The Mahatma's Letters
RAMESH CHANDRAN in London
It is the season of Monet and Manet─and big money at Sothbey's and Christie's, the world's most prestigious auction houses. Monet's legendary impressionist work, A Parisian Street Scene, fetched a record £7.7 million last fortnight. but despite the record prices, the auction world is abuzz with another historic work up for sale next week─hitherto unpublished letters by Mahatma Gandhi estimated to be by far the most important archives of the father of the Indian nation.
There are over 260 letters written by Gandhi to his close friend and disciple, the Polish-German Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach, 15 letters and notes written by the Mahatma to his follower Hanna Lazar, and over 130 telegrams sent to him by well-wishers before he left South Africa.
Dr. Peter Beal of Sotheby's books and manuscripts department describes the letters as being "of exceptional significance not only because of their huge volume but also since they shed considerable light on al little known period in Gandhi's life─his years in South Africa: and because the letters were spread over 15 years, one can see the gradual formulation of Gandhi's most powerful concepts, the philosophy of ahimsa, satyagraha.
The letters, all in English, are addressed variously to ‘Mr. Kallenbach’, ‘old friend’, ‘Copper House’, and are signed ‘M.K. Gandhi’, ‘Lower House’, ‘your old friend’, or simply ‘Bapu’. Most of them are written in ink or pencil: a few are typed or in the hand of an amanuensis. The letters run into more than 1,200 pages, many of them on official paper, notably Pretoria Goal. They are written on board ships and trains, from various locations in South Africa, London, Heidelberg and India.
The first letter in this collection is dated February 9, 1909, and the last December 5, 1944. Though Sotheby’s are tight-lipped about the identity of the collection’s owners it is reliably learnt that the letters belong to the Kallenbach family. Sotheby’s has put a price tag of £70,000 to £80,000 on the collection, but expects it to reach six figures.
As auction day at Sotheby’s―December 18―approaches, inquiries made at the Indian High Commission regarding the Indian Government’s plans to acquire the letters elicited the response that the matter was being “considered”. Foreign scholars feel that if the letters go back to India, it would be a coup of sorts, a superb addition to the Gandhi Museum and a windfall to Gandhi scholars. At present the Indian Government has compiled Gandhi’s writings in 85 volumes running into over half a million printed pages. The task begun in 1957 is still incomplete, a major gap being Gandhi’s reflections on the years in South Africa.
It was in May 1910 that Kallenbach mesmerized by Gandhi donated to him the 1,100-acre farm at Lawley, 20 miles from Johannesburg, which later became known as Tolstoy Farm. It is evident from the letters that Kallenbach idolized the Mahatma which clearly discomfited the latter. He wrote: “You refuse to recognize my limitations. How shall I retain such an exalted standard…..Shall I be able to live up to it?” Throughout Gandhi’s traumatic days in South Africa, Kallenbach remained an indomitable all, suffering imprisonment along with the Mahatma. In 1914, he compared Kallenbach with another loyal white friend, C.F. Andrews, and wrote: “Though I love, almost adore, Andrews so, I would not exchange you for him. You still remain the dearest and nearest to me and so far as my own selfish nature is considered I know that in my lonely journey through the world you will be the last (if even that) to say goodbye to me.” The letters, Dr. Beal remarks, are of exceptional value especially since the Mahatma wrote without the slightest inhibition. However, the relationship between the two men was not always seraphic and exemplary. Kallenbach often emerges as a complex and brooding individual and Gandhi steadfastly continued to counsel him over the years: “If you have wasted 42 years then don’t waste the 43rd.” And more testily he wrote: “Your letter of the 9th is petty, touchy and spiteful. It has made me sad.” In 1927 Gandhi wrote: “Every letter that you have written during the last two years….has been a despondent letter. Distrustful of yourself. But as long as I live I am not going to lose faith in you.”
The letters otherwise chronicle Gandhi’s reactions to many of the major personalities, aspects and events of his life and bear vivid witness to the development of his philosophy. In a remarkable early letter written from Pretoria Goal in 1909, Gandhi wrote consoling Kallenbach who had lost his mother: “Why need we grieve? Our affection is surely not restricted to their bodies which were bound to be reduced to their natural elements some day.” Gandhi mourns with similar stoicism the death of his brother in 1914: “It is no calamity that my brother is dead, if I am ready to meet death and consider it as the supreme and welcome crisis in life…..” Much light is shed on his sometimes turbulent relations with other members of his family, including his sons Harilal (“more and more going from me”) and Manilal (“a very weak boy”).
Sometimes Gandhi makes waspish references about his wife Kasturba. In one letter he complained to Kallenbach: “Mrs. Gandhi has both the devil and the divine in a most concentrated form……..she has character and she has none. She is the most venomous woman I have ever met. She never forgets and never forgives. If she could overcome the strong desire to live with me, she would have left me long ago.” But often, in a more mellow mood, he makes tender and affectionate remarks: “She is very romantic. You meet with such characters in novels. Evidently she is living the heroine of her best novel.”
After his vow of celibacy and with his innate suspicion of western promiscuity, Gandhi, often with sparkling wit, counseled Kallenbach to draw up an “article of agreement” stipulating that the latter should not spend “any more money beyond necessaries befitting a simple farmer; not to contract any marriage tie; not to look lustfully upon any woman; and travel third class be sea or land”. In 1906, Gandhi wrote: “You cannot attach yourself and still live for humanity. The two do not harmonize.” And on board an ocean liner, he wrote: “The first class life I abhor. Here there is real restraint on one’s liberty…..The Gaol life for me is the best.”
Gandhi often discussed with Kallenbach his hopes and plans for his political fight against apartheid in South Africa. In one such correspondence, referring to Jan Smuts, he wrote: “Smuts sent a message that he wanted to see me…..We had a very sweet chat…..We talked mostly about the two civilizations―ancient and modern―not eastern and western. I think that he was sincere in what he said.” Concluding that the policy of petitioning was an emasculated one, Gandhi stated that it was “a measure of our weakness……As that the only unfailing remedy is to be sought in unadulterated passive resistance: that is the suffering of the people”. This was the genesis of the concept of satyagraha, which a decade later Gandhi launched against the British with such shattering results.
The working of Gandhi’s encyclopaedic mind is reflected at every turn. Whether it be to send instructions on strict dieting (a recurring topic) or to send long quotations from The Pilgrim’s Progress, from the Bhagwad Gita and from Carlyle, to discuss practical measures t sustain the community on Tolstoy Farm or to not how repelled he is by the “unpardonable vulgarity of the higher classes”. Referring to a political teacher or mentor, Gandhi mentions Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s name most often, followed by Leo Tolstoy. He wrote: “He (Gokhale) is the man who can render her (India) the highest service…..He is my political teacher.” And of Tolstoy, whose essay on the morals of diet, Gandhi wrote: “If Tolstoy was the greatest reformer of his age in Europe, he owed it to his doctrine of non-resistance.”
On July 18, 1914, Gandhi left South Africa. In spite of their “forced separation” in India (which Gandhi only allowed Kallenbach to visit in later years), he continued to keep his friend abreast of the latest developments in the long struggle against British rule, as well as of many aspects of his personal life: “I fell lonely. You know what I mean. Heaven knows what will happen.” He encouraged Kallenbach not to emigrate to California and to read The Imitation of Christ. In 1915, he writes of his reaction to his old homeland: “India is still the place of spirituality that I have pictured…..The basis of life is spiritual…”
As Gandhi gets drawn into the vortex of the tumultuous struggle for Independence, his letters get scantier but the warmth of their friendship endures. In 1917, at the time of his investigation into the position of indigo workers in Champaran, he wrote: “The authorities don’t want me. They have asked me to leave. I won’t go. I am therefore to be tried for contempt.” He writes on the Palestinian situation in the late-1930s with eerie prophecy: “What a tragedy is going on in Palestine? It is heart-breaking. If there is peace ultimately it will be the peace of the grave.”
Writing to another follower in the last letter of this memorable collection, Gandhi voiced his fears of the future while paying a touching tribute to his “old friend” Kallenbach who had died in 1946. “The memory of departed dear ones is to become a treasure and can only be to the extent that it enables us to translate in our own lives the best parts of dear ones and Hermann undoubtedly had many such parts which we may copy with advantage.”