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Two books and the unique connector

books that Gandhi read

My English teacher on 30th January 1968 read us the riveting prose piece, ‘The Light Has Gone Out,’ an epic address to the nation by Nehru, when Gandhi was shot dead on 30th January at a prayer meeting at the Birla temple. He also recounted how he had the good fortune to hear the baritone seven hour commentary of Melville De Mellow, sitting atop the cortege, paying a nation’s grief and homage, rated one of the best instances of radio broadcasting in India. As a callow fourteen year old, I still recall the chill that passed through all of us when, my father, the teacher, relived those moments. It has remained a part of my DNA, since then.

But what followed was his story of a journey of Gandhi through two books in his formative years that made him the talismanic Mahatma in later years. Gandhi landed in Durban in 1892 to work for a Muslim merchant, in a unique moment of history when globalization, racism and imperialism made easy bedmates. Thrown out from a first class railway compartment on way to present his brief, he chanced to read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You in 1893. A rambling, repetitive book it had a powerful message that a good Christian should follow his conscience rather than the laws imposed by Tsars, bishops and generals. Christ abhorred violence, while the powerful church promoted war and capital punishment. He was overwhelmed by Tolstoy’s independent thinking, profound morality, which reinforced his heterodoxy in pursuing a spiritual path, till his last gasp “Hey Ram”.

Eleven years later as he was travelling by train to Durban, a friend gave him John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, a polemic attack against the very influential views of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill for whom making money and the pleasure principle subordinated affection and trust. Ruskin inked the first syntax of moral economics which nourishes the greatest happiness of noble human beings, undeterred by monetary greed and wealth.

Gandhi set up an Ashram in Phoenix on 24th December 1904 which would house a printing press in a farm where the workers would live a natural life and promote the ideas of Ruskin and Tolstoy with a sound business principle. The Indian Opinion was the first mouthpiece of the indentured workers living on the edge in a cloistered South African society. Albert West, his companion, brought fruit trees and date palms from Johannesburg, with a river running through the property. A modest monthly allowance of three pounds and a plot of land to grow their food was the real possession of each Ashramite.

Gandhi had a natural friendship with foreigners who were vegetarians. The Alexandra Tearoom, the only vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg, had regular visits from a stock broker from US, a young Jew of Theosophical society, a working tailor from Russia and a lawyer from India did not talk of the share market which was the staple diet of Johannesburg. They celebrated the freshness of vegetarian diet, importance of fasting and usefulness of mud bath.

Herman Kallenbach, a East European Jew and an architect had a shared admiration for Tolstoy with Gandhi. Tolstoy, the greatest living writer at that time, was in his youth “A radical chaser of women and a man of wild passion.” However, in his fifties, he had become a vegetarian, worked in the field and split wood in a bid to empathize with the serfs. He had begun preaching pacifism and celibacy. Kallenbach found that the Europeans were hostile to the Asians and donated a 100 acre farm outside Johannesburg to all Asians to set up an ashram for those who believed in non-violence and passive resistance. They could live in the farm free of rent or any charge. Like the Phoenix farm, the farm had many fruit trees, two wells and a small spring. Twenty two kms from Johannesburg, close to the railway station, Lawley, the Farm prohibited shooting, eschewed use of machinery. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy that this farm in his name was working according to his high principles and noble ideas. Tolstoy, in a rare letter to Gandhi compared the work of the Indians to men in Russia who were refusing military conscription. However small the number be, Tolstoy wrote, “They assert with audacity that God is with us and God is more powerful than men.”

I had the good fortune of travelling with Dr. A. P. J Abdul Kalam and Mr. Gopal Gandhi who was India’s High Commissioner in South Africa in 1998 to see this farm, a desolate place where the trees still bore fruits and the small spring has not lost its stream of cool water, and brought me the memory of those two books that made Gandhi, the tallest Indian. No wonder Albert Einstein wrote of him: ‘Generations to come will scarce believe that such a man in blood and flesh ever walked upon this earth.’

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