By Ravi Perera –
“When Gandhi was studying law at the University College of London, there was
a professor, whose last name was Peters, who felt animosity for Gandhi, and
because Gandhi never lowered his head towards him, their “arguments” were
One day, Mr. Peters was having lunch at the dining room of the University
and Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to the professor. The
professor, in his arrogance, said, “Mr. Gandhi: you do not understand… a
pig and a bird do not sit together to eat “, to which Gandhi replies, “You
do not worry professor, I’ll fly away “, and he went and sat at another
Mr. Peters, green of rage, decides to take revenge on the next test, but
Gandhi responds brilliantly to all questions. Then, Mr. Peters asked him the
following question, “Mr. Gandhi, if you are walking down the street and find
a package, and within it there is a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot
of money; which one will you take?”
Without hesitating, Gandhi responded, “the one with the money, of course”.
Mr. Peters, smiling, said, “I, in your place, would have taken the wisdom,
don’t you think?” “Each one take what one doesn’t have”, responded Gandhi indifferently.
Mr. Peters, already hysteric, writes on the exam sheet the word “idiot” and
gives it to Gandhi. Gandhi takes the exam sheet and sits down. A few minutes
later, Gandhi goes to the professor and says, “Mr. Peters, you signed the sheet, but you did not give me the grade.”
I received the above story through an email; the sender had merely forwarded the mail he had received from another source. Like so many of such stories doing the rounds electronically, the authorship of the story is anonymous, with no references whatsoever as to its origin. And like other similar stories, this too attempts to make certain points in an obvious but humorous way. A heroic and verbally sharp freedom fighter (to be)pitted against the buffoonery of a racist white is almost cartoon like, a story told in one snap-shot. All the heroism, humour and intelligence are on one side, the other, lacking them altogether. The story may mock the reader’s ability to assess and judge, but it is the telling that matters not the substance.
And of course this story of the young Gandhi is nonsense.
Mahatma Gandhi, as student Gandhi of the above story later became, found time in the midst of his gigantic and history defining struggle against the largest empire of the world, to write an autobiography. Written piecemeal between 1925 and 1929 in the Gujarati language it was published in English under the title “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”. Initially when pushed by fellow freedom fighters to write his life story Gandhi was reluctant. Mulling over the idea he acknowledged “writing autobiographies is a western practice, something nobody does in the East…”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in October 1869 in Porbanda, North-West India. His father Karamchand Gandhi was a petty local politician in the area. Gandhi’s mother Putlibai was his fourth wife, the other three apparently dying in child birth. She was illiterate but devout. As tradition dictated Gandhi was married at the age of only thirteen to Kasturbai, who was also illiterate. When Karamchand Gandhi died in 1885 the young Gandhi had to take over the role of the head of family. Although not wealthy, the Gandhis were reasonably well placed by Indian standards. At this stage Gandhi decided that before he assumes his father’s responsibilities he should proceed to the UK in order to study law. In 1888, at the age of 19, when Gandhi took a ship from Bombay to Southampton he was already a father, his first son Harilal being born only three months before.
It was not an easy trip. No one from his caste had been to England before, where the danger of “contamination” was ever present. To please his mother Gandhi took a vow not to touch wine, women or meat while there. But this did not satisfy all, a section of his caste formally declared Gandhi an outcaste for his defiance. But the young man, although timid, was obstinate. Even though up to this time he had not even read a newspaper, Gandhi was determined to set sail to England.
In his autobiography he describes some of the experiences on board the ship “ I was innocent of the use of knives and forks…I therefore never took meals at the table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits I had brought with me. On the boat I had worn a black suit. The white flannel suit, which my friends had got me, was kept specially for wearing when I landed. When I stepped ashore in my white flannel suit, it were the last days of September, and I was the only person wearing such clothes”
He spent just three years in England, passed out from the Inner Temple, was called to the bar on 10th June 1891, enrolled on 11th June and immediately after, on the 12th of June sailed for home.
Several commentators have noted the scantiness in his descriptions of England and the English. The contrast between Gandhi’s India and that of London which was then virtually the capital of the world could not have been more striking. But in his narration there are no comments about the climate or the seasons of England which would have been so different to Gujarat. Nor is there any attempt at describing the streets, buildings, crowds or public conveyance of what would have been such a strange place for a man from a small Indian town. However, there are short descriptions of his attempts at dressing correctly, learning English manners and problems with the food, while meetings with Theosophists, vegetarians etc, are dealt with at some length. Gandhi apparently took lessons in violin, French and dancing. There is a distinct sense of a young man of fierce inward concentration, all but completely absorbed in a private world on which London had no pull.
Back in India, Gandhi soon lost his enthusiasm for the practice of the law. This complex personality, shy, retiring and at the same time of heightened moral and social consciousness found the rampant corruption, bullying and bluffing in the Indian courts distasteful. Fundamentally a man of unbending integrity, after a mere two years in India, decided to find employment in another country, South Africa, with an Indian Muslim firm. Originally the intention was to stay for only one year but Gandhi went on to live in South Africa for twenty long years. And in those long years a struggle was waged against oppression of a people which were to transform him, eventually becoming Mahatma Gandhi, the great soul, one of the greatest human beings to have walked the earth.
It is pretty obvious that Gandhi was not born with some spiritual halo or that every step of the way he took on the mighty British empire as our story at the beginning implies. It is extremely unlikely that the story has even a semblance of truth, given the man, considering the times. Mahatma Gandhi’s greatness is not based on the falsities of much smaller men, however flattering.
The reason that I take this somewhat lengthy objection to a story which after all is not even serious history is that similar myth making has now become common place in our daily discourses. In many of our beliefs, assumptions and thoughts there is a clear inclination towards the make believe, sheer fantasy. Some of the stories being offered to the public as the truth are irrational if not bordering on the lunatic. Only the other day in one of the so called history programmes on a local TV Channel a “learned” participant suggested that during the times of the mythical King Ravana (of course no time period is given for this era of milk and honey) the Lankans had mastered the art of flying and even went so far as advancing a hypothesis that Ravana’s air force carried out bombing raids in Persia! We were conquerors, fierce warriors, and brilliant inventors but above all were possessed of high spiritual values says this “educational” programme. Since there is no satisfaction today in comparing this country with the rest, we have a comforting unction in the unknowable yesterdays.
Did Gandhi really challenge his teacher, a revered figure in general Indian thought, in that manner? It does not matter, we will argue, as long as the political point is made. Gandhi was good and sharp, the teacher was bad and foolish, and that is all that matters.
Inspired by such logic some fantastic things are being said of even the leaders of today. That the country is small, relatively underdeveloped and its economy barely the size of a large multinational is not relevant. A comparison with the market capitalization of companies like the computer giant Apple or Exxon Mobil will be a sobering experience. According to the story tellers our leaders are superlative in every aspect. Kotalawela did this; Bandaranaike said that, Jayewardene thought of that, Rajapaksa is like this, it goes on. This need to exaggerate even goes to their less honorable activities. It is not sufficient to call a corrupt leader so; he must be named one of Asia’s richest! No bribe is in the thousands but only in millions of dollars in these stories implying that the bribe is larger than the value of the project concerned!
This unrealism seems to underlie every discourse both for the local consumption as well as foreign audiences.
The prevailing culture is very similar to that of the fictional village in old Gaul wherein the famous French duo Goscinny and Uderzo of the comic book series placed their hero Asterix. As we all know in actuality the legions of Julius Ceaser and other Roman leaders conquered Gaul in brutal campaigns during which certain Gaulish tribes were completely annihilated. But in the popular comic book series Asterix and his friend Obelix reverse known history not only by out-witting them with clever verbal banter and repartee, but also by beating the living day lights out of the hapless Romans who come in their way. Of course Goscinny and Uderzo being intelligent men provide an explanation for their “revised” history. Asterix and Obelix are armed with a “magic potion” made by the village druid, making them invincible!
Many of the stories we hear, historical as well as of the present, could have come straight from the quills of Goscinny and Uderzo, when slightly inebriated. But there is no one enlightening us on the source from where our leaders, both past and present, got their magic potion!