An Introduction to a Polyphonic Imaginary
“My Days with Gandhi” was written in 1950 two years after Gandhi’s assassination as part of a project Nirmal Kumar Bose undertook, to write four books on Gandhi. “My Days…” is the third of that set and it is revealing that Bose meant to focus in it “on his personality and on the actual manner of his execution of his ideas into practice…”. In the Preface we get the idea that it was not to be a memoir of his days with Gandhi as one would normally understand remembrances of this kind to be but a probe into his personality and his praxis. Covering the last phase of Gandhi’s life—beginning with his journey to Bengal in October 1946 to his assassination in Delhi on January 1948, Bose calls this “the most critical and certainly the most dramatic phase of Gandhi’s great and eventful life.”
At first glance this might seem obvious enough, framed as it is by the Bengal-Bihar communal carnage and his death from the bullets of a gun fired at him in January two years later. We get a first whiff of a memoir with a difference; this is no hagiography with the exigencies of politics demanding this aspect of the ‘Father of the Nation’ be swept under the carpet (especially since, as we shall s, the father wished to be known as the mother and was called as such by Manu, his granddaughter). IT is certainly not an account of a memoirist’s brush with fame nor even a moral science lesson, a recoil from Gandhi’s experiments in truth. Bose wishes to understand Gandhi’s “personal and spiritual life” as much as on his public and political sphere. “Although the two might seem to be unrelated…” for Bose, “…there was an underlying bond between the two. Indeed, Gandhi himself held that neither man’s life nor his mind was capable of division into water-tight compartments; all parts acted and reacted upon one another.”
So the memoir is an interpretative account of Gandhi’s complexities that the author felt needed to be understood; complexities that other followers saw as the private failings of a great public figure. Bose has misgivings about his colleagues’ misgivings about Gandhi. He distances himself from both Gandhi and his followers some of whom left. Bose too leaves at one point to resume his academic commitments at Calcutta University. But he finds the conditions of his departure, fraught with tensions, unsettling, for it is evident to both that Bose is returning to Calcutta on the eve of Gandhi’s return to Bihar from Noakhali not just for academic reasons but also on account of his own uneasiness about Gandhi’s ‘experiments’.
We do not learn this simply through Bose’s rendition of the ‘break.’ In a traditional memoir the authorial hand guides the reader into passageways nudges her past others towards the remembered framed in contexts set by the memoirist. Not Bose; his recall opens the doors to his remembered subjects’ self-perceptions. Our own perceptions are not based on what the author tells us but on the author’s representations of whatever the subjects of his remembrance have said or articulated.
Candidness, transparency; call it what you will. Having set up the terms of his project—to explain more to himself than anybody else, Gandhi’s complex and unique struggles to find unity between private and public life in the realm of the spiritual primarily, Bose lets Gandhi speak for himself.
That is the unique quality of “My Days…”; its characters talk to us as much as Bose, and, with each other. The platform is set up and the voices speak for or against the frames of reference. Its mode of address is reflexive; it falls back on itself; the text becomes the subject, it knocks on its own frames of reference to justify its existence.
It could be that Bose had imbibed the ‘mode of address’ followed by Gandhi himself in dealing with his spiritual search. His experiments were not conducted in solitude, as acts of intense contemplation on abstemious conduct but in close contact with women. In fact: “[i]t was by becoming a woman that he tried to circumvent one of the most powerful and disturbing elements which belong to our biological existence.” (Bose’s emphasis)
In ‘My Days…’ Bose struggles to give expression to Gandhi;s own struggles to emancipate himself from the ‘sensualism’ that he felt soiled his life even as a public figure. But Bose doesn’t do this through a polemical justification or by admonishing the conservatives who would have liked to brush this aspect of Gandhi’s struggles under the carpet. This book was self-published because many of Gandhi’s followers that Bose showed the manuscript to did not think it politically proper to make public this aspect of the Father of the Nation’s private life. And neither does Bose offer this account as an act of defiance; that would have tainted the project with the unsavoury colours of a misguided progressivism.
Instead, “My Days…” becomes the site for the characters remembered to articulate their complexities through their own ‘texts’ that talk to each other and the reader. The memoir is a talking memoir. You have to listen to Gandhi struggling to overcome his torments, hear and listen to Bose come to grips with his own struggles at comprehension, hear Manu Gandhi call Bapu her mother and to a host of other voices chipping in; the memoir is the location for a new aesthetic of remembrance in which the author-god shares the stage with others.
Remembrance is performance but not of the corporeal self. It is a performance of consciousnesses that do not soliloquize their interiorrity but dialogize it. In ‘My Days…’ and particularly in the chapter reproduced below, we can listen to dialogues of consciousnesses.
Consciousness becomes the protagonist as it were, that discusses the body and its lustfulness, the attempts to purify it, the means Gandhi adopted to that end. And since you can hear the text-as-voices engaged in a “dialogic mode of address” in Bakhtin phrasing, the dialogues sometimes becoming confessional, the memoir acquires what Bakhtin called “multivoicedness” a polyphony of voices—of Bose, Gandhi, Manu Gandhi and the detractors some sneering. Each character or consciousness gets its own voice. “My Excursion in Psychology” is, more than any other chapter a purely dialogic multivoicedness It is through dialogue that dilemmas are thrashed out, in the articulation of thoughts resolution is attempted.
But the polyphony inches even closer to Bakhtin’s sense of it by Bose;s intuitive juxtaposition of many voices within a voice. You can hear Gandhi’s voices in his articles that attempt to confront the accusations and criticisms of Indians and westerners at his ‘depravity’. He describes his moment of victory in the letter quoted in full by Bose: ‘From that day when I began brahmacharya our freedom began. My wife became a free woman, free from my authority as her lord and master, and I became free from my slavery to my own appetite which she had to satisfy.’ But the resolution is fragile; his battle for brahmacharaya status will torment him for the rst of his life and he will talk about it all through.
But it is Bose’smemoir: not Gandhi’s. We are reading a chapter in Bose’s “My Days with Gandhi” yet Gandhi ‘s voices ring through the same space in a polyphonic multileveledness. And these voices occupy the same space even if they come from other times. The dialogic multivoicedness “takes place not in the past but right now, in the real present.” (Bakhtin p 63).
In the chapter published below the here-and-now of the polyphonic mode throbs with a vividness rarely found in historical documents of events that will seem to a post-modernist reader an anachronism. In Bose’s rendition, time collapses; you hear the voices conversing on the single plane, the same space delineated by the problematic of Gandhi’s experiments, his desire to become ‘mother’ to all women and his colleagues’ nervousness. Their voices register a range of responses; so do Bose’s own reactions. Even though the letters are sourced from different time-periods they are ‘heard’ from the same stage of the polyphonic dialogue where time has become irrelevant.
In the Bakhtinian sense, the polyphony of Bose’s chapter reproduced below exhibits “brilliantly staged dialogues.” (Bakhtin p33). This is not to deny the element of introspection; but it comes across as internal dialogues. Here is Bose’s consciousness ‘speaking’ in multiple registers:
“As I left Gandhiji in Bihar, I wandered for weeks from place to place, and constantly pondered over the experiences of my five month’s lonely but very intimate association with Gandhiji. It gradually dawned upon me that although I had felt hurt by his overshadowing concern for the private welfare of individuals which occasionally led him to allow these concerns to interfere with his larger public interests, it had been wrong on my part to have expected an absolute abandon for any particular aspect ,of life at the cost of more humble ones.”
“Lonely but very intimate…”? “It gradually dawned on me…” and later an exploratory understanding of this “giant banyan tree” not “a star in heaven” offered up as feelings not a take-it-or-leave-it analysis. The only truth here is the truth of the struggles at comprehension.
Bose creates the stage for a remarkable journey towards an aesthetic of the dialogic imagination. His authorial presence often slips into the shadows as we ‘hear’ Gandhi explain his struggles for brhamacharya status. It is not a defendant’s brief before the court of an opinion or moral position grounded in received and shared values. Bose allows us to receive the signals of a struggle for self-emancipation that began when Gandhi was young and that never ended. We hear Gandhi’s voices with their textures of rage, self-recriminations, remorse at private passions, admitting lapses, pushing himself into battles for supremacy over “sensualism.”
Gandhi’s essay, “A Renunciation” that Bose reproduces in full doesn’t adumbrate Gandhi’s moral stance so much as allow the reader to hear it evolving. Self-definition is never an established state of being in this memoir-within-memoir; it is always becoming. And the process of ‘becoming’ is textured through dialogues; confessional dialogues at times–not of ‘sinning’ as much as the struggle to overcome its allures.
But “My Days, and particularly this chapter is also a memoir about Bose himself. Bose is as much a character as an author and to that extent a fallible being seeking to overcome his dilemmas by first voicing them . Bose’s voices also resonate on the stage of polyphony. He is not sure he agrees with the others who disagree with Gandhi’s experiments. He tries to chart out his own dilemmas. The dialogic imagination is beautifully captured:
“There are many who were close to Gandhiji and who knew about these happenings, but who, out of a fear of misrepresenting him, have thought it wise to leave out this portion of his life from any critical consideration at all.
But the present writer has always felt that such an attitude is not justified. Perhaps away at the back of our minds there is a lurking belief that what Gandhiji did was not right; and, in an apparent effort of avoiding injustice to his greatness, we may perhaps decide to draw a veil over certain events of which we have personal knowledge. But this can only be achieved by sacrificing what I believe to be one of the most important keys to an understanding of this unique personality of our age.”
“An excursion in Psychology” is not a diagnostic analysis of greatness, not an acolyte’s recall of his moment under the aura of that greatness. It is not as Bakhtin said about Dostoevsky’s work, a “stenographer’s report of a finished dialogue” (Bakhtin’s emphasis). It is a chronicle of the struggles for self-definition through conversation. And that ought to be a great inspiration for our ghettoized lives. –The Beacon
Nirmal Kumar Bose
he separation which thus took place between Gandhiji and myself were, as the reader will have observed, on grounds
other than those which had led to his breach with either Parasuram or some of his intimate co-workers in Sevagram. The questions raised by the latter had been two. One was : barring the needs of nursing in illness or other occasions of helplessness, may one needlessly appear in anude condition before man or woman, if one does not belong to a society in which nakedness is customary ? Secondly, should people of opposite sexes share the same bed, assuming that they were not husband and wife, or people openly living as such?
After the events of March 1947, although Gandhiji was in the midst of the devastation in Bihar and although threatening clouds were already breaking upon the political horizon of India, he felt it his duty to explain clearly his views on brahmacharya. This led to a curious series of articles in the Harijan of June 8, 1947 (‘How did I begin it ?’), June 15, 1947 (‘Walls of Protection’), June 22, 1947 (‘Who and where is God ? ‘), June 29, 1947 (‘Towards Realization’), July 6, 1947 (‘A Perplexity’) on the practice of continence. Readers did not know why such a series suddenly appeared in the midst of intensely political articles, but the roots lay in one of the most critical events of Gandhiji’s personal life when he had to differ from those whom he respected greatly for their independence of opinion.
There are many who were close to Gandhiji and who knew about these happenings, but who, out of a fear of misrepresenting him, have thought it wise to leave out this portion of his life from any critical consideration at all. But the present writer has always felt that such an attitude is not justified. Perhaps away at the back of our minds there is a lurking belief that what Gandhiji did was not right; and, in an apparent effort of avoiding injustice to his greatness, we may perhaps decide to draw a veil over certain events of which we have personal knowledge. But this can only be achieved by sacrificing what I believe to be one of the most important keys to an understanding of this unique personality of our age.
Even if we fail to approve of certain things, that is no justification for sitting in judgement over them and deciding, according to the stature of our small minds, what should or should not be said about Gandhiji. We can only bear testimony to what we have witnessed; and, in a spirit of utter truthfulness, describe it with the utmost fidelity possible. Perhaps we may be pardoned if we put our own construction upon events; but then the facts and the opinions must be clearly distinguishable from one another; so that when our age has passed away and many of the values for which we stand have been relegated to the lumber heap of history, men may have the means of knowing all that is possible about a man who once stood towering like a mountain above those who lived beside him.
As I left Gandhiji in Bihar, I wandered for weeks from place to place, and constantly pondered over the experiences of my five month’s lonely but very intimate association with Gandhiji. It gradually dawned upon me that although I had felt hurt by his overshadowing concern for the private welfare of individuals which occasionally led him to allow these concerns to interfere with his larger public interests, it had been wrong on my part to have expected an absolute abandon for any particular aspect ,of life at the cost of more humble ones. He was not like a star in heaven by which men guide their pathway in life and which professes neither love nor hatred for those who tread upon the earth with their weary footsteps. He was more like a giant banyan tree which rears its head high in the heavens, but which, at the same time, spreads its branches in all directions, and from those branches it throws down newer roots to grip the earth once more in its embrace.
This symbol of the tree, I felt, was more characteristic of the life of Gandhi than anything else. He stood in daily need of a contact with the earth of humanity from which he had sprung, and the sap of life which was thus gathered coursed through his veins and kept him evergreen. He would have been nothing without these roots which he dug into the earth ; the barrenness of the titanic battles which he waged against political or social evils of tremendous magnitude would have otherwise dried up the sap of life which flowed within him. A mere voyage in high heavens would have meant for him an utterness of selfish indulgence from which his mind recoiled in horror. The earth with its lowly creatures was as much part of Truth for him as the high heavens with their immaculate dustlessness. And when I gradually realized the truth of this, I appreciated the need which he felt for his sacred bath in the stream of earth-bound human life. I felt also how he was justified in his own way even while violently differing either in thought or action from his most trusted and loving comrades who were undoubtedly right from their own point of view.
This led me to enquire closely into the origin of Gandhiji’s character and whatever little I achieved in this respect, is being presented here for what it may be worth. The point which we should never permit ourselves to forget is that even when Gandhiji’s associates failed to approve of certain things connected with him, yet the latter consistently held that his relation with members of the other sex was something’ sacred’, and though he did not ‘advertiseit, there w.as no ‘secrecy’ about it either. On 3–2-1947, again, Gandhiji had said, ‘ What he was doing was not for blind imitation. It was undoubtedly dangerous, but it ceased to be so if the conditions were rigidly observed’.
Why then should we draw a veil over them even when we try to understand the uniqueness of Gandhiji’spersonality ?A bias never helps one to understand, even when it springs from a feeling of worshipfulness for one’s object of study. It is better perhaps to err than not attempt at all, or start by censoring with the help of values which have mostly been picked up by us without question from the market place.
One can perhaps make the best attempt to understand Gandhiji’s attitude towards womankind by a consideration of his relation with his mother. It is well known what a deep influence this devoutly religious woman exercised over her son in his boyhood days. The love for saintliness, for hard vows and an unflinching adherence to them even in the midst of severe trials, in other words, a heroic devotion to high ideals, were all apparently imbibed by Gandhiji from the example of his mother’s life. For these very traits in his mother’s character had evoked the deepest admiration within his soul while he was yet very young.
It is also well known that before he started on a voyage for studies in England, it was at the instance of his motherthat Gandhiji took a solemn vow before a Jain monk saying that he would never touch ‘wine, women and meat’. It was only then that he could secure the blessings of his mother in undertaking a journey which was still considered taboo for members of his caste.
Besides this, Gandhiji’s relations with his wife whom he had married even at the age of thirteen also exercised a profound influence upon his life and opinions on the question of sex. An event of very great significance had taken place during the illness of his father when he was sixteen yearsof age. A little while before his father breathed his last, Gandhiji had retired to his own room where his wife lay asleep. Within a few minutes, a servant knocked at the door to announce that his father was no more. In profound sorrow he wrote later on how deeply ashamed and miserable he felt. He ran to his father’s room. He saw that if ‘ animal passion had not blinded him, he should have been spared the torture of separation from his father during his last moment’. Commenting on the event, he wrote again:
‘This shame of carnal desire even at the critical hour of my father’s death …. is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget, and I have always thought that, although my devotion to my parents knew no bounds and I would have given up anything for it, yet it was weighed and found unpardonably wanting because my mind was at the same moment in the grip of lust. I have therefore always regarded myself as a lustful, though a faithful husband. It took me long to get free from the shackles of lust, and I had to pass through ordeals before I could overcome it.’
It was in the year 1906, when he was 37 years of age, that he took the vow of continence or brahmacharya. Ever since that date, his relation with members of the other sex was progressively’ purified’ and he felt that he was becoming a fitter instrument for the practice of the highest virtues of non-violence. We may be permitted to assume that the repression of the sexual instinct was not only a means to a lofty end, but it was also the penance ‘which Gandhiji voluntarily imposed upon himself for having proved untrue to his father during the last moments of his life.
Long afterwards, the question of Gandhiji’s relationship with the other sex came up for some amount of hostile criticism and,in order to ·explain his stand, he wrote several articles and also made some public statements, a few of which bear reproduction and analysis.
In the Harijan of September 21, 1935, there was an article entitled ‘A Renunciation ‘, which is reproduced below in full.
‘In 1891 after my return from England I virtually took charge of the children of the family and introduced the habit of walking with them–boys and girls–putting my hands on their shoulders. They were my brother’s children. The practice continued even after they grew old. With the extension of the family, it gradually grew to proportions sufficient to attract attention. ‘I was unconscious of doing any wrong, so far as I can recollect, till some years ago at Sabarmati an inmate of the Ashram told me that my practice, when extended to grown-up girls and women, offended the accepted notions of decency. But after discussion with the inmates it was continued. Recently two co-workers who came to Wardha suggested that the practice was likely to set a bad example to others and that I should discontinue it on that account. Their argument did not appeal to me. Nevertheless I did not want to ignore the friends’ warning. I, therefore, referred it for examination and advice to five inmates of the Ashram. Whilst it was taking shape a decisive event took place. It was brought to my notice that a bright university student was taking all sorts of liberties in private with a girl who was under his influence, on the plea that he loved her like his own sister and could not restrain himself from some physical demonstration of it. He resented the slightest suggestion of impurity. Could I mention what the youth had been doing, the reader would unhesitatingly pronounce the liberties taken by him as impure. When I read the correspondence, I and those who saw it came tothe conclusion that either the young man was a consummate hypocrite or was self-deluded. ‘Anyway the discovery set me athinking. I recalled the warning of the two co-workers and asked myself how I would feel if I found the young man was using my practice in his defence. I may mention that the girl who is the victim of the youth’s attention, although she regards him as absolutely pure and brotherly, does not like them, even protests against them, but is too weak to resist his action. The self-introspection induced by the event resulted, within two or three days of the reading of the correspondence, in the renunciation of the practice, and I announced it to the. inmates of the Wardha Ashram on the 12th instant. It was not without a pang that I came to the decision. Never has an impure thought entered my being during or owing to the practice. My act has always been open. I believe that my act was that of a parent and had enabled the numerous girls under my guidance and wardship to give their confidences which perhaps no one else enjoyed in the same measure.[Bose’s italics] Whilst I do not believe in a brahmacharya which ever requires a wall of protection against the touch of the opposite sex and will fail if exposed to the least temptation, I am not unaware of the dangers attendant upon the freedom I have taken.
‘The discovery quoted by me has, therefore, prompted me to renounce the practice, however pure it may have been in itself. Every act of mine is scrutinized by thousands of men and women, as I am conducting an experiment requiring ceaseless vigilance. I must avoid doing things which may require a reasoned defence. My example was never meant to be followed by all and sundry. The young man’s case has come upon me as a warning. I have taken it inthe hope that my renunciation will set right those who may have erred whether under the influence of my exampleor without it. Innocent youth is a priceless possession not to be squandered away for the sake of a momentary excitement, miscalled pleasure. And let the weak girls like the one in this picture be strong enough to resist the approaches,though they may be declared to be innocent, of young men who are either knaves or who do not know what they are doing.’
If anybody questioned Gandhiji’s purity in respect of sex, he could fly into an anger ; and an article written almost in an angry mood appeared in the Harijan of November 4, It was entitled ‘My Life’, and is reproduced below :
‘The following from its Allahabad correspondent appearsin Tile Bombay Chronicle: ” Startling revelations have come to light regarding what has been going round the House of Commons about Gandhiji.It is reported that Mr. Edward Thompson, the British historian who visited Allahabad recently, threw some light on the curious mentality prevailing in England. Mr. Thompson, who met some political leaders here, is reported to have told them three things going round the House of Commons regarding Gandhiji :
- Gandhiji was for unconditional co-operation with the British Government.
- Gandhiji could still influence the Congress.
- There were various stories about Gandhiji’s sensual life, it being the impression that Gandhlji had ceased to be a saint.
‘Impressions about Gandhiji’s ‘sensual life’, it appeared to Mr. Thompson, were based on some Marathi papers. He spoke about them, I understand, to Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, who repudiated them. He spoke about them to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mr. P. N. Sapru also, who strongly repudiated them. ‘It appears Mr. Thompson, before leaving England, had seen several members of the House of Commons. Mr. Thompson, before leaving Allahabad, sent a letter to Mr. Greenwood, M.P., on the suggestion of Pandit Nehru pointing out that the stories regarding Gandhiji were absolutely baseless.” ‘Mr. Thompson was good enough to visit Segaon. He confirmed the report as substantially correct. ‘The “unconditional co-operation” is dealt with in another note. ‘The country will presently know the influence I have over the Congress. ‘ The third charge needs clearing. Two days ago I received a letter signed by four or five Gujaratis sending me a newspaper whose one mission seems to be to paint me as black as it is possible for any person to be painted. According to its headline it is a paper devoted to ” the organization of Hindus”. The charges against me are mostly taken from my confessions and distorted from their setting. Among many other charges, the charge of sensuality is most marked. My brahmacharya is said to be a cloak to hide my sensuality. Poor Dr. SushilaNayar has been dragged before the public gaze for the crime of giving me massage and medicated baths, the two things for which she is the best qualified among those who surround me. The curious may be informed that there is no privacy about these operations which take over one and a half hours and during which I often go off to sleep but during which I also transact business with Mahadev, Pyarelal or other co-workers. ‘ The charges to my knowledge began with my active campaign against untouchability. This was when it was included in the Congress programme and I began to address crowds on the subject and insisted on having Harijans at meetings and in the Ashram. It was then that some Santanists, [some orthodox Hindus] who used to help me and befriend me, broke with me and began a campaign of vilification. Later, a very highly placed Englishman joined the chorus. He picked out my freedom with women and showed up my ‘ saintliness’ as sinfulness. In this chorus there were also one or two well knownIndians. During the Round Table Conference American journals indulged in cruel caricatures of me. Mirabai who used to look after me was the target of their attack. As far as I could understand Mr. Thompson, who knows the gentlemen who have been behind these charges, my letters to Prernaben Kantak, who is a member of the Sabarmati Ashram, have also been used to prove my depravity.She is a graduate and worker of proved merit. She used to ask questions relating to brahmacharya and other topics. I sent her full replies. She thought they might be of general use and she published them with my permission.I hold them to be absolutely innocent and pure. ‘Hitherto I have ignored these charges. But Mr. Thompson’s talks about them and the importunity of the Gujarati correspondents, who say the indictment sent by them is but a sample of what is being said about me, impel me to repudiate them. I have no secrets of my own in this life. I have owned my weaknesses. If I were sensually inclined, I would have the courage to make the confession. It was when I developed detestation of sensual connection even with my own wife and had sufficiently tested myself that I took the vow of brahmacharya in 1906, and that for the sake of better dedication to the service of the country. From that day began my open life. I do not remember having ever slept or remained with my own wife or other women with closed doors except for the occasions referred to in my writings in Young India and Navajivan. Those were black nights with me. But as I have said repeatedly God has saved me in spite of myself. I claim no credit of any virtue that I may possess. He is for me the Giver of all good and has saved me for His serv1ce.
‘From that day when I began brahmacharya our freedom began. My wife became a free woman, free from my authority as her lord and master, and I became free from my slavery to my own appetite which she had to satisfy. No other woman had any attraction for me in the same sense that my wife had. I was too loyal to her as husband and too loyal to the vow I had taken before my mother to be slave to any other woman. But the manner in which my brahmacharya came to me irresistibly drew me to woman as the mother of man. She became too sacred for sexual love. And so every woman at once became sister or daughter to me.[Bose’s italics] I had enough women about me at Phoenix. Several of them were my own relations whom I had enticed to South Africa. Others were co-workers’ wives or relatives. Among these were the Wests and other Englishmen. The Wests included West, his sister, his wife, and his mother-in-law who had become the Granny of the little settlement.
‘As has been my wont, I could not keep the new good thing to myself. So I presented brahmacharya for the acceptance of all the settlers. All approved of it. And some took it up and remained true to the ideal. My brahmacharya knew nothing of the orthodox laws governing its observance. I framed my own rules as occasion necessitated. But I have never believed that all contact with woman was to be shunned for the due observance of brahmacharya. That restraint which demands abstention from all contact, no matter how innocent, with the opposite sex is a forced growth, having little or no vital value. Therefore natural contacts for service were never restrained. And I found myself enjoying the confidences of many sisters, European and Indian, in South Africa. And when I invited the Indian sisters in South Africa to join the civil resistance movement, I found myself one of them. I discovered that I was specially fitted to serve womankind.[Bose’s italics]To cut the (for me enthralling) story short, my return to India found me in no time one with India’s women. The easy access I had to their hearts was an agreeable revelation to me. Muslim sisters never kept purdah before me even as they did not in South Africa. I sleep in the Ashram surrounded by women for they feel safe with me in every respect. It should be remembered that there is no privacy in the Segaon Ashram.
‘If I were sexually attracted towards women, I have courage enough, even at this time of life, to become a polygamist. I do not believe in free love-secret or open. Free open love I have looked upon as dog’s love. Secret love is besides cowardly.
‘Sanatanist Hindus may abhor my non-violence. I know many of them think that Hindus will become cowards if they remain under my influence. I know of no man having become a coward under my influence. They may decry my non-violence as much as they like. But they ill serve themselves or Hinduism by indulgence in palpable lies.’
It is interesting to observe in this connection how Gandhiji regarded the slightest trace of sexual excitement on his own part as a fall from the vow of brahmacharya and how he considered public confession as the proper means of punishing himself for the lapse and also of relief from the feeling of sin which oppressed him. During a on vale scence in 1936, there was an occasion when, while asleep, he had felt momentarily excited. This forthwith led to a confession entitled” Nothing without grace” in the Harijan of February 29, 1936,apart of which is being quoted below.
‘I have been trying to follow Brahmacharya consciously and deliberately since 1899. My definition of it is purity not merely of body but of both speech and thought also. With the exception of what must be regarded as one lapse, I can recall no instance during more than thirty~six years’ constant and conscious effort, of mental disturbance such as I experienced during this illness. I was disgusted with myself. The moment the feeling came I acquainted my attendants and the medical friends with my condition. They could give me no help. I expected none. I broke loose after the experience from the rigid rest that was imposed upon me. The confession of the wretched experience brought much relief to
- I felt as if a great load had been raised from over me. It enabled me to pull myself together before any harm could be done. But what of the Gita ? Its teaching is clear and precise. A mind that is once hooked to the Star of Stars becomes incorruptible. How far I must be from Him, He alone knows. Thank God my much vaunted Mahatmaship has never fooled me. But this enforced rest has humbled me as never before. It has brought to the surface my limitations and imperfections. But I am not so much ashamed of them, as I should be of hiding them from the public. My faith in the message of the Gita is as bright as ever. Unwearied ceaseless effort is the price that must be paid for turning that faith into rich infallible experience. But the same Gita says without any equivocation that the experience is not to be had without divine grace. We should develop swelled heads if Divinity had not made that ample reservation.’
This violent reaction against any physical manifestation of sex and his psychological effort to become as pure as his mother, led Gandhiji into a profoundly significant attitude in public life. He was the fashioner of the instrument of non-violence in public life. All social evils need remedies ; and the remedy can be either violent or non-violent. The essence of violence consists in inflicting punishment upon the wrong-doer, which may eventually lead to his destruction if he does not correct himself. The essence of non-violence, on the other hand, consists in resisting the evil of the wrong-doer so that he is forced to shower punishment upon the non-violent man for his resistance or non-co-operation with evil. If the latter does not bend, then his heroic suffering in a just cause is likely to evoke respect for him in the heart of the wrong-doer, and the process of conversion begins. If it fails, the non-violent man takes more drastic steps, intensifies his non-co-operation, invites more suffering ; and eventually this may lead to his own destruction in contrast to the destruction of the evildoer under violence. The way of non-violence thus becomes the way of heroic self-suffering in which the fighter never and aims at his conversion rather than destruction. He tries to bring about a cessation of evil even with the co-operation of the erstwhile wrong-doer.
This deep respect for human personality coupled with infinite capacity for self-suffering was regarded by Gandhiji as a characteristic specifically associated with the nature of woman. In 1940, he wrote :
‘My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance truth and ahimsa in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this woman will be the unquestioned leader and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex.
‘ I have suggested that woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man[Bose’s italics]shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour ? But she forgets them in the joy of creation. Who again suffers dailyso that her babe may wax from day to day ? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.[Bose’s italics] She can become the leader in Satyagraha which does not require the learning that books give but does require a stout heart that comes from suffering and faith.'[Harijan: 24-2-1940, p13] ‘Woman is more fitted than man to make explorations and take action in ahimsa. For the courage of self- sacrifice woman is any day superior to man as I believe man is to woman for the courage of the brute.'[Harijan: 5-11-1938.p317]
It follows from all this that, according to Gandhi, progress in civilization consisted in the introduction into human life and social institutions of a larger measure of the law of love or self-suffering which woman represented best in her own person. This was a profoundly transformed projection on the broad canvas of social life of an attitude which had come into being in the privacy of his personal life. In private life, too, Gandhiji’s relationship with individuals was deepened and modified in the same direction in which it moved in public. Thus we read in Manu Gandhi’s Bapu-My Mother, how he said to her :
‘Have I not become your mother ? I have been a father to many but only to you I am a mother. A father does pay attention to the bringing up of his children but the real education of a girl comes from mother.’ (p. 3). ‘ Ever since then,’ writes Manu Gandhi, ‘ Bapu began to bring me up just as a mother would bring up her own daughter of 14 or 15. A girl of that age is generally near her mother and her development requires the company of her mother. Bapu also began taking interest in the minutest details of my life, such as my food, attire, my sickness, my visits and companions, my studies, right down to whether I thoroughly washed my hair every week and he continued to do so till his last moment.’ (p. 8).
Gandhiji used to sleep under the open sky or in an open room if the weather happened to be cold. There was no privacy about him because other men and women also slept near him and some even on the same bed. At an age bordering on eighty, his circulation became poor, his feet had to be massaged every day with clarified butter, otherwise it tended to crack. On cold nights, he had occasional tremors which were difficult to control. These fits might continue for several minutes, and then it was the practice of his attendants to hold him tightly clasped to their bodies so as to restore warmth to his shivering frame.
On other occasions, too, Gandhiji’s body might have come in contact with other persons; and it is curious that he tried to ascertain from them if any impure feeling had, even momentarily, assailed their minds. It was his belief that if he was not wholly free from sensualism, it would not fail to evoke a kindred feeling in those who attended him. He held firmly that if his mind was completely free from lust, such an experience would spiritually prove elevating to both parties. He made a reference to this in his letter to me dated the 17th of March 1947.
Personally, I have had the feeling that the question which he asked those who shared in his ‘ experiment ‘ was whether they did not feel the same about him as they felt in respect of their mother. In such experiments,.sex, which had so long acted as a barrier to that complete identification which exists between a mother and child, was laid low and the experimenter became free to enter upon a new relationship with men and women which was completely ‘pure,’ and therefore spiritually elevating.
Gandhi’s concern about the private, personal life of individuals, whether men or women, sprang from the same attitude of mind. This domestic concern had repelled me originally and made me leave him for the time being ; but it was a deep, spiritual attitude on his part which was the by-product of his attempt to conquer sex by becoming a woman. The intense concern which he evinced in the lives of men and women, and his ceaseless efforts at manipulating them, whether in the case of individuals or of communities, is therefore comparable to the manipulating technique exercised by Leonardo da Vinci after the sublimation of his sexual impulse. Only, in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, it was exercised in respect of physical material, while in the case of Gandhi, it was in respect of human lives whether in the private or the public sphere.
Saints have lived in India who have been able to rise above the impulse of sex by identifying themselves with those belonging to the opposite sex. In the case of the mystic Shree Ramakrishna, it is said that this psychological identification reached such a high degree that somatic changes followed, and discharges of blood through the pores of the skin appeared periodically during one phase of his life, as in the case of women.
But Gandhi, even within the secret recesses of.His heart, never gave himself up to such an absolute abandon to an intensity of feeling. He was less of an introvert, more closely bound to the world of sense-experience to develop such total exclusiveness of certain experiences as we observe in the case of Shree Ramakrishna. The bridge which held him on to the world of common men remained unbroken till the end of his days. If he had given way to an abandon as in the case of Shree Ramakrishna, we would have lost a leader of men, and the world would probably have been poorer thereby.
In spite of that, this mother-cult of Gandhi’s boyhood days remained throughout his life a very strong element inhis philosophy, and he tried to enlist men and women in private as well as in public life to his cult of purity, love and self- suffering. This mission of civilization, which was Gandhi’s greatest contribution to modern life, was thus, in the last analysis, an external projection on the larger canvas of the world’s life of the saintliness which was embodied in that noble woman who shone like a pole star over her son’s great life.
This projection again had become possible only because the son was a genius of action and organization and retained to the end of his days the deep influence he had imbibed from the West during the formative period of his life. A typical Indian, without Gandhi’s history of Western contact, would have given way to individual exclusiveness. He would undoubtedly have risen higher in the spiritual plane than Gandhi, but would have done so by the sacrifice of his beneficial personal influence upon the lowlier lives of his fellow men.
The above analysis does not however mean in any way that Gandhi’s cult of non-violence can be dismissed as the idle fancy of a private individual. The world has profited immensely by the physical investigations of Leonardo da Vinci even though they sprang from the humble depths of his personal history. In a similar manner, although the origin of Gandhi’s desire to purify and civilize mankind lay within the depths of his personal relationship with his mother, or to certain events of his boyhood days, yet the objective result does not lose any value thereby. His gift to mankind in the shape of a civilized form of collective action in satyagraha as a substitute for warfare, which is helplessly looked upon as the last instrument for the resolution of conflicts of interest in human society, will have to be experimented upon and judged on its own merits and not dismissed on account of its humble, personal origin..
Notes The above appears as Chapter XVIII. “An Excursion in Psychology”in “My Days With Gandhi” Nirmal Kumar Bose. Calcutta Nishanaa. 1953. Accessed from: https://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/my-days-with-gandhi-nirmalkumar-bose.pdf In the Introduction: Mikhail Bakhtin “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.” Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson. Intorduction by Wayne Booth.University of Minnesota Press.Thirteenth Edition. 2014