GANDHI AND GANDHISM IN INDO-ANGLIAN FICTION
DR. L. S. R. KRISHNA SASTRY
Gandhi it may be said without the fear of exaggeration: he carne, he saw, he
conquered. His arrival on the Indian scene: marked the beginning of a new
political era and the smouldering national
consciousness leapt up into a mighty flame. He had already perfected his
instruments of social action in
The Gandhian ethic was no more than a restatement of values preached and cherished from times immemorial, but the unique power lay in the peculiar synthesis evolved to suit the demands of a specific situation. He truly belonged to the masses and was the one leader who succeeded in striking the right chord in the heart of the common man. It was through a process of trial and error that he evolved his policies and programmes, and thereby himself, and his ‘inner voice’ was always paramount to him. Steadfastness to principles did not mean inflexibility and he was always willing to alter his stand if such was the prompting from within. Personal salvation lay for him in service to the people and he was able to see God as Truth–as an intuitive perception within himself and as a realisation in life without. Gandhi, however, cannot be imprisoned within any system and he evades the grasp of any so-called intellectual analysis.
The Gandhian revolution was like an earthquake which shook the entire nation and every aspect of the life of the people received the impact. Literature too was deeply influenced by Gandhism. In almost all the regional literatures the writers tried to articulate the new idiom and herald the new era. Literature acquired a fresh vitality and a social purpose, and became an engine of revolution.
Gandhi himself was a great practitioner of the written word, although writing for him was not an end in itself but a prelude to action. He believed that art did not have autonomy but was meaningful only when it served a concrete social purpose, firmly ‘committed’ to the values of ‘good’ life. This does not, however, diminish the importance of Gandhi himself as writer and his Hind Swaraj is universally valued as an English classic, while his autobiography is one of the priceless treasures of English literature, not to mention the many other treatises and speeches which are alike memorable for the beauty and power of style. The force of style is verily the result of the force of the soul and the words wing their way to our hearts. Apart from his own contribution, which is certainly quite considerable, Gandhi was responsible for influencing many of the Indo-Anglian writers who viewed the country’s situation with concern and concentration and attempted to portray the tranition of the ‘heroic’ age in their work. Some of these examples are dealt with here.
Gandhi’s influence was felt by the different literatures in various aspects and intensities, even as his impact on the nation was many-sided. The tendency was in favour of simplicity in style and the writers turned their attention from the elite of the cities to the common people of the rural areas. The Gandhian ethic had to combat opposition at different levels and this clash forms the motive force for the writing.
Although there are poets and dramatists also who creatively responded to the Gandhian impact, it is perhaps in fiction that one finds a satisfactory expression of the whole range of Gandhian revolution. K. S. Venkataramani, for example, is one of the earliest and most notable interpreters of the Gandhian ‘heroic’ age. His two novels Murugan the Tiller and Kandan the Patriot are remarkable expositions of Gandhian economics and politics respectively, while being eminently readable as works of art.
Murugan the Tiller, published in 1927, deals with the lives of two
friends, Ramu and Kedari,
whose different roads finally lead them to the
Ramu is the ideal character that is the pivot of the novel and one can see in him something of genuine Gandhism. The verdict is against city life with its, perils and pitfalls and there a plea for rural uplift. The political message notwithstanding, the novel is a true and effective picture of Indian village life. The scenes are familiar and the characters are typical. The river scene at Alavanti is a kind of running commentary on the happenings of the novel.
Kandan the Patriot, published in 1932, represents a clear advance in technique and many threads are woven into the complex web of the plot. There was a change in the national situation also. The second Round Table Conference was attended by Gandhi as the single representative of the Indian National Congress and proved a failure. There was a resumption of the Civil Disobedience movement which resulted in large-scale repression and mass arrests. The novel came out serially in the Swarajya, then a daily edited by the great Andhra leader, the late Sri Tanguturi Prakasam, and was followed with rapt attention, as it seemed to mirror forth the events of the trouble-packed times.
Ramu in Murugan turns down the offer of Collectorship almost at the end of his career, but Kandan starts his career with an act of renunciation–he gives up the coveted I.C.S. His mental calibre reminds us of Kedari and his humble and total commitment to his fellowmen reminds us of Ramu. There is his friend, Rangan, who vainly hopes in his selfishness and love of pomp that one can change the Government even by working in the Government. There is their fiery friend, Rajeswari Bai, for whom the cause of the country is more sacred than the idea of marriage. These characters are no creatures of imagination, but recall several great patriots who sacrificed their everything in response to the call of Gandhi and plunged into the freedom struggle.
There are numerous other characters that initiate and sustain action at different levels in the novel. There are domestic tensions and personal confrontations. One finds all the peculiar features of a village–a toddy-shop that is the haunt of the villagers, a zamindar who has a natural sense of authority and tries to do things as he likes, a small railway station with a junior station-master, etc. One also has clear glimpses of the imposing Adyar guest house, the busy Egmore station and the crowded Boat Mail. The remarkable excellence of the novel is that each scene and every character have their specific significance in the total context of the action. The climactic event of Kandan’s death lakes place when the numberless Satyagrahis gather for a public meeting in defiance of prohibitory orders. The crowd is asked to disperse in two minutes–an order impossible to obey–and when that is not done there is lathi charge and firing. A stray bullet kills Kandan and he dies a martyr. In the end all the characters undergo a translation of roles and there is the hope expressed that the freedom of the country would soon be a reality.
The action of the novel which races at a breath-taking speed has a splendid unity about it. Certain words and phrases are used in more than one sense. Thus the word ‘collision’ is applicable to a variety of contexts. The log of wood that Kandan pushes into the river is symbolic of the predicament of the country, which too is in need of a purposive push. Kandan dies thirsting for water and this thirst is referred to as one for freedom. These similes and symbolic extensions fit so aptly and effortlessly into the context and add to the charm and depth of the novel. The titles of the chapters in both the novels form an interesting subject for examination.
Venkataramani calls Murugan
the Tiller a novel of Indian rural life and Kandan
the Patriot a novel of new
An almost Dickensian capacity for observation and analysis, a diction that is a rare blend of simplicity and loftiness, a firm grasp of the human situation and, above all, a gift for abundant humour and rich poetry–these indeed are the features of Venkataramani and his two novels occupy a unique place in Gandhi literature.
Untouchability, Gandhi said, is a blot
on Hinduism, and he did not hesitate to part company
from his wife when she tried to discriminate against a paraya
during their stay in
Untouchable–the omission of the definite article is deliberate because similar is the plight of any untouchable–is the story of the life of the bhangi boy, Bakha, even as Coolie deals with the career of the hill boy, Munoo. While Coolie is notable for its comprehensiveness and width, Untouchable is remarkable for its concentration and depth. If the one reads like an expansive five-act drama, the other is a powerful one-act play.
Bakha, one of the sons of Lakha, is an eighteen-year old youth whose consciousness is lighted up by new ideas of modernity and ‘fashun.’ He represents an advance in his own family whose other members seem to suffer their lot in silent resignation. His sleight of hand is only matched by the speed of his imagination. Even while he is engaged in the task of cleaning the lavatories his mind wanders along and one realises that Bakha is a simple and sensitive soul trying to work out his own little ambition of being something: of a ‘gentreman’.
A few scenes are presented which throw to the surface the pernicious evil that is untouchability. The cup of Bakha’s anguish gets filled in the course of these happenings. The first of these is the scene at the well. Sohini, Bakha’s sister, goes there for water and joins the crowd already waiting. None of them can draw water and they wait for some passer-by of the high caste to help them. Sohini is badly abused by another woman of the low caste for no fault of hers, and one sees the invidious subdivisions even among the low-caste people. At last the priest, Kali Nath, happens to come there and decides to help them more to provide for himself the needed exercise to end constipation! He casts his looks on the full-blown beauty of low-caste Sohini and confers the favour of water first on her. He further suggests that she should go to his house later in the day to clean the courtyard. This leads to another scene. When Sohini goes to the priest’s courtyard after informing her father, she has to face the indecent gestures of the priest and it is he who shouts that he is polluted and gathers a crowd of fellow high-castes. Here lies the mockery of the situation. Bakha himself arrives on the scene in the course of his own work, experiences a sudden surge of indignation but finally realises his helplessness.
“He could not invade the magic circle which protects a priest from attack by anybody, especially by a low-caste man. So in the highest moment of his strength, the slave in him asserted itself, and he lapsed back, wild with torture, biting his lips, ruminating his grievances.”
Bakha’s own adventures are no less saddening. He is full of enthsiasm in the forenoon and there is a vista of bright possibilities before him–the starting of English lessons, the hockey match in the evening, etc. But at every turn he meets but with abuse and his inner being suffers serious dents. Just at the time when he feels somewhat happy at the sweetmeat-shop engaged in the process of enjoying the jelabis that he bought, the blow comes to him like a bolt from the blue. He unknowingly touches a high-caste person and an excruciating torture starts for him. Not only the one defiled but all gathered pour abuse on him, including a street urchin, who invents a full story of Bakha beating them all and enhances the wrath of the crowd. Bakha’s pleadings are in vain and finally he is slapped by the ‘touched’ man. His turban falls off and the paper bag containing sweets is lost in the dust. His mind is shaken and he thinks of all the things that happened. He does not understand why he should have endured the torture. At last he recognises the truth of it all: he is an untouchable and so he is abused. The events cast such a spell of gloom on Bakha that he returns home grim and grave. There is an inner civil war and the pent-up emotion finally finds a vent before his father:
“They think we are mere dirt because we clean their dirt. That Pundit in the temple tried to molest Sohini and then came shouting ‘polluted, polluted.’ The women of the big house in the silversmith’s Gulley threw the bread at me from the fourth story. I won’t go down to the town again. I have done with the job.”
Lakha sees through his son’s agony and tries to console him saying that the high-caste people are really kind and that untouchability is only an injunction of religion. Bakha, however, is not satisfied and untouchability appears to him as a social conspiracy and a man-made curse that must somehow be ended.
In the afternoon he is happy to spend some nice time with his friends and then moves to Havildar Charat Singh’s apartment. He is treated with warmth and caste doesn’t come in the way. The Havildar gifts away an almost new hockey stick to Bakha and in the match against the 31st Punjabis Bakha plays with skill and sends a goal, which creates a confusion resulting in a little boy getting hurt. Bakha tries to go to help the little boy and in the process once again commits the sin of pollution. His sadness reaches its height when he is mercilessly abused by his own father. This is how the day concludes for him.
There is, however, an extension to the novel in which Gandhi is himself introduced. Three different cures are suggested to tackle the malady of untouchability. The first is the way of Colonel Hutchinson, the Salvationist, who ,promises to Bakha Christ’s compassion, but somehow Bakha does not understand why he should regard himself as a sinner. Then he hears Gandhi’s soothing words in the park on the theme of Harijans. The very word ‘Harijan’ electrifies him and he hears Gandhi with rapt attention, although he does not fully follow the meaning. He is thrilled when the Mahatma declares that if he should have another birth, he would prefer to be born a Harijan. Gandhi further points out that the Harijans are actually responsible for cleaning the Hindu society and adds that they should clean themselves too by getting rid of evil habits like liquor and gambling. In other words Gandhi states that it is for Harijans themselves to achieve their emancipation. Bakha is deeply moved by what Gandhi says. He is horrified that the caste Hindus should have perpetuated such a great discrimination, which was actually not religious in origin. But soon he has a third experience and that is with the poet, Iqbal Nath Sarshar. For him the answer to untouchability lies in the Machine–the flush system. Then the so-called untouchables would assume their legitimate dignity and lead the lives of useful members in a casteless and classless society. The tow approaches of Gandhi and the Poet profoundly influence Bakha; Gandhi’s approach is aimed at correcting the present, the poet’s approach presents for the bright vision of the better future. Commenting on this E. M. Forster points out in the preface, “Some readers may find this closing section of the book too voluble and sophisticated, in comparison with the clear observation which has preceded it, but it is an integral part of the author’s scheme. It is the necessary climax, and it has mounted up with triple effect. Bakha returns to his father and his wretched bed, thinking now of the Mahatma, now of the machine. His Indian day is over and the next day will be like it, but on the surface of the earth if not in the depths of the sky, a change is at hand.”
Although Bakha is a typical untouchable, he has his indisputable individuality. He has a ‘live’ Consciousness and his capacity for observation and analysis is unusual. The inner world of Bakha’s mind and heart is effectively probed and one is made to grasp the human predicament and spiritual crisis in all that happens to him. A rare blend of involvement and detachment is effected by the novelist and the novel is so convincingly truthful and overwhelmingly powerful.
In an illuminating article, Mulk Raj Anand throws a beam of light on the biographical context of Untouchable. He tells us how the “book poured out like hot lava from the volcano of my crazed imagination, during a long week-end.” He was influenced, as far as the technique was concerned, by Joyce’s Ulysses, and though that it was possible to probe the life of a single character in a single day, that the stream of consciousness method could be used to suggest value judgments about the characters and finally that there could be a novel on anything provided there was a pattern. He chanced to read about Gandhi’s concern for the outcastes and decided to set him and read out to him portions of his novel. He went to Gandhi, stayed in the Ashram and participated in latrine-cleaning. This too had its impact on him and it gave him the necessary spiritual training which made him look upon all work as worship. He was somewhat transformed from the Blooms-bury intellectual to a more ‘emphatically self-conscious Indian.’ His life was simplified and he decided to write about the poor. All this had, of course, something to do with his general attitude as writer, but one finds in Untouchable the clear impact of his encounter with Gandhi. The novel gains in intensity with the physical participation of Gandhi himself in the action. It is the moving cry of an agonised soul that in truth there is nothing like caste.
In The Sword and the Sickle, which was published in 1942, Anand not only introduces Ganohi, but the hero, Lalu Singh, seeks an interview and talks to Gandhi. Here the theme is revolutionary politics and Lalu is drawn into the vortex of violence after a spell of disillusionment. He returns from war full of hope that he would be suitably honoured and rehabilitated, but nobody cares for him and he is sent home. He finds that there is not much of a home because his mother is no more. His property is gone. Maya, his earlier love, is now a widow and they decide to leave the village and settle down somewhere. They enter the establishment of an interesting prince whose picture is partly a caricature. He and his friends like Lalu pursue the path of revolution with the ambition of eliminating all divisions which are based on property and of freeing the people from the tyranny of alien rule. For them Russia is the land of freedom (as the title of the novel implies) and the path to freedom lies in revolution. During one of the adventures, they come to Allahabad and Lalu meets Gandhi at the Anand Bhavan. By the time he enters the room the Mahatma is seen preoccupied with a note that he dictates on non-violence and the atmosphere does not impress Lalu. Then proceeds the conversation between the during which Gandhi tells him categorically:
‘The first thing that I can say to the peasants is to cast out fear...the real relief is for them to be free from fear...’
Lalu tells him that only retaliation would work because the poor peasants were so constantly threatened. Gandhi reacts sharply:
‘Strength does not come from physical force. It comes from the will. Non-violence does not mean submission to the will of the evil-doer, but of pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under the law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust Empire and lay the foundation for that Empire’s downfall or its regeneration.’
Lalu thinks this is too much of ‘sermonizing’ and tries to bring Gandhi to the ‘point’ with the request that he should come to the peasants. But Gandhi says with firmness in tone that the peasants are not ready for the fight that he wants. Lalu realises that the Mahatma is not to be approached unless they follow his ways. Although he inwardly feels conscious of his own limitations and misdeeds as a revolutionary, such is his pride that he prefers cynically to develop a feeling of disregard for Gandhi. He goes his own way in reckless determination and finally lands himself in jail.
Thus one sees that Lalu the revolutionary has only made a mess of his life; he does not realize his ambition, nor does he make his wife happy. He simply drifts along the flood of revolution which leaves a trail of destruction. In this novel too the introduction of Gandhi is significant and yet another of his cardinal principles is stressed. One’s fiercest enemy is one’s fear and that should be eliminated if freedom is to be won. The revolutionary who does not realise the need and value of inner discipline and evolution but depends on physical force careers only to confusion destruction. The consistent touch of sharp satire highlights the futility of the revolutionary creed. Here again, Anand gives us not a mere political document but an intimate and authentic picture of Indian life and holds the mirror up to one of the confused and tumultuous phases of Indian history.
Another important fictional experiment in interpreting the tremblings and tribulations of the Gandhian age is Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, which is verily a tour de force. Published in 1938, the novel is the most inclusive and satisfying of all the attempts to turn Gandhian politics to creative use, because the whole range of Gandhian revolution is embodied here. At the same time, the novel is a true and telling picture of Indian rural life with all its peculiarities. The village is like any other Indian village and the narrator, who is an elderly woman of the village, is like anybody’s grandmother with a gift for endless story-telling. That is why the novel is a curious mixture of politics and mythology, truth and fiction. To create this impression effectively the novelist adopts the language of the novel creatively and distils into the English language the directness and power of the vernacular.
The Gandhian ethic was a multi-pronged attack on different fronts to eliminate the many ills of the country and aimed at nothing short of a total reawakening of the country. And the country meant the village because the rural population was in a majority. Kanthapura gives a picture of the invasion of Gandhism on a quiet and ‘civilisation-proof’ South Indian village. Presently the movement gains momentum and all the principles of Gandhi are worked out. The clash between the old order and the new is portrayed with power and piquancy–orthodox bigotry and reformist progressivism, exploitation and the exploited, arrogant bureaucracy and innocent villagers.
Gandhi is mystically inducted into the novel when the vision of Moorthy, who is the leader of Kanthapura that sets the process of revolution in motion, is recorded. Moorthy sees Gandhi in his vision as clearly as in the wakeful state and has an inspiring conversation with him. Gandhi tells Moorthy:
“There is but one force in life and that is truth, and there is but one love in life and that is the love of mankind, and there is but one God in life and that is the God of all.”
Moorthy calls himself the slave of the Mahatma and prostrates before him seeking his command. The only command that Gandhi gives Moorthy is that he should give up foreign cloth and work for the dumb millions of the villages. Moorthy promises Gandhi that he would do accordingly. He gives up foreign cloth and foreign education and returns to his village for the work of rural regeneration. He leads and guides the villagers in ushering in the various Gandhian programmes–Harijan uplift, picketing of toddy-shops, etc. He even undertakes a fast to drive out the dross in him.
Kanthapura is thus a picture of a whole epoch and a microscopic study of the phenomenon that is Gandhian revolution. It is written in such a way that one gets a true and total picture of the churning of the sea of Indian life that Gandhi accomplished. It is doubly significant because it constitutes a unique technical and artistic achievement, besides being an imperishable testament of Gandhian politics.