Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
Revisiting Two Masterpieces of the Mahatma
by Sachi Sri Kantha
October 2nd marked the 136th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. As homage to the Great Soul, on this day I spent a few hours with his two literary masterpieces; namely his autobiography entitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), and his political manifesto Hind Swaraj [The Hindu Self Government, 1909].
I had a reason. My previous essay entitled ‘Democracy Dance in Diapers’ touched a vein from my readers and I received more than a quantum of e-mails for this piece. In that essay, I presented Bernard Shaw’s expose on democracy. Thus, I wanted to re-check what Mahatma, who is closer to our hearts and roots than Bernard Shaw, had to say on democracy. Here is my report.
Democracy in Gandhi’s Autobiography
I will first report the result. The word ‘democracy’ or its variant ‘democrat’ does not appear even once in Gandhi’s autobiography. Strange, but true. But in one chapter, he mentions humorously about the dancing lessons he took (while in Britain as a student in his twenties). One could even postulate that this discussion can be taken as Gandhi’s metaphorical prick on the alien concept of democracy to his Indian society.
First, I will provide some background information about Gandhi’s book. This may be helpful to comprehend, why Gandhi ‘insulted’ democracy as an alien concept.
I have two different editions of Gandhi’s autobiography on my bookshelf. One is the Navajivan Publishing House’s Indian edition (2nd edition, 1959 reprint), of 392 pages. The second one is the American Dover Publications edition (1983), of 468 pages. I have reason to mention this, since the front pages of these two editions vary in minor details.
The American Dover Publication edition mentions as follows: "This was an unabridged republication of the edition, published by Public Affairs Press, Washington DC, 1948, under the title, Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth." But it specifically omits the copyright information. Here is reverse copyright piracy by the American publishing industry of a famous book. In addition, the 'Introduction' by Gandhi, which carried the date "26th November 1925" [70 years ago, this year] of the original Indian edition had been subtly omitted. For what reason, I cannot fathom now.
In addition, the important preface by Mahadev Desai (the translator of the work, from Gujarathi original to English) has also been omitted in the American Dover Publications edition. I believe that this preface by Mahadev Desai is also essential to understanding Gandhi’s view on democracy.
Mahadev Desai’s Preface to the Second Edition (1940)
Mahadev Desai (1892-1942) was the translator of Gandhi’s autobiography. The original title of the autobiography in Gujarathi was, Satyanaa Prayogo athavaa Aatmakatha. In Desai's preface he wrote as follows:
"The first edition of Gandhiji’s Autobiography was published in two volumes, vol.I in 1927 and vol.II in 1929. The original in Gujarati which was priced at Re.1/- has run through five editions, nearly 50,000 copies have been sold. The price of the English translation (only issued in library edition) was prohibitive for the Indian reader, and a cheap edition has long been needed. It is now being issued in one volume. The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had, it may be noted, the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision. It has now undergone careful revision, and from the point of view of language, it has had the benefit of careful revision by a revered friend, who, among many other things, has the reputation of being an eminent English scholar. Before understanding the task, he made it a condition that his name should on no account be given out. I accept the condition. It is needless to say heightens my sense of gratitude to him. Chapters XXIX-XLIII of Part V were translated by my friend and colleague Pyarelal during my absence in Bardoli at the time of the Bardoli Agrarian Inquiry by the Broomfield Committee in 1928-29."
The most vital sentence in this preface by Mahadev Desai written for the second edition of 1940, is "The translation, as it appeared serially in Young India, had, it may be noted, the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision." The first two sentences of the Introduction to the Autobiography, written by Mahatma on 26th November 1925, mention as follows:
"Four or five years ago, at the instance of some of my nearest co-workers, I agreed to write my autobiography. I made the start, but scarcely had I turned over the first sheet when riots broke out in Bombay and the work remained at a standstill."
Numerical details on Mahatma’s Autobiography
Now let us study the dates and numbers. Mahatma’s autobiography closes with the events of year 1921. At that time, Gandhi was 52 years old. Gandhi began to write his life story in 1925, and it appeared first in 1927 and 1929.
The book consists of five parts, each consisting of quite a number of short chapters. Part 1 – 25 chapters; Part 2 – 29 chapters; Part 3 – 23 chapters; Part 4 – 47 chapters and Part 5 – 43 chapters. Altogether, five parts contained 167 chapters. When he began to write his life story, Gandhi had reached 56 years. And that he did not write a single sentence on democracy tells something about Gandhi’s disbelief on the prevailing democratic practices.
Then, the 2nd edition of the book appeared in 1940, and Mahadev Desai has observed that the English translation had the benefit of Gandhiji’s revision. By 1940, Gandhi had reached 71 years. Even in such a revision, that Gandhi did not make any amends [in his autobiography] to correct his disbelief on the prevailing democratic practices is something of note.
This does not mean that Gandhi refrained completely from mentioning democracy in his writings. In the 1930s, occasionally he had expressed his opinions on democracy, most probably as responses to questions from reporters and acquaintances. These opinions deserve a separate essay. My point here is that in his own autobiography [the most intimate published document of his thoughts and deeds consisting of 167 chapters], Gandhi did not bother to mention anything of worth about democracy.
The Navajivan Publishing House edition carries also the details on the print run of the book’s English translation. 1927 First edition – 6,000 copies; 1940 Second edition – 5,000 copies; 1945 reprint – 10,000 copies; 1948 reprint – 15,000 copies; 1956 reprint – 10,000 copies; 1958 reprint – 29,000 copies; 1959 reprint – 45, 000 copies. It seems that the print run exceeded 10,000 copies only after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.
Gandhi’s Dancing Lessons
Chapter 15 of Part 1 of the autobiography was entitled, ‘Playing the English Gentleman.’ In this chapter, Gandhi has humorously described his adventures in Britain, at the age of 25, to become an English gentleman. I may not be wrong to think that this was a metaphorical allusion on the folly of blind adoption of democratic practices. Gandhi was a skilled exponent on such word play, as noted by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1901-1994), in his Pulitzer Prize winning study Gandhi’s Truth (1969). Excerpts from Gandhi’s original description on his dancing lessons are as follows:
Gandhi’s specific mention of trying to learn elocution from William Pitt’s speech offers a clue. William Pitt the younger (1759-1806) became the youngest British prime minister in 1783, after American Independence, and held the post during the French and Napoleonic Wars. Pitt has been elevated as a statesman in the 19th century since he helped to strengthen the office of the prime minister from the tantrums of King George III.
More proof for Gandhi’s derision on democracy follows further below in the notes on Gandhi’s political manifesto Hind Swaraj (1909).
That Gandhi could describe quite a number of his down-to-earth personal experiences (including dancing, food habits, prostitution, sexual abstinence, sleep and dream, vegetarianism) and serious political and social issues of his times in his autobiography, but not mention a sentence on democracy in 167 chapters shows something about his lack of faith on democratic practices.
Democracy in Gandhi’s political manifesto Hind Swaraj (1909)
For Gandhi’s stinging criticism on the democratic practices of parliament, we should read his political manifesto, penned when he was 40. In the preface, carrying the dateline 22 November 1909, Gandhi asserted his viewpoint as follows:
Gandhi concluded his preface with the comments,
Gandhi exposed the hypocrisy of parliamentary democracy prevailing in Britain in 1909. Now 96 years later, the democratic situation all over the world has not changed in substance, though colorful styles are projected as worthy of imitation. Parliaments all over the world, led by the likes of Tony Blair (UK), Manmohan Singh (India), Paul Martin (Canada), John Howard (Australia), Junichiro Koizumi (Japan), Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore) and Mahinda Rajapakse (Sri Lanka), attest to the truth of Gandhi’s derision. Here follows the 739 words of stinging indictment of parliamentary democracy by Gandhi. [source: The Penguin Gandhi Reader, edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Penguin Books, India, 1993, pp.13-15]
Chapter V: The Condition of England
And, it is a delight to read Gandhi’s analogy of parliament as a baby, and his biting sarcasm, "If it has remained a baby after an existence of seven hundred years, when will it outgrow its babyhood?" Does not the connection that I made about democracy as a 'set of diapers' in my previous essay [‘Democracy Dance in Diapers’] chime well with Gandhi’s 1909 rebuff of parliament as a 'baby?'
Posted October 6, 2005