identity of the Africans was at the back of his mind, but it was not at the top of his own political agenda. And this has been a problem for many historians who say that here is a man who is struggling for the, very justifiable, political rights of Indians. But in the theatre where there's a very much greater, in terms of volume and velocity, injustice being perpetrated on the Africans. Now it is a fact that Gandhi did not become an advocate for the African cause, which itself was very new and young and nascent. Just imagine, he did not join that. But Chief Bhambatha, whom he never met, gave him the opportunity to make some observations and plunge into action in a way that is supremely important today.

I'd like to read here a very small description by Mohandas of what the Zulus had to undergo after what was called the Bhambatha Rebellion. There was an attack by Zulus who were being unjustly subjected to poll tax. And two white officers were done to death. As a result of this, in retaliation, a huge movement was launched, armed movement, by the British authorities to crush the rebellion. And 12 of the Zulus, who were supposed to have been in the murder, were blown at the mouth of a cannon. And Bhambatha was among them.

NDTV: They were made to stand in front of a cannon and blown to pieces, by the British, how barbaric can you get. What role did Gandhi play, if any, in the Zulu movement?

Gopal Gandhi: Now Gandhi, as an Indian subject of the British Empire, joined the expedition against the Zulus, but as a stretcher bearer to tend the wounded and the dying. And he says, "we were to dress the wounds on the backs of several natives who had received lashes." He found that the wounded Zulus would have been left uncared for "unless we had attended to them. The Zulus could not talk to us, but from the gestures and the expressions of their eyes, they seem to feel as if God had sent us to their succour. I shall never forget", says he, "the lacerated backs of Zulus who had received stripes, and were brought to us for nursing. Because no white nurse was prepared to look after them. And I had an insight into what war by white men against coloured races meant. And yet those who perpetrated these cruelties called themselves Christians. This was no war, but a manhunt." So Bhambatha gave Gandhi a sense of violent racism, which has not gone from the world even today. And which is why Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. were drawn to Gandhi in the way they were, and also contemporary Africans like John Dube, who was one of the founding fathers of the African National Congress, became an associate of Gandhi in South Africa. And so, while Gandhi did not become part of the struggle for African self-esteem and African liberation, thanks to Chief Bhambatha and the Zulu Rebellion in particular, he knew what violent racism meant. And what in the future he was going to do about racism in India.

NDTV: One thing that comes out clearly in the book is that Gandhi had such a huge impact in South Africa, across all sections, that he was often badly beaten and there were many different sections of South African society who actually physically attacked Gandhi. He suffered quite severe injuries in his struggle, right?

Gopal Gandhi: That is true. And there's something very symmetrical about the injuries he suffered because he suffered them at the hands of almost every community in South Africa. Starting with the ruling establishment, the whites, a group of white youth, enraged by what Gandhi had said about the conditions in South Africa, during a visit in India, set upon him in Durban on the day he landed with his family. And they lynched him. That's the only word that can be used. He was short of death. And he says that had the wife of the Police Commissioner, Mrs. Alexander, not interposed and saved him, he would have been killed. He was beaten beyond belief. And then at the hands of a fellow Indian. When he came to a compromise with the government in the shape of General Smuts, who was the Minister for Interior, on the voluntary offering of fingerprints, after the compulsion of fingerprints was offered to be lifted, Smuts said we will repeal this law and not make it compulsory if all of you agree to give voluntarily.

NDTV: You mean this simple agreement to be able to voluntarily offer your fingerprints rather than it being forced and made compulsory, that difference nearly cost Gandhi his life, what happened?

Gopal Gandhi: A group of Indians, Pathans, who had joined the struggle because Gandhi had said, we should never give our fingerprints, they were dismayed and a little puzzled by this compromise. They said, yesterday you told us to join the struggle and never give fingerprints, and today you're saying we should give it voluntarily. It was too nuanced for them. Gandhi had come to a very finely nuanced compromise on principle. Coercion had been removed. But Mir Alam hit Gandhi on his head with a truncheon, and kicked him and left him for dead, because he felt Gandhi had betrayed the cause. And Gandhi says, very, very significantly, that as he fell, he remembers very dimly that as the blows started, "I uttered the words Hey Rama". This is in 1909. 'Hey Rama' when he had been hit by Mir Alam. Now he says, almost immediately after this, that seeing that the assault was committed by Muhammadans, and we can't even believe how important this is today, "Seeing that the assault was committed by Muhammadans, the Hindus might probably feel hurt." This is 1909. "Rather let the blood spilt today cement the two communities indissolubly, such is my heartfelt prayer. May God grant it." This is said by him, the wound still fresh on his head, on his skull. Mir Alam should not be conflated with the community, let my blood spilt today cement the two communities indissolubly.

NDTV: So many lessons from that episode for us today to learn from and to understand our own history.

Gopal Gandhi: This is so much, the similarities between 1909 and 1948 are extraordinary. One has to just substitute Mir Alam by, somebody else. And 'Hey Rama', on both the occasions. Extraordinary. So, Mir Alam has literally touched him, and turned him into something which can be called personality beyond himself, and saying something from his pain. This is so important even today.

NDTV: Moving on to his relationship with the white General Smuts, that comes out very, very vividly in the book. If you could just elaborate on that a bit. The amazing relationship of political enemies, but in a sense General Smuts still looked up to Gandhi as well.

Gopal Gandhi: Smuts was also a deeply religious person. And he saw in Mohandas, another deeply religious person, but politics came between them. And so, Gandhi went to jail and Smuts actually did betray him. But it's never affected their personal equations. After having jailed him, Smuts sent him religious books to read in jail. And Gandhi says, now I know that Smuts really did not mean it personally, but he couldn't help himself. And after the final agreement had been reached, Gandhi gave him as a gift, a pair of sandals, which he had made himself, and Smuts was to say, 'I am not good enough to step in your shoes'. This was their equation. And this again, in a very remarkable way, anticipates the agreements which Gandhi reached with Lord Irwin in India, this famous Gandhi-Irwin Pact, in which something was given and something was not given. But there was some movement towards justice with accord. And CF Andrews, the great Indian missionary who was sent by Gokhale to South Africa at the final stages of the struggle...

NDTV: Just before we come to him, tell us a bit about his mentor Gokhale. You just mentioned his name. It comes out that he really is, in many ways, Gandhi's mentor in South Africa

Gopal Gandhi: Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who was in many ways, the greatest liberal statesman of his time, who was challenging the British Raj to rise above its narrowness and stinginess one might say, with political reform, but constitutionally. So, the appeal of a constitutional nonviolent reformist approach to India's liberation, as opposed to the anarchic school of violence, was very strong, and Gandhi very quickly made Gokhale his political guru, so to say, and invited him to South Africa. And Gokhale comes to South Africa and parlays with the government, including Smuts. And then sends CF Andrews, the great missionary who was so close to Rabindranath Tagore, to help Gandhi reach that accord, and Andrews comes and actually clinches the accord and gets from Smuts and Botha, who was then the leader, a whole set of agreements, a deck of agreements, which met almost every single demand of Gandhi, and leading to the Smuts-Gandhi Accord.

NDTV: So the Smuts-Gandhi Accord is a turning point in many ways, including for Gandhi himself and his future, his going back to India.

Gopal Gandhi: And that's when Gandhi leaves South Africa. And from his boat, Prannoy, from his ship, which is taking him away from South Africa for the last time with his wife Kasturba there, he writes to his nephew who is in South Africa, "a creeper of love I have planted." Quoting an old Hindi song, which Subbalakshmi has made so famous, 'Asowana jala seencha seenscha prema bela boyi'. A creeper of love I have planted, and the harvest is now being reaped. So, it was just love. It was truth and goodness and it was supreme courage. And as you rightly pointed out, it was over blood spilt in courage, but without hate. It was over that, it was not only irrigated by love, but also by pain. But without any hatred. And with faith in God, which he had got from his mother and his father.

NDTV: Yes, that seems to be the core of the struggle, immense courage and immense pain, but unlike the world today, there was no hatred. So, also mentioned in the book that while Gandhi was born in India, so much of him was made in his young days in South Africa.

Gopal Gandhi: That's right. In fact, a very few days before his end in India in 1948, addressing a prayer meeting in Delhi, he said I was born in India, but made in South Africa. And made by what? Made by the circumstances in South Africa, by the people he came in contact with, both associates and adversaries. Associates whom we don't know in India now, because they have almost gone into the history of South Africa. And unknown to us. And adversaries whom he converted into friends, almost friends. So, he was made by them. And I might add here that Nelson Mandela, as President, said once very insightfully, 'you sent us a barrister and we return a Mahatma.' And then he added, 'but you didn't take care of him. You didn't take care of him.' This was Mandela.

NDTV: Well, thank you very, very much for this book. It's been just a wonderful read. I've learnt a lot and really enjoyed the writing. It's so clear and actually it's so different. Thank you. Thank you very much for all this work.
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