17 December 2008

Where Gandhi Learned His Methods

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 24-26:
ON 2 OCTOBER 1869, A SON WAS BORN INTO A MIDDLE-CLASS family in Gujarat, a collection of princely states under British authority on the western coast of India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an ordinary childhood, culminating, as ordinary childhoods often do, in a teenage rebellion. This revealed a boy whose desire to experiment was usually halted by an immobilizing timidity in the actual act of defiance. He tried smoking and stole gold from his family to finance it; but this upset him morally, and so he stopped. Though from a strictly vegetarian family, he tried eating meat; but this upset him physically, and then morally as well, and then he dreamed of a live goat trapped in his stomach, bleating, so he stopped that too. Once he was egged on to visit a prostitute, but stood in the brothel having a crisis of confidence until the woman shouted at him to go away. On another occasion, he and a cousin ventured into the jungle to kill themselves by overdosing on datura, the narcotic seeds of the thorn apple; but, once they found the plant, they lost their nerve.

This boy's family was reasonably well-off and of a middling but respectable caste. Hindu society had been divided for over seventeen hundred years into four main castes, reflecting second-century social groups: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Sudras (farmers). Within each of these were hundreds of minute subdivisions, and below them a mass of outcastes, or "Untouchables"—those unfortunates who, condemned by the bad karma of previous incarnations, were destined to spend their lives sweeping, begging, scrubbing latrines and cleaning up corpses. The Gandhi family were Vaishyas, and within that were of the Bania subdivision. Banias were notorious for being hard-bargaining salesmen, a trait which young Mohan evidently inherited and would one day apply to spiritual and political ends with unprecedented effect.

Mohan's rebellion was perhaps more unusual because the supposed cure for youthful misbehavior had already been administered. Karamchand and Putliba Gandhi had already married their thirteen-year-old son to a girl from a staunchly religious family. The girl who had been chosen, Kasturbai Makanji (known according to local tradition as Kasturba later in life, when she became matriarch of the household), was also just thirteen.

During daylight hours, etiquette decreed that Mohan and Kasturbai should ignore each other completely. Even an affectionate word between husband and wife was considered taboo. As darkness fell, they were left to their own devices, though neither had much idea what those should be. Mohan went to the bazaar to buy pamphlets, hoping to learn about his conjugal rights and duties. He was taken with the concept of fidelity and decided it should be his task to extract this from Kasturbai. He told her that she could no longer leave the house without his consent.

But, despite her youth, Kasturbai had already mastered the most effective technique available to women who live in extremely restrictive societies: that of passive resistance. She was a devout Hindu from a very traditional background and would not openly disobey her husband. Instead, she found a loophole.

Mohan's mother asked Kasturbai to accompany her to the temple every day. Because this request was made in the daytime, when the young spouses were not supposed to communicate, Kasturbai was unable to ask Mohan's permission. To disobey the command of the matriarch, on the other hand, would have been a terrible sin. So Kasturbai went with Putliba to the temple and returned to have her first fight with her husband, which she won by the sheer power of logic. Mohan was forced to remove the restrictions he had placed on Kasturbai.

This small incident would hardly be worthy of note, except for the fact that it formed the basis for Gandhi's entire political method. In later years, when he found that he was at a disadvantage being an Indian in a white world, he would remember and develop the tactic of a woman in a man's world. All Gandhi's most famous tactics—passive resistance, civil disobedience, logical argument, nonviolence in the face of violence, emotional blackmail—had come from Kasturbai's influence. He freely admitted this: "I learned the lesson of nonviolence from my wife."
This, I regret to say, is my last excerpt from one of the best books I've read in quite a while. Von Tunzelmann is both a wonderful storyteller and a diligent researcher. (In that she is the equal, in my estimation, of Barbara Tuchman, one of my all-time favorite narrators of history; and I hope she already has another manuscript in the works.) In my many excerpts, I have excised all the endnote references, leaving no indication that supporting notes, maps, and glossaries consume almost 20% of a book nearly 500 pages long.

My historian brother has done a lot of research on Gandhi and is very critical of him, as are many revisionist historians. Von Tunzelmann also dishes plenty of dirt on Gandhi (and the other principal actors), while crediting him with two outstanding achievements: launching an effective campaign of nonviolence with the Salt March in 1930 and dampening communal violence in Bengal during the partition in 1947, a partition that he fervently opposed but unwittingly abetted. Between those two events, many of his efforts were irrelevant, at best, and counterproductive, at worst.

1 comment:

Language said...

You've done your work well -- I just added it to my Amazon gift list!