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India: A Defect of Vision

In 1888, when he was nineteen, and already married for six years, Gandhi went to England to study law. It was a brave thing to do. Not the English law—which, however alien to a Hindu of 1888, however unconnected with his complicated rites and his practice of magic, could be mugged up, like another series of mantras—not the law, but the voyage itself. Hindu India, decaying for centuries, constantly making itself archaic, had closed up; and the rules of Gandhi’s Gujarati merchant caste—at one time great travelers—now forbade travel to foreign countries. Foreign countries were polluting to pious Hindus; and no one of the caste had been to England before.

To please his mother Gandhi had taken vows not to touch wine, meat, or women while abroad. But these vows did not satisfy everybody. One section of the caste formally declared the young man an outcaste. But Gandhi, though timid, was obstinate. For a reason which he never makes clear—he was virtually uneducated, had never even read a newspaper—he passionately wanted to go to England. He began to be afraid that the caste might prevent him going; and, two months earlier than he had planned, he took a ship from Bombay to Southampton.

And this is how, in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written nearly forty years later, when he had become the Mahatma, Gandhi remembers the great adventure (the translation is by his secretary, Mahadev Desai): “I did not feel at all sea-sick…. I was innocent of the use of knives and forks…. I therefore never took meals at table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits I had brought with me…. We entered the Bay of Biscay, but I did not begin to feel the need either of meat or liquor…. However, we reached Southampton, as far as I remember, on a Saturday. On the boat I had worn a black suit, the white flannel one, which my friends had got me, having been kept especially for wearing when I landed. I had thought that white clothes would suit me better when I stepped ashore, and therefore I did so in white flannels. Those were the last days of September, and I found I was the only person wearing such clothes.”

That is the voyage: an internal adventure of anxieties felt and food eaten, with not a word of anything seen or heard that did not directly affect the physical or mental well-being of the writer. The inward concentration is fierce, the self-absorption complete. Southampton is lost in that embarrassment (and rage) about the white flannels. The name of the port is mentioned once, and that is all, as though the name is description enough. That it was late September was important only because it was the wrong time of year for white flannels; it is not a note about the weather. Though Gandhi spent three years in England, there is nothing in his autobiography about the climate or the seasons, so unlike the heat and monsoon of Gujarat and Bombay; and the next date he is precise about is the date of his departure.

No London building is described, no street, no room, no crowd, no public conveyance. The London of 1890, capital of the world—which must have been overwhelming to a young man from a small Indian town—has to be inferred from Gandhi’s continuing internal disturbances, his embarrassments, his religious self-searchings, his attempts at dressing correctly and learning English manners, and, above all, his difficulties and occasional satisfactions about food.

Sir Edwin Arnold, known for his verse translation of the Gita, is mentioned, but only mentioned and never described, though Gandhi must have been dazzled by him, and the poet wasted some time as vice-president of a vegetarian club Gandhi started and ran for a short while in Bayswater. There is an entertaining account of a very brief call, with a visiting Indian writer, on Cardinal Manning. But generally English people are far away in Gandhi’s London. There is no reference to plays (an account of a visit to an unnamed theater turns out to be an anecdote about an uneaten dinner). Apart from a sentence about Cardinal Manning and the London dock strike, there is nothing about politics or politicians. The only people who come out of the void and make some faint impression are cranks, theosophists, proselytizing vegetarians. And though they seem of overwhelming importance (Dr. Oldfield, editor of The Vegetarian, “Dr Allinson of vegetarian fame,” Mr. Howard or Mr. Howard Williams, author of The Ethics of Diet, Mr. Hills, a puritan and “proprietor of the Thames Iron Works”), they are hardly seen as people or set in interiors. They are only their names, their status (Gandhi is always scrupulous about titles), and their convictions.

And then, quite suddenly, Gandhi is a lawyer; and the adventure of England is over. As anxious as he had been to get to London, so he is now anxious to leave. “I passed my examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th. On the 12th I sailed for home.”

And yet, curiously, it was again a wish for travel and adventure that two years later sent Gandhi to South Africa. He went on law business and intended to stay for a year. He stayed for twenty years. England had been unsettling only because it hadn’t been India. But in England Gandhi had ceased to be a creature of instinct; out of his unsettlement there, and his consequent self-searching, he had decided that he was a vegetarian and a Hindu by conviction. South Africa offered direct racial hostility; and Gandhi, obstinate as always, was immeasurably fortified as a Hindu and an Indian. It was in South Africa that he became the Mahatma, the great-souled, working through religion to political action as leader of the Indian community, and through political action back to religion. The adventure never ceased to be internal: so it comes out in the autobiography. And this explains the most remarkable omission in Gandhi’s account of his twenty active years in South Africa: Africans.

Africans appear only fleetingly at a time of a “rebellion,” when for six weeks Gandhi led an Indian ambulance unit and found himself looking after wounded Africans. He says his heart was with the Africans; he was distressed by the whippings and unnecessary shootings; it was a trial, he says, to have to live with the soldiers responsible. But the experience did not lead him to a political decision about Africans. He turned inward and, at the age of thirty-seven, did what he had been thinking about for six years: he took the Hindu vow of brahmacharya, the vow of lifelong sexual abstinence. And the logic was like this: to serve humanity, as he was then serving the Africans, it was necessary for him to deny himself “the pleasures of family life,” to hold himself free in the spirit and the flesh. So the Africans vanish in Gandhi’s heart-searchings; they are the motive of a vow, and thereafter disappear.

Far away, at Yasnaya Polyana in Russia, Tolstoy, in the last year of his life, said of Gandhi, whose work he followed and with whom he exchanged letters: “His Hindu nationalism spoils everything.” It was a fair comment. Gandhi had called his South African commune Tolstoy Farm; but Tolstoy saw more clearly than Gandhi’s English and Jewish associates in South Africa, fellow seekers after the truth. Gandhi really had little to offer these people. His experiments and discoveries and vows answered his own need as a Hindu, the need constantly to define and fortify the self in the midst of hostility; they were not of universal application.

Gandhi’s self-absorption was part of his strength. Without it he would have done nothing and might even have been destroyed. But with this self-absorption there was, as always, a kind of blindness. In the autobiography South Africa is inevitably more peopled than England, and more variously peopled; there are more events. But the mode of narration is the same. People continue to be only their names and titles, their actions or convictions, their quality of soul; they are never described and never become individuals. There is no attempt at an objective view of the world. As events pile up, the reader begins to be nagged by the absence of the external world; when the reader ceases to share or follow Gandhi’s convictions, he can begin to feel choked.

Landscape is never described. I may be proved wrong, but in all the great length of My Experiments with Truth I believe there are only three gratuitous references to landscape. In 1893, on the way out to South Africa, Gandhi notices the vegetation of Zanzibar; three years later, returning briefly to India, he lands at Calcutta, “admiring the beauty” of the Hooghly river. His only important experience of landscape comes at the age of forty-five when, back in India for good, he goes to Hardwar, a place of Hindu pilgrimage in the Himalayas. “I was charmed with the natural scenery about Hrishikesh and Lakshman Jhula, and bowed my head in reverence to our ancestors for their sense of the beautiful in Nature, and their foresight in investing beautiful manifestations of Nature with a religious significance.”

The outer world matters only in so far as it affects the inner. It is the Indian way of experiencing; what is true of Gandhi’s autobiography is true of many other Indian autobiographies, though the self-absorption is usually more sterile. “I see people having their being”: the Indian girl who said that of the Bombay crowds she saw on her return from Europe was trying hard. She was in the Indian tradition; like Gandhi in Southampton in 1888, she couldn’t describe what she hadn’t been able to take in. In India, as she said, she “related” only to her family. The vogue word enabled her to boast in a modern-sounding way; but the word also covered up a traditional limitation of vision and response. The deficiency that she was able to convert into boasting is an aspect of what is now being propagated as Hindu wisdom by those holy men who preach “meditation” and expound the idea of the world as illusion.

Meditation and stillness can be a form of therapy. But it may be that the true Hindu bliss—the losing of the self—is more easily accessible to Hindus. According to Dr. Sudhir Kakar, a psychotherapist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who is himself Indian and has practiced both in Europe and in India, the Indian ego is “underdeveloped,” “the world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface,” and the Indian grasp of reality “relatively tenuous.” “Generally among Indians”—Kakar is working on a book, but this is from a letter—“there seems to be a different relationship to outside reality, compared to one met with in the West. In India it is closer to a certain stage in childhood when outer objects did not have a separate, independent existence but were intimately related to the self and its affective states. They were not something in their own right, but were good or bad, threatening or rewarding, helpful or cruel, all depending on the person’s feelings of the moment.”

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