In praise of: Gandhi’s Editor

It has been said that ‘behind every great thinker lies a lesser begin who shall translate, collate, annotate or otherwise facilitate his work.’ So James Boswell followed Dr. Johnson around the pubs of London, first ‘committing to memory, and thereafter to print, every word uttered in cups’. Ernest Jones and Strachey assumed the job of biographer and translator respectively of Sigmund Freud. Being a German, Friedrich Engels took his job rather seriously. He not only reviewed and subsidised Marx’s writing whenever they appeared but also assumed paternity of an illegitimate child to save his friend’s marriage.

Gandhi, ‘mother of all debate’, was fortunate to have adversaries with first rate mind. They came from all corners of the nation and beyond, and with them he often engaged in debates on issues pertaining to India’s future. So with Ambedkar, he argued issues of untouchability and place for Dalits in independent India; with Nehru and other scientists, he debated his preferred economic model (factory or village); With Kamladevi and his adopted British daughter Mira Behn and other remarkable feminists of those days, he discussed women issues and their place in independent India – India gave  voting rights to women the day it came into being while the ‘pinnacle of democracy’ Switzerland did in 1975; with Communists and bhadraloks, he ‘disagreed on the efficacy and morality of violence’ as political strategy’; with radical Muslims on one hand and with radical Hindus on the others, he fought against the idea of a nation on the lines of religion; and with other giant Rabindranath, he ‘disputed the merits of such varied affiliation as the English language, nationalism, and the spinning wheel’.

His debaters were not restricted to the upper-echelon of society. Bhism Sahni, a noted Punjabi and Hindi writer (author of ‘Tamas’), wrote a small memoir, ‘My Brother Balraj’ based on letters Balraj sent his younger brother from Sevagram. Balraj left Savarmati to Sevagram where he could see the great man everyday despite of taste-less food. But more importantly, unlike Savarmati, he could easily smoke his ‘sutta’ by simply jumping off its wall. He wrote of people coming from far away places and arguing with him: someone was angry with his ‘namby-pamby’ ahimsa ways while another was furious why Hindi should be made national language while Tamil is even older than Sanskrit. They discussed and argued the way they liked but no one was allowed to monopolise Gandhi for more than 10-20 minutes. If someone was taking too much of his time then Gandhi would look back and send some signal. A ‘dark and smelly [sic] Indian would come too close to the persistent debater that he would put off with his smell and leave’. To correspondent who wrote their queries from distant land, he would write back or discuss them in his journal. He sent letters to authorities in Government in his usual style of ‘unadorned prose’. During his lifetime, a colossal amount of issues were debated, ideas were erected and refined, myth and stories were created.

It is a happy accident that men who thus kept ‘his conscience’ came from all corners of country. Neither of them monopolised his writings. Mahadev Desai, who joined Gandhi first, was his fellow Gujrati ‘well placed to accompany him on his village tours, to handle his correspondence, to translate his  autobiography and other works of truth.’ In 1942, when Mahadev died in prison, he was joined by a ‘lean and energetic punjabi Payarelal, secretary to the Mahatma in the last, tormented decade of his life.’ When he walked through the riot-torn villages of Eastern Bengal, he was accompanied by ‘a Calcutta anthropologists Nirmal Kumar Bose’. In Bose memoirs we often see that his Gandhi was winning over his Marx. These three men met and knew Gandhi in flesh and blood. Their works are read and remembered but it was a man who hardly knew him in person but presented him to the world like no one else. This was a Tamilian and Scholar Krishanaswamy Swaminathan. What follows next are the notes collected on this man of rare energy who edited ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ (CWMG); a neck-to-neck race between editor’s age the volume he published which his age won by a narrow margin of 94-90.

Swaminathan was lucky to born in an intellectual family. His father was first to translate Balmiki Ramayan into Tamil, K. Venkataraman, his next-to-him brother was a world authority in synthetic dyes and founder-director of National  Chemical Laboratory in Pune, the youngest was K. Sanjivi, ‘one of the Madras’ best-known teachers and practitioners of medicine’, known for his extraordinary and still-vigorous institution, The Voluntary Health Service in Adyar.

Swaminathan was the third editor to be appointed as chief-editor of CWMG. When he took over, only 4 volumes had appeared covering first three comparatively insignificant decade of his life. By the time The Editor retired, ‘the story had been brought down to Jan 30, 1948’. His stay in Delhi while editing was not free from troubles. He was not tolerant of British in Indian Educational Service, and Indian Babus and Netas are anyone but humble. He was advised by C. Rajagopalchari himself, before the professor left Madras, to be more tolerant of babus and netas that he had been of his British superiors, ‘remember you are serving Gandhi, not the Delhi government.’ And so, as Swaminathan was to racall, ‘I never yielded to the temptation to resign, and have, like Casablanca, clung to my post for a quarter century while fires raged and storms blew all around me.’

Book writers often speak of ‘editorial vandalism’ of their writings which transforms the original manuscript into printed matter which author often finds puzzling. The editor feels that pruning, chopping and embellishment is in common interest of readers and the author. Swaninathan was the most reticent of book editor and never tells us what he thought of ‘the great thinker’ by himself. Although in a lecture given in 1984, in the memory of K. Santhanam, he gave biting but not unfair assessments of other scholar’s of Gandhi. Thus Judith Brown ‘regards Gandhi as a lover of power using to increase his stature’. Raghavan Iyer ‘studies Gandhi in vacuo and try to relate him moral thinkers of the West with little regards to what he learnt from poor people whom he loved and served.’ Eric Erikson, ‘who wrote a brilliant and wholly satisfying book on “Young Man Luther”, analyses Gandhi into shreds and patches, all because he was totally ignorant of Gandhi’s cultural background, the living creative poetry of Vishnavism, which none can deny and none can destroy.’ On the other hand the editor did comment the thousand-page tome of A. Ramaswamy, a ‘meticulous scholar now dead and forgotten because he committed the atrocious sin of writing in Tamil instead of English.’  The editor also comments of ‘sensation-monger and wizard of box office’ – Richard Attenborough. Attenborough’s Ben Kingsley disguised as Gandhi is a stuffed dummy set up for floor offerings, which could equally serve, and had actually been used, for target practice by the opponents of non-violence who abound in America, Iran and elsewhere. There is no Rama without Sita, Lakshamana, Bharata, Hanuman, and so on. [But] Attenborough’s Gandhi is a Titan among the dwarfs, an eagle among the sparrows, a mere caricature unrelated to the reality.’

These notes have chiefly been taken from essays and memoirs written by Ramachandra Guha, a polymath of our age, to whom Swaminathan was a great-uncle, mama thrice over. In childhood, he touched his sandal clad feet, a gesture more motivated for a ten-rupee note than respect; in boyhood, he discussed Gandhi with him or received post cards carrying gentle admonition: ‘Learn Tamil and lead a simple life’; and chastised whenever he wrote something which was not consistent. The ‘last civilian’ and scholar C. S. Venkatachar once compared The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi to the Qutub Minar, that other
monument to industry and efficiency, that marvel like clarity and longevity. But a more suitable analogue was found by his nephew, ‘Swaminathan was to Gandhi what Ganapati once was to Vyasa, transcribing and setting into order a narrative of astonishing length and complexity, running out of breath only when his master ran out of words.’


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