Gandhiji in Indian English Fiction – Deepali Yadav, Noida


As we all know that it was not few days back that we celebrated 143rd birth anniversary of our father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi. It is a matter of pride that such a magnanimous personality like Gandhi was born in India. Everyone single person- man, woman, children, people of all castes, creed and colour from all over the world till today talk about his philosophies and ideologies. He is being talked about in every field be it politics, literature, philosophy, history, his scientific methods to make cloth ‘khadi’ and salt ‘dandi march’. Books, papers, researches are done still being published on ‘Gandhism’, ‘Gandhian Ideology’ and ‘Gandhian Philosophy’ with an attempt to bring back Gandhian ideal of non-violence, patience, peace, non-cooperation instead of the world which awaits third world-war.

Gandhi has always remained a universal subject throughout the world. It would be interesting for us to recap how Indian novelists have used the Gandhian theme in their own novel since British Raj till Independent India. Gandhian ideology lent novelists a frame of reference to look up for their stories. It linked them to the soil. It took them to the roots of Indian culture. It created in them a social awareness and helped them to creatively interpret the social reality. It made them look at man as a social animal, an individual with his responses and reactions. It sent them searching for a national identity. It should be made clear in the very beginning itself that due to scarcity of space and inability to express everything in just one manuscript I will deal with the two novels on Gandhi one being Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘Untouchability’ and the other Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Great Indian Novel’ to see the vast change in perspectives about Gandhi in a pre-independece novel and contemporary Indian novel.

Untouchable is an archetypal novel dealing with the worst evil of Indian society that is untouchability perpetrated by the varna system or caste system in the Indian vedas. The novel is a powerful indictment on caste discrimination and hypocrisy of the Hindus, especially Brahmins in those times which was severely criticised by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi is introduced personally in the end of novel. A reference is made to the impact of his magnetic personality when Bakha recalls how: “the crowd had determined to crush everything however ancient or beautiful, that lay in the way of their achievement of all that Gandhi stood for” (M.R.Anand 89). The novel is a chilling expose of the day to day life of a member of India’s untouchable caste. Mahatma Gandhi condemns these evils practise by saying:

“There is an ineffaceable blot on Hinduism today carries with it. I have declined to believe that it has been handed down to us from immemorial times. I think that this miserable, wretched, enslaving spirit of ‘untouchableness’ must have come to us when we at our lowest ebb. This evil has stuck to us and still remains with us…Untouchability as it is practised in Hinduism today is, in my opinion, a sin against God and as is therefore like a poison slowly eating away the vitals of Hinduism… They are denied even the ordinary amenities of life. The sooner it is ended, the better for Hinduism, the better for India, and perhaps better for mankind in general… But I go a step further and say that if we fail in this trial, Hinduism and Hindus will perish.”(Mohan Rao. 82)

Mulk Raj Anandhimself told about the inspiration behind writing a novel. He said, “One day, I read an article in Young India, Gandhiji describing whom he met Uka, a sweeper boy, and finding him with torn clothes and hungry, took him into his ashram…I wrote to the Mahatma asking for an appointment. He immediately wrote back and said,’he would give me an interview if I came to India. I went to Ahemedabad in 1929. The Mahatma allowed me to read portions of my novel Untouchable to him. He felt that I made Bakha a Bloomsbury intellectual. And he advised me to cut down a hundred or more pages and rewrite the whole. I revised the book and worked hard to achieve sincerity.” (Bhikhu 29)

E.M. Forster praised the novel Untouchable for its directness of attack upon the evil which is the subject of story. He points out that Indian have evolved a hideous nightmare unknown to the west : the belief that the products are ritually unclean as well as physically unpleasant and that those who carry them away or otherwise help to dispose of them are outcastes from society. According to him it really takes the human mind to evolve anything so devilish like untouchability as no animal could have hit upon it.The novel reveals clash between tradition and modernity. It depicts a society of transition. Bakha is caught between two worlds. He fails to break free from tradition and yet the pull down of modernity is strong upon him. His mind and soul suffer far greater damage. Eternal servility is the price of untouchability. Bakha’s enigma remains where it was. At the end of the day he was also disturbed by a thought : ‘But shall I never be able to leave the latrines’ (M.R.Anand 140). He has three alternatives before him. He is touched at hearing that Christ receives all men without any regard to caste or creed. But he gets disenchanted with Hutchinson, the Salvation missionary because he cannot tell him who Christ is. Then comes the second solution. Gandhi also says that all Indians are equal. The Mahatma talked of a Brahmin boy who did the scavenging in the ashram. This goes straight to Bakha’s heart. The third solution is suggested by the young, modern poet, Iqbal Nath Sarashar. Once sweepers change their professions, they are no more untouchables. This is possible only by switching to the flush system. Anand gives such ambiguous ending to the novel just to show his anger to Indian society who will hardly get ready to give eqaual status to those who need it.

Moving to the second novel, Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Great Indian Novel’ (1989), is possibly a resultant idea of the ‘The Great American Novel’ written by Philip Roth. Shashi Tharoor’s novel particularly relates to the ancient Hindu epic The Mahabharata. In Sanskrit, ‘Maha’, means ‘great’ and ‘Bharata’ means ‘India’. Thus, Mahabharata is Great Indian Story. Tharoor established his name in Post-Modern English Literature with this novel. The story recited in the novel is more or less a political interpretation of the India’s past since the advent of Mahatma Gandhi.

Shashi Tharoor does not even try to conceal the correspondence between the mythical and the historical personages or situations.Bhishma, that is, Gangadatta, commonly known as ‘Ganga’, is an audiovisual variation of ‘Gandhiji. One starts mentally speaking Gangaji as Gandhiji as soon as the story gets really started. Shashi Tharoor proceeds to introduce Ganga Datta, the son of Shanthanu and Ganga. Ganga leaves her son abruptly hence she fails in her dharma towards her son Ganga Datta. She leaves him to his fate. Now Shanthanu, father of Ganga Datta is in search of a new wife and he finds Satyavati to be an appropriate woman for himself as his new wife. However, Satyavati’s father rejects the offer because already Shanthanu had a son as the heir to the throne. Novel character Gangaji and the real life personality Gandhiji get entwined at various points while going through the novel and it becomes difficult for the reader to distinguish between the two characters. Gandhiji followed the path of marginal ‘Dharma’ for his family. In contrast to Ganga, Gandhiji got married but could not perform his ‘Grihasthashram dharma’ completely. He couldn’t be a father to his children but left his home and performed his ‘Dharma’ well towards his nation. Though he failed to be responsible father to his two children, he became the father of the Indian nation.

Gangaji made effort to eliminate class distinction. To certain level he even questioned the Varna dharma. Students’ dharma for their teachers is also emphasized in the novel. No matter how much Gandhiji is entangled in the greater dharma due to his responsibility and duty towards the nation, he does not choose his basic duty towards his wards much important than the former. On the other hand Gangaji manages to get Dhritarashtra and Pandu married to right women. In contrast to Gangaji, Gandhiji is completely separated from his responsibilities towards his family but he tries to realise his political dharma in the middle of his simple life.

Everything related to Gangaji’s life is discussed by the novelist in the novel together with Gangaji’s sex life – his celibate experiments prove him to be a man of perfect self-control by following the path of what he opted to do in his life. As the character of Gangaji is flawless in all aspects, the novelist is satirical about the pseudo-educated Indians who disparage Gangaji. He reflects this as an outgrowth of the British educational system in India. Brahmacharya dharma is a concept that the Western society cannot apprehend certainly. Western-educated Indians with their stress on evil activities cannot appreciate the sublimation of sexual impulses which saints practice. Hence, Gangaji’s celibate experimentations are mocked. But the novelist totally knows the fact that Gangaji needs our attention and commendation since he lived a life of absolute simplicity. So, posterity should leave no efforts to worship and adore this great personality.

The fasting of Gangaji gets huge reaction from the multitudes in the novel. The people followed him like a first of a restive volcano. Gangaji’s weapon of the fast makes our alleged weakness a defence and attains significant victory. At last, he recognizes that the only way to bring his ideologies to life is by being prepared to die for them which eventually become the strength of the national movement. At this point, the author compares and criticizes the present day’s ‘relay fast’ that is the weapon of today’s politicians, which many people take it in turn to miss their meals in public. The weapon has now become a politician’s bane.

The value of The Great Indian Novel as a political novel with a thesis can seldom be exaggerated. It is a post-colonial statement on the hideousness of the colonial ethics. Its ironic vision seems to serve to emphasize a political standpoint which both indicts colonialist exploitation and craves for a truly viable democratic alternative to emerge in India. In certain parts of the work it even tends to give up the ironic tone and becomes a direct and scathing attack against the colonialist practice. In the way it exposes the wrong economic policies pursued after Independence, the mismanagement of the country under Indira Gandhi and the dark days of Emergency and the later failure of the Janata politicians to provide a successful alternative, the novel becomes a document of manifest socio-political criticism. And in its examination of the unhappy and traumatic turn of events of the post-Independence period it almost conceals an elegiac tone, which arises from the painful recognition of a colossal failure that awaits every Indian experiment. The conclusion of the novel, therefore, reveals, in its plea for a rediscovery and reinterpretation of India on the basis of dharma, its lineage to the novelist’s own political perspective which is far from cynical and hinges on positive intentions.

Owing to various causes, the idea persists today that while Gandhiji was admirable as a leader of the masses and a saintly person, his ideas on politics, economics, education and social problems were obscure and outmoded and have no relevance today in our fast moving world of science and technology.How mistaken this notion is, can only be found by studying about Gandhiji’s writings and trying to gather the essence of his teaching. In the history of mankind there have been great saints, philosophers, thinkers, scientists, statesman and political leaders whose contribution in their own fields have been outstanding. But Gandhiji was unique because while he was actively leading a mass struggle for freeing his country from foreign rule, he conceived swaraj at once in individual and political terms. In short, Gandhi was a social scientist who tried to analyze the ills of society and find a cure for them.

Gandhiji did not believe that the ideal of peace could be realized in society so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions remained. In nature all men are born equal in the sense that they have a moral right to equal opportunity. But it is also true that all do not have equal talent. Some will have the ability to earn more. Gandhiji never wanted to cramp talent by preventing people endowed with superior talent from earning more but he suggested that the haves should use their talent and bulk of their earnings not on themselves but give it to have-nots as a trust, for the good of society.

All these values of Gandhiji, if adopted by people not only in India but around the world, this earth will become a better place to live with no poverty and clashes among people or the countries. According to Gandhiji basic ideal to pursue for everyone should be world peace and universal brotherhood and as such it is worthy of our most serious consideration.