A young life as restless as mercury

Partha Pratim Hazarika


One of the must read and most read books in the world is The Story of My Experiment with Truth by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Mahatma’s memoir is famous for the truths he held dear to his heart, but the book is equally famous for being incomplete, with the memoir stopping abruptly in 1920. The then would-be Mahatma although gave up writing his memories, Gandhi continued to speak and write about everything – his life, family, work, colleagues, those who opposed and venerated him, his hopes, anxieties, challenges, fasts, jail stints, enthusiasms and, of course, disappointments. These autobiographical observations are scattered over several pages of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as in some works that were published in his lifetime under his gaze. When knitted together, these make for a gripping and powerful story. Titled Restless as Mercury (that was how Gandhi’s only sister Raliyat had described the young Mohandas): My Life as a Young Man makes for an engrossing reading into the life and times of the young man. This is the extraordinary story of the householder and lawyer who would become the Mahatma, told in his own words, edited by his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi and brought to the stands by Aleph Book Company.

In fact, his sister Raliyat had had this stunningly accurate characterization of her brother that provided the title of this book, ‘restless as mercury’, as he used to either play or roam around in the streets when he was a child. Tales such as Harishchandra and Shravana had a great impact on Gandhi when he was a child. Young Gandhi was deeply influenced by his mother Putlibai who was a proponent of fasting. She would often keep two or three consecutive fasts.

Jain teachings of mutual tolerance, non-injury to living beings and vegetarianism, things that stayed with him throughout his life and defined his character, especially his philosophy of non-violence, ruled his upbringing days.

The book starts with Mohandas’s birth in 1869 and focuses on his early years in Gujarat, his schooling, immediate family and marriage to Kasturba. Then we see him away from his home and family in a new environment, England, where he goes to study law. He continues his commitment to vegetarianism and engages in a brief flirtation with becoming an English gentleman. He then makes a quick visit home to Rajkot before going to South Africa to practise law, a country where he experiences racial prejudice and struggles to balance the demand of home and public life. We then see Gandhi setting up the Ambulance Corps with other Indians, becomes politically engaged, and starts fighting for the rights of Indians in South Africa. It is during this period that he starts his journal Indian Opinion and sets up his ashram in Durban – curiously called the Phoenix Settlement. As his ethics and values firm up, he finds himself in a battle at home with his wife, Kasturba.

All three major sections of the South African population – the ruling Europeans, the majority Africans, and the minority Asians – mounted assault on Gandhi’s politics. This makes his belief in non-violent struggle stronger and his idea of Satyagraha comes to the fore. He begins courting imprisonment and encourages his friends, family and fellow Indians to do so as well. It is in this period that Gandhi sets up Tolstoy Farm for the families of the satyagrahis. The last part of the book sees him leading disciplined mass movements the likes of which had been seen nowhere before. And when the demands of the South African satyagraha are conceded, Gandhi decides the time has come for him to return to India. Accompanied by Kasturba, he leaves South Africa for India in 1914 for the great appointment with history that awaits him in the motherland.

As he was imprisoned for two months in South Africa on one among several occasions, one would be naive not to quote Gandhi in his own words: “What would happen in two months? Would I have to serve the full term? If the people courted imprisonment in large numbers, there would be no question of serving the full term. But if they fail to fill the prison, two months would be as tedious as an age. How vain I was! I began to laugh at my own folly. …The police officer opened the door and asked me to follow him, which I did to the prison van. I was driven to the Johannesburg jail.”

Full of insights and revelations, Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s book never stops enlightening the reader on the Mahatma. A read will make one relearn what he or she had already known about the apostle of peace. Just after Gandhi sailed back to India, he remembered the happiest moments in South Africa. “Just before SS Kinfauns Castle, by which we were sailing, weighed anchor, a Cape Argus representative approached me for ‘any final remarks he would like to make’. Let me say that I shall carry away with me the happiest recollections, and that I hope it will be my pleasure while away to find that my countrymen are being treated with justice in South Africa. May I convey, on behalf of Mrs Gandhi,… and self, our deepest thanks to hundreds of senders of telegrams from all parts of South Africa which awaited upon our arrival on board. These telegrams, containing messages of love and sympathy, will be an additional reminder to us of what South Africa has meant to us. We trust that the goodwill shown to us personally by so many European friends will be transferred to those to whose cause our lives in South Africa were dedicated.”

Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man is a riveting read, a candid and unflinching account of the struggles, experiences and philosophies that informed and influenced the young Mohandas. The book is a paved way to revisit the life of the apostle of peace, Mahatma Gandhi.

Courtesy: The Assam Tribune, dt. 30.01.2021

Click here to buy the book