Reviewed by Jim Douglass
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]arayan Desai has written a four-volume biography of Mohandas Gandhi, My Life Is My Message, which is comprehensive, insightful, and joyful. What sustained the author in his 2300-page project was, he tells us in his preface, joy. He wrote his huge work “simply to share with readers the joy of being in Gandhi’s presence.”
In an earlier work, Bliss Was It to Be Young—with Gandhi, Narayan Desai shared his joy growing up as a child in Gandhi’s ashrams. As the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary, and Durgaben Desai, an anchor to ashram life, Narayan as a boy tested Gandhi’s wit and patience on a daily basis. He grew in discipleship in his teens. Narayan worked with his father in Gandhi’s secretariat, where he helped type Gandhi’s letters. Gandhi trusted young Narayan to the point of assigning him to type an historic letter to Hitler.
Since Gandhi’s death in 1948, Narayan Desai’s own life has been a message of nonviolence to the world. He has worked side by side with Gandhi’s successors, Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodan (land-gift) movement from 1952-60, and Jayaprakash Narayan in the Shanti Sena (peace brigade) from 1960-76. He was national secretary of the Shanti Sena, chairperson of War Resisters International, and founding director of the World Peace Brigade.
The author of more than 50 books, Desai has now given us, in My Life Is My Message, his summa to the joy of living a life first physically, and ever since, spiritually, in the presence of his teacher, Gandhi.
His book’s four volumes cover the four major periods of Gandhi’s life.
Volume one, Sadhana (“practice”) (1869-1915), tells the story of Gandhi’s evolution from a shy child in India with mediocre intelligence, to an arrogant teen husband learning nonviolence from his patient wife Kasturba, to a truth-exploring, vegetarian law student in London, to an immigrant lawyer in South Africa who takes up the challenge of his people under oppression. The key to Gandhi’s emerging power of nonviolent transformation is his self-discipline of seeking truth without reservation, then acting on it.
What Gandhi calls the “most creative experience” of his life happens when he is thrown off a train in South Africa because a white passenger objects to the “colored man’s” presence in the same compartment. Huddling in the train station through a freezing night, Gandhi vows to resist with his whole life the systemic injustice he has just experienced.
“On that day,” Desai writes, “Gandhiji learned to say ‘No’ and that resolve stayed with him forever.” The first volume then takes us through the birth of satyagraha (“truth-force”), as thousands of Indian people vow with Gandhi to endure prison and death in South Africa rather than cooperate with their oppression.
Desai rounds out the story in volume one with his descriptions of Gandhi’s writing his classic work Hind Swaraj, life in Gandhi’s first two ashrams, the culmination of the satyagraha campaign in South Africa, Gandhi’s relationship with his government adversary General Smuts, and his eventual departure with Kasturba from South Africa in 1915 to their new life in India.
As volume two, Satyagraha (1915-1930), begins, Desai quotes Gandhi saying: “The basic principle on which the practice of nonviolence rests is that what holds good in respect of yourself holds good equally in respect of the whole universe.” To Gandhi, India must now have seemed like the whole universe.
In his move from South Africa to India, Gandhi, “the great experimentalist, was about to enter the field from the laboratory, and he had to ascertain whether what was possible in one could be implemented in the other.” The Indians he represented in South Africa numbered 30,000. By returning to India, he now had to work with a diverse population of 330,000,000, more than ten thousand times more people than he had ever dealt with before.
“A fish accustomed to swimming in a pond would have to learn to swim in the stormy seas. He was not unaware of this.”
From 1915 to 1930, Gandhi experimented in the soul-force of himself, his ashram, and the Indian people over against the brute-force of an empire. The struggle climaxed in the civil disobedience of the Salt March, which ignited the faith of his people in their inherent power to be free by choosing nonviolent means to that end — the theme of Hind Swaraj.
By following Gandhi’s example in picking up salt, breaking an imperial law, the Indian people chose and experienced freedom. As the empire imprisoned over 100,000, it began to lose power.
Having reached that turning point in the satyagraha campaign, Gandhi in volume three, Satyapath (“the path of truth”) (1930-1940), is seen engaging in a decade of peaceful dialogue with comrades and opponents. He is exploring nonviolence in all directions, in the context of the world’s run-up to World War Two.
Gandhi’s most critical dialogue was with the British people. During his three months in London attending the Round Table Conference, he lived in Muriel Lester’s Kingsley Hall among the poor in the East End. Gandhi talked truthfully with everyone, from the unemployed mill-workers of Lancashire, whose cloth was boycotted by Indians, to King George V, emperor of India. The workers cheered Gandhi. The king lectured him.
Gandhi responded to King George with a single sentence: “I must not be drawn into a political argument in Your Majesty’s Palace after receiving Your Majesty’s hospitality.”
Back in India, Gandhi struggled at a distance with Martin Buber over the thorny issues of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis and Jewish migration to Palestine. Desai cites both men at length. In a classic dialogue, they write from their hearts and painfully disagree.
In the concluding volume four, Svarpan (“dedication”) (1940-1948), Desai tells the rest of the story in compelling strokes. They describe in depth: the “Quit India” movement that provoked the empire into jailing Gandhi one final time; his suffering in prison the deaths of both Mahadev Desai and Kasturba; Gandhi’s rejected appeals to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leading up to the creation of Pakistan; his epic walk through the slaughter of Noakhali; his reconciling fasts in Calcutta and Delhi; his last hours before martyrdom, January 30, 1948.
Just how much do you want to know about Gandhi? Narayan Desai walks with him the whole way, sharing with us in one moving page after another the insights and deep joy of his life with Gandhi.
James Douglass is the author of The Nonviolent Cross, Resistance and Contemplation, Gandhi and the Unspeakable and JFK and the Unspeakable.
My Life Is My Message
By Narayan Desai
Translated from the original Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud
New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2009
2300 pages, (4 volumes) (paperback), $125.00 (including delivery from India to the U.S.)
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