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Earlier in the year, MJ Akbar and I decided to co-author a book on Mahatma Gandhi. Why another book on him, when eleven thousand already exist. Yet, Gandhiana has not yet had its day. We were both aware of the diminishing demand for books on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The sales are still substantial. Our book is aimed at the eighteen to twenty five age group. They are familiar with Gandhi’s name and his fads, his fasts and obsession with spinning yarn, but not with his qualities as a saintly politician.

Not one in a thousand or even ten thousand of this group would have read, “The Story of My Experiment With Truth”, his autobiography. In many ways it is unique. We also had to address the question, “Was Gandhi a saint among politicians or a politician amongst saints.” The answer is not easy. Even George Orwell, EM Forster, Nehru and Einstein have not come close to solving the riddle.

I got hooked on Gandhi in my teens. The only time I set eyes on him was in June 1945, at the railway station at Bharatpur, my home town. The Frontier Mail, by which he was travelling in a third class compartment to Shimla, made a five minute halt at Bharatpur. When the train stopped, the Gandhi cap wearing Congress wallahs rushed toward it. I too had acquired a Gandhi cap against the wishes of my aristocratic father. While he vaguely respected Gandhi, he was not an enthusiastic admirer.

It was Gandhiji’s silence day and that restrained the boisterous of the crowd. My attempts to get his autograph failed. I was shooed off by the humourless Pyarelal, his secretary. I only have a vague memory of the event. One thing I do remember — I thought he was darker than I had imagined.

Now to the book. The most gripping part is the exchange of letters between Tagore and Gandhi, during the nonviolent, non-cooperation movement. Tagore was critical of some aspects and wrote a long essay in the Modern Review in September 1925.

“It is extremely distasteful to me to have to differ from Mahatma Gandhi in regard to any matter of principle or method. Not that, from a higher standpoint, there is anything wrong in so doing; but my heart shrinks from it. For what could be a greater joy than to join hands in the field of work with one for whom one has such love and reverence? Nothing is more wonderful to me than Mahatmaji’s great moral personality. In him divine providence has given us a burning thunderbolt of Shakti. May this Shakti give power to India — not overwhelm her — that is my prayer. The difference in our standpoints and temperaments has made the Mahatma look upon Rammohun Roy as a pygmy — while I revere him as a giant. The same difference makes the Mahatma’s field of work one which my conscience cannot accept as its own. This regret which will abide with me always. It is, however God’s will that man’s paths of endeavour shall be various, else why these differences of mentality. How often have any personal feelings of regard strongly urged me to accept at Mahatma Gandhi’s hands my enlistment as a follower of the charkha cult, but as often have any reason and conscience restrained me, lest I should be a party to the raising of the charkha to a higher place than is its due, thereby distracting attention from other more important factors in our task of all-around reconstruction. I feel sure that Mahatma himself will not fail to understand me, and keep for me the same forbearance which he has always had.

“If Swaraj had to be viewed for any length of time, only as home spun thread, that would be like having an infantile leg to nurse into maturity. A man like the Mahatma may succeed in getting some of our countrymen to take an interest in this kind of uninspiring nature for a time because of their faith in his personal greatness of soul. To obey him is for them an end in itself. To me it seems that such a state of mind is not helpful for the attainment of Swaraj.”

Tagore and Gandhi were born in the same decade, the former in 1861 and Gandhi in 1869. Both died in the same decade. Tagore passed away in 1941, Gandhiji was shot dead by Godse on 30th January 1948.


K NATWAR SINGH The author is Former Minister of External Affairs of India

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