Readers Write In #290: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by MK Gandhi

Posted on October 29, 2020


(by G Waugh)

 “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time.”

The above quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez kept echoing in my head all the time as I was going through the book, The Story of My Experiments with Truth written by MK Gandhi that released in 1929. For lovers of politics and history who expect something similar to what Nehru did with his autobiography Toward Freedom, this book might end up being a real dampener. But for those who admire ‘the man with the aura’ and want to know him personally, The Story I am sure, shall be a veritable treat.

The very first thing in the book that instantly held my attention was Gandhi’s fearless and unimpeachable honesty. He doesn’t care even one bit about how he might be judged and for a man who was under relentless scrutiny by opponents belonging to both ends of the political spectrum, this amount of candour could have been political suicide. Gandhi in the early portions of the book, writes paragraphs and paragraphs about how much he was tormented by sexual passions during his teenage and how only a physical separation from his wife Kasturba succeeded in tempering him once and for all.

Gandhi however with age, as we learn later, finds ways and means to convert all his ‘vices’ into virtues. He considers his excessive obsession with lust as nothing less than a ‘sin’ and decides to temper his body through various means. He follows a strict diet code and gives himself to physical exertion on a daily basis. During his days as a law student, he makes walking a daily habit and observing that it could help him save money reserved for daily commuting expenses, decides to nurture and develop the habit. This gives him in a few years’ time, a very strong physique that is completely immune to common infections and illnesses. This emboldens him even to the extent of performing experiments on his own body. He becomes a strict vegetarian and even joins and manages a club that promotes vegetarianism in England. He soon comes to know about the pains and sufferings of dairy animals and succeeds in giving up milk altogether. His diet as a result, most of the time consists solely of fruits and pulses. All these habits drill into him a kind of ‘rare’ discipline that translates soon into a fondness for simplicity and limited wants.

Gandhi’s simple life and austerity come into good stead when he moves to South Africa. He comes into contact with poor, indentured migrant labourers belonging to India and conducts legal cases for them accepting only minimal fees. He soon turns his legal practice into a kind of ‘service’ which earns great popularity for him among Indians in South Africa. However Gandhi never once portrays himself as a man who could content himself with what has been achieved already. He announces to his wife in what must have been his twenty-eighth year his decision to pursue Brahmacharya (celibacy). He learns a few techniques in medical ‘quackery’ and tries a few of them on his own body whenever he gets ill. Some of these techniques pay off handsomely and he teaches them to his family as well.

Gandhi soon decides to propagate his ideals and moots the idea for creating a ‘community’ that lives based on his principles. He succeeds in the idea, turns an area in the town of Phoenix into an ‘Ashram’ which houses a few families that adhere to the rules of communal living. There is to be no division of labour in the Ashram and hence no discrimination, everybody does all kinds of work and serve needy people who reach out to them. It is during this time that Gandhi’s popularity as a crusader for the rights of ‘coloured’ people reaches the shores of India. After occasional visits to the sub-continent, Gandhi decides to return to his homeland permanently.

He soon involves himself in the affairs of poor farmers in Champaran, Bihar and also joins the camp of striking mill-workers in Ahmedabad. Gandhi’s nuanced approach towards mass mobilization and his delicacy in dealing with officials in the British administration win him great popularity all over India. He is soon invited to the Indian National Congress that already has its own set of popular leaders in CR Das, LokamanyaTilak, Madan Mohan Malviya, etc. The book ends with Gandhi’s ascent into the top brass of the Congress organization ignoring the later, more famous portions of his life which have been documented sufficiently elsewhere.

If the above narrative sounds like a coherent documentation of a man’s history, it is certainly not to the credit of the book. Gandhi is very much conscious of his deficiencies as a writer as a result of which he decides to give his autobiography, the appearance of a personal diary. This seems to have served the material really well purging all instincts to whitewash himself and his behavior.

Gandhi, right from the initial pages portrays himself as an obedient kid grappling with inherent, overwhelming tendencies to commit mischief and overstep moral bounds.  But what distinguishes him from others and saves him from ‘sin’ is an innate, slightly inflated sense of justice and a strong religious mooring. Unlike others who, with age, tend to smother their sense of righteousness and justice to suit their material needs and external demands, Gandhi waters and nourishes his good qualities and draws great pride in having been able to do so. This sense of righteousness is also helped enormously by an exposure to religious texts spanning almost all faiths in the world which in turn gives him the strength to embark on what he calls the quest for the Ultimate Truth.

Unlike lawyers who generally invest their capacities for lying and deceit as their professional capital, Gandhi’s ‘business’ model is based solely on adherence to Truth and moral principles. Gandhi, on one occasion in South Africa finds that the businessperson he is representing has made an error in his books which could, on detection end up favouring the case of his opponent. Gandhi insists on admitting the error to the Judge against the wishes of his client. But this act of honesty impresses the Judge very much who gives a verdict surprisingly in his favour.

There are plenty of instances like these throughout the book where Gandhi by remaining steadfast to his principles successfully wins the favour of his opponents. This ‘willingness to admit mistakes’ is one big trait which I think that distinguishes Gandhi from every other leader in the world. For someone who has read a bit of history about leaders and societies, this trait is something that ends up being too conspicuous by its complete absence almost everywhere. Gandhi confesses to having lorded it over his wife for quite a while in his early days, admits his mistake of trusting in the ‘benevolence’ of the British Empire during his years in South Africa and registers his ambivalence with regard to the services he rendered them during their wars against the Boers, Zulus and the Germans.

In today’s neoliberal era where one’s survival is largely dependent upon cut-throat competition and skulduggery, Gandhi’s old-fashioned insistence on ‘admitting mistakes’ and adherence to ‘values’ appealed a lot to my already moribund, finer instincts and impulses. It bears reminding that as a communist sympathizer, I still have a lot of reservations about Gandhi’s political positions during various points in the freedom struggle. But none of these take anything away from the fact that this was undeniably the man who single-handedly took the struggle for freedom to every nook and corner of the poor, economically backward country that was India. He was the only person in the country who had the power to quell a bloody Hindu-Muslim riot by simply ‘manifesting’ there. He was the rare person who tried as much as possible, to consecrate a highly lucrative and opportunistic field like ‘politics’ by inviting ordinary people to ‘purify’ themselves through selfless, public service.

After going through such a brutally honest account of his own struggles against himself and the world, I was left with only one sad question that summed up the whole impression that the book had upon me,

“How could anyone even think about killing such a man?”