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ONLINE BOOKS > THIS WAS BAPU > Acknowledgement
Shri Prabhu is an old and dear friend of mine. It is more than forty years since we have known each other. A common friend, who introduced me to the poetry of the stars, also introduced me to Ramachandra Krishna Prabhu as a kindred spirit. Prabhu was then working on Lokamanya Tilak's theory of 'the Arctic Home of the Aryans in the Vedas'. My patriotic interest in the history of ancient Indian culture was greatly flattered when I found that another scholar like Prabhu held the same view, that the Vedas were thousands of years old and that we all migrated from the Polar Regions to India which has been the home of the Aryan culture from prehistoric times. The common interest in the life, work and teachings of Shri Aurobindo Ghose was yet another bond that brought us nearer.
Being a lover of books Prabhu was then taking his training in Library Science under Borden whom Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda had imported from America to organize and develop the Central Library in his capital. Prabhu gradually reverted to journalism and made it his life-work. He had the good fortune of working with veteran journalists like Horniman and Belvi. During all these years he made a deep study of Mahatma Gandhi's life and teachings. He has in his possession a vast collection of cuttings and extracts from Gandhiji's writings, all assorted under various heads. This will fill many volumes. His one book, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi1, has done more to present a succinct but comprehensive idea of Gandhiji's teachings than the host of similar books which have appeared in recent times. The Conquest of Self was the first of a series which Prabhu planned for giving an exhaustive survey of Gandhiji's thoughts and conclusions on various contemporary Indian and world problems. I wish he would find time to complete the series. I need not mention the other books he has published on Gandhiji. I only wanted to show how eminently fitted Prabhu is to give us a collection of anecdotes about Mahatmaji.
Of all the prophets of humanity, Gandhiji seems to have been the .most fortunate. No other succeeded in his life time as Gandhiji did, in spreading his ideas and working them out on a vast canvas. No prophet succeeded so well as he did in choosing the fields of politics, nationalism and internationalism for the practical application of his spiritual message. Starting his career in the benighted continent of Africa, he sensed the racial character of the world-situation and its conflicts. He was led to form thereby the spiritual concept of human brotherhood', and the necessity of cultivating soul-force to oppose the might of empires based on racialism and armed with the powers of science, economics and worldwide organization. Gandhiji returned to India from South Africa at a juncture when Europe was locked in a gigantic struggle of arms and India was groping in darkness arising out of a lack of leadership and a sense of frustration. Gandhiji, the inheritor of the achievements of saintly India, the interpreter of India's synthetic culture of ages, and the prophet of a new humanism that embraced and appealed to the whole world, assumed the leadership of the country and gradually collected all the scattered forces, spiritual, intellectual, economic and cultural, to guide them into a great national movement for the rediscovery and reassertion of the soul of India. He unified India as no one else had done before, and gave a determined fight to the powerful British Empire through non-violent means. He saw the world in travail in two global wars, and by freeing India he liberated a soul-force that is gradually influencing world-politics and world-aspirations.
Many persons started writing about the life and times of the Mahatma. The Christian minister Doke and Henry S. L. Polak made the first attempts at portraying his unique spiritual life. Friends like Pranjivan Mehta and Mrs Avantika Gokhale collected what they could of his writings. G. A. Natesan of Madras published an excellent volume of his selected speeches and writings. Mahatmaji himself found time, during his jail life in 1924, to write his autobiography and a detailed history of the Satyagraha movement in South Africa. Since then writers / throughout the world have started writing about him from various angles. Romain Rolland, the gifted genius of French letters, and Louis Fischer, the famous American journalist, have given illuminating pictures of Mahatmaji. Tendulkar has brought out a long and exhaustive biography in eight big and sumptuous volumes, while Pyarelal, who had the rare fortune of working as one of Mahatmaji's private secretaries, is concentrating on what he loves to call a "full-dress biography", documented with authentic letters and inside knowledge of events.2
Mahatmaji was essentially a man of action. He had no time to read and produce books. Yet his mission forced him to write from time to time, and continuously from week to week expressing himself on the various topics concerning India and the world. He can also be said to have been 'a man of letters' in the literal sense of the words. The number of letters that he wrote to friends, near and distant, and correspondents from all parts of the world on various matters is legion. They are being gradually collected, edited, translated into and published in various languages.
We have thus vast material dealing with Gandhiji's life and times. It is just beginning to come to light. The Westerners, always alert to new forces in the world, have given hasty, and sometimes imperfect and irrelevant descriptions of Gandhiji and his message, and publishers have found it profitable to popularize them. It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the vast literature that is being produced, both in India and abroad, about Gandhiji. Friends, colleagues and intimate Coworkers of Gandhiji have concentrated their attention on his life as they intimately knew it. It is too early for them to write the political and cultural history of India during the Gandhian Era. In fact, the Gandhian Era has just begun showing its working on the canvas of all the continents of the world. And yet, it is not too early for our people to record the events and cultural forces at work during the past one hundred years that may be said to belong to, as the precursor of, the Gandhian Era. It is a mistake to suppose that the Era began with the birth of Gandhiji. It started a little before 1857, and we should be able to interpret the history of the past 100 years as being one of pregnant preparation for the renaissance which expressed itself through the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi.
Anecdotes about Gandhiji will occupy a small but favourite corner in this vast literature about him, for it has its value in understanding his composite and complex personality. An English philosopher has pithily said that "trifles make perfection and perfection is not a trifle." The same idea, in relation to Gandhiji, was expressed by Jairamdas Doulatram in the following words :
"The true greatness of a person lies more in small deeds than in big achievements. It is the small things that count most in a man's life and show the stuff he is made of. Thus, if anyone wants to know and understand Gandhiji, his life and teachings, he must try to study and find out what true humanity is and how it worked in Gandhiji's everyday life and teachings."
Chandrashankar Shukla, one of the young set of Mahatmaji's private secretaries, has laid the world under a debt by collecting incidents from the life of the Mahatma. His four volumes, published by Vora & Co., are a treat both for their human interest and as historical documents supplementing the various biographies of Gandhiji. G. Ramachandran was perhaps the first in the field with his sheaf of anecdotes about Mahatmaji. What he has given is interesting and significant, but one feels unsatisfied at the paucity of material that makes up the sheaf. My own little collection, Stray Glimpses of Bapu3 was the result of after-lunch talks given to friends in the Seoni Jail, which came to an abrupt close with my unexpected release. I have had no time since then to write down further similar incidents.
And now my friend Prabhu has come out with his brilliant collection of about 150 anecdotes. Most of these are not to be found in any of the previous ones. The criticism that Horace Alexander levelled at my collection may apply equally to the present one of Prabhu. The stray glimpses which I presented in the little booklet are "like lost sheep", says Horace Alexander. "They are not arranged chronologically; neither are they classified into any appropriate headings." I could, with some effort, rearrange my glimpses into a chronological order; but I do not feel that it is necessary. Neither do I feel that Prabhu's anecdotes would improve by a similar treatment. He has followed the principle of the Buddhist work, Anguttara-nikaya. Starting with very short anecdotes, he has gradually led up to incidents that cover long chapters. I think that psychologically this is a good arrangement. One is gradually led on and on with increasing interest till one does not grudge the time required for finishing the entire book.
Not anything and everything that is written about a great man can pass muster as art anecdote or incident, but Prabhu has given the suggestive caption to his collection: This Was Bapu. Any incident or anecdote, to be worth the name ought to be significant. It must haunt your mind long after you have read it. Most of those collected here are strikingly significant. They are arresting and of sustained interest. They throw a flood of light, even of searchlight, on the character of Mahatma Gandhi. There are, however half-a-dozen ones which are neither significant nor striking. Fastidious literary critics might wish that these were dropped. Devotees of Gandhiji, however, would be grateful to Prabhu for having subordinated his sense of literary aesthetics to the responsibility or dharma of the chronicler in not dropping these incidents.
Lives of great men have a knack of "growing" with the passage of time. Anecdotes grow and grow in number and in variety till it becomes difficult to distinguish between those which are true and those which are spurious. This happens even during the life time of the person about whom the anecdotes are written. Human nature, specially in hero- worship, is prone to paint occasions according to its mood or taste. Take, for instance, the anecdote 146 in this collection. It describes the little revolution brought about by Mahatmaji during his first appearance in Shantiniketan in January, 1915. I was an honorary teacher there at the time and I had my own share in the little revolution, which I have described in my Stray Glimpses. In the anecdote, as stated in the present book, S. K. Roy has put the description, as from the mouth of the poet Tagore, that does not tally with the facts.
"In the meantime, Gandhiji asked the scavengers not to do any work for a few days. The high-caste boys could never think of doing the work of untouchable scavengers. Life in the school became almost impossible with the odour of night-soil. Then Gandhiji himself carried the pots on his own head . . . and buried the contents underground.
This super-human act was contagious. Soon the boys of the highest castes and rich families were vying with one another to have the honour of doing the work of the outcaste scavengers."
This description is apocryphal and one of pure imagination. Gandhiji did not ask the scavengers to give up their work, nor was there a single day when the latrines were not cleaned. We, some of the teachers and students, in our impatience did demolish a permanent latrine because Gandhiji happened to remark that the structure was old- fashioned, insanitary and hopeless. He had neither the time nor the occasion to carry pots of the night-soil on his head. I do not mean to say that he would not have done it. He had done it on many occasions in jails in South Africa. He did it along with us, inmates of the ashram, for long periods, but we never carried the pots on our heads. We had better methods.
In the anecdote 25, the following sentence is attributed to Gandhiji: "Whether it is my Gurudev or anybody, my eating goes on." I think it unlikely that Gandhiji could have referred to Tagore as "my Gurudev". In Shantiniketan we all referred to the Poet as "Gurudev". Gandhiji loyally followed the practice and always referred to the Poet as "the Gurudev", just as the latter referred to him as "the Mahatma". "My Gurudev", just does not represent the natural attitude of Mahatma Gandhi. There is an element of irreverent familiarity and possessiveness in the word "my" which was foreign to it.
A friend from Bengal pointed out the inaccuracy of facts that had crept into one of the incidents recorded in my Stray Glimpses. One can, therefore, be never sure whether the incidents actually happened, however scrupulously exact the writer may be in recording the version of it as given to him. But the common mind loves a good story and does not hesitate to invent one, if necessary, to magnify the greatness of the object of one's worship though sufficiently great in itself it may be !
One is, therefore, filled with admiration and gratitude at the extreme care with which the followers of the Prophet of Islam collected the anecdotes about him and tested rigorously the veracity of each one of them. The best thing to adopt about the anecdotes regarding Mahatma Gandhi would be for his contemporaries to write down all that they know of him as authentic; authors and publishers to verify whatever comes to them; and some time limit to be laid down for the collection of the anecdotes. Any appearing after that ought to be accepted with caution, the burden of proving their authenticity being thrown on those who produce them.
I know a friend from Singapore, a great admirer and devotee of Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, is "collecting typical anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi which reflect the sense of humour as evinced by Mahatmaji throughout his life, specially in his contacts with non-Indians. For instance, take the anecdote 35, here, in which Gandhiji is said to have answered the question regarding the secret of his power. It is not in consonance with the characteristic nature of Gandhiji as I knew him. It is just possible that he might have written some such thing in his early days. Somebody must trace out this anecdote to its original source. I do not mean to imply that what is written there is not the secret of Gandhiji's power. What I doubt is whether he would have explained it in that fashion.
Some of the anecdotes collected in this book are simply superb. Take, for instance, 33, about the postman whom Gandhiji describes as a "man of letters" and Ramsay Macdonald as "one of the statesmen true to his class, always waiting till circumstances force them to move"; 46, where he describes the loin-cloth as "minus fours", which has become classic; 43 is more about the poet Iqbal than about Gandhiji, but as an anecdote it must be classed Al; 59 is specially important today (the whole of Japan as also the rest of the world being uneasy at the effects of the atom bomb—and the latest is the H bomb—Gandhiji suggests that the power of the soul working through prayer is mightier than that of any atom bomb; and 125 shows the power of Gandhiji in death as in life).
Biographers of Gandhiji will do well to study and utilize these anecdotes, because they express the various aspects of his life much more than long dissertations. I have no doubt that some of the anecdotes recorded here will find a place in school text-books, and in anthologies of world's great apophthegms and of anecdotes about its great personalities.
Let me thank again Shri R. K. Prabhu for serving the reading public with such a delicious repast prepared with deep devotion and hard labour of love.
1. It should be stated here that this book as well as The Conquest of Self mentioned in line 5 from bottom, were jointly compiled by R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao.
2. Under this, Mahatma Gandhi—The Last Phase Vol. I & II have been published. Pub. Navajivan; price each vol. Rs. 20.
3. Published by Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, price Rs. 2, postage etc. 81 nP.