Gandhi, the Eternal Interpreter

A meditation on the integral role translation as a connecting act had played in shaping MK Gandhi’s cultural and political vision

The relationship between Gandhi and colonialism is complex. He is responsible for the dismantling of the British empire. It started a process of creation of independent nation states. Also, a different way to look at the world. Even before that, while fighting the British, whom he berated for keeping unwilling populations under their dominance, Gandhi had already turned into the lens through which the world started looking at itself. But before that, he had to cover a long path.

By the end of the first decade of 20th century, Gandhi had established himself as a tall leader in South Africa. He had travelled as a professional from one colony, which India was then, to this one, but, he soon transformed himself into a crusader for the rights of the immigrants, initially Indians. He was trained in the language of law, and in South Africa it became his job to translate and interpret this language for the benefit of his fellow countrymen and women who had settled there in various professions, but were kept firmly out of the realm of rights which were legitimately available to the whites. Gandhi asserted his and his fellow country men and women’s rights be respected as legitimate subjects of the British empire.

The year was 1912. Gopal Krishna Gokhale was on a visit to South Africa, and meetings were being held for him. D G Tendulkar describes the role of Gandhi in these meetings. Gokhale was a giant figure for the Indians and even the colonial masters paid deference to his stature. In Johannesburg, a mass meeting was being held for the Indians. Gandhi requested Gokhale to speak in Marathi as there were several Konkani Muslims and some Maharashtrian Hindus among the audience. When Gandhi said that he would translate his Marathi speech into Hindi, Gokhale burst into laughter and remarked: “I have quite fathomed your knowledge of Hindi, an accomplishment upon which you cannot exactly be congratulated. But now you propose to translate Marathi into Hindi. May I know where you acquired such knowledge of Marathi?” Gandhi replied: “What is true of my Hindustani is equally true of my Marathi. I cannot speak a word of Marathi, but I am confident of gathering the purport of your Marathi speech on a subject with which I am quite familiar. In any case you will see that I don’t misinterpret you to the people.” Gokhale fell in with Gandhi’s suggestion and from Johannesburg right up to Zanzibar he always spoke in Marathi., and Gandhi served as his interpreter. On the whole, Gokhale was gratified by the results of the experiment and Gandhi was pleased that an Indian language was given its place in South Africa.

Gandhi’s audacity is remarkable here. I have thought about Gandhi’s reluctance in accepting English as the language in which an Indian leader like Gokhale should be talking to his own people. Was it a nationalist act or something else? What was he doing as he expressed his desire to host an Indian language in a land that was not very hospitable to the languages of the immigrants? He was proposing that the act of translation is a pointer towards our inadequacy; an admission that there would always remain a gap in our desire to interpret each other in our own languages, a lack that either side must recognise as a fact. But, this recognition also brings to the fore, the difficultly of knowing the other who is facing one, talking to one.

The act of decipherment is a never-ending one. It is in this light that Gandhi saw co-habitation, where there would always be moments of unfamiliarity with the other; one will have to grapple with them with the resources available. Inadequacy of resources should not be an excuse to postpone the task. And, translation for Gandhi is an act of creating relationships in which one accepts one’s inability to completely grasp or capture the other.

Rajmohan Gandhi in one of his tellings of MK Gandhi’s life, titled The Good Boatman, recalls a South African moment. The lawyer Gandhi retires to a hill near his house and translates into Gujarati, the entire draft of a bill that was going to impact the life of immigrant Indians. Rajmohan writes that this was entirely an unnecessary exercise. The case against the draft bill had to be built only in English. But, he would understand the full import of this bill on the lives of the Indian immigrants only when the law was transferred to the realm of their own language, which, in the ordinary emotions of their heart were held and expressed. The act of translation there became an act of achieving justice. The injustice ingrained in the law would only be revealed by a language in which he lived and breathed.

Gandhi advocated dignity, not only for the Indian people, but for all linguistic groups in South Africa. He opposed the draft immigration bill, which had dropped Yiddish as a qualification for entry. The proposed new law prescribed a dictation test for the immigrant in a language of the immigration officer’s choice. Gandhi argued that an immigrant could not be judged by his competence in a language of the coloniser’s choice. Gandhi probably did not know that Yiddish had a rich repository of literature, but his support to the cause of Yiddish was, as Margaret Chatterjee rightly notes in Gandhi and His Jewish Friends, an act of justice. He considered it a people’s matter. She writes: “With his unfailing ear for what was “of the people”, he could recognise its folk quality, and, furthermore, he saw justice in the cause of those who were promoting it.” Justice, she points out, was never for Gandhi, a function of numbers.

Talking about numbers, Gandhi always sided with those who were smaller in number or, in other words, were a minority anywhere. Minority is not again a matter of number. It is always a relational thing. Those with greater political power should be deemed as majority and those who have less power should be treated as minorities. Gandhi’s defence and advocacy of Urdu had something to do with this idea of smaller numbers. His insistence on creating a new variety of Hindi and Urdu, which he called Hindustani, is to be seen as an act of creating relationships between Hindi and Urdu, which were demanding their own rights from the colonisers. He proposes a third way—the middle path of Hindustani. This was not to deprive any of the two of the scripts in which these languages were written. Linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee expressed his reservation about this insistence of Gandhi. He told him that it would be very difficult for common masses to practice and master both the scripts. Gandhi rejected him thus: “Do please give a trial to what I say. I am firmly of the belief that this will be quite practical.” Hindustani had to be practiced in both the scripts. The question of Hindi and Urdu had already acquired a divisive character, a matter of Hindu and Muslim rights. Gandhi wanted to forge a nationalism on the bedrock of Hindu-Muslim unity. If Hindus were giving up what was theirs – and he saw Urdu as theirs too – he had to persuade them to re-adopt it.

It has been pointed out, and rightly so, that while being partial to Hindustani, Gandhi was imposing a North India-centric view on the rest of India. I am not going into that debate. What interests me is Gandhi’s relational approach.

When Gandhi planned to return to India, he started learning Bengali. His biographers note that one of his first destinations in India was the abode of Tagore – Shantiniketan. The relationship between the Mahatma and the poet has been a subject of study for many scholars. They, in their mental and philosophical outlook were very different. None wanted the other to lose his voice. One is seen as an aesthete and the other a utilitarian. Their ideas on education and agitation differed. But they were ready to reach out to each other and make efforts to understand each other. That, this dialogue, in which disagreement is an essential element, was taking place in a colonial setting was no deterrent.

Gandhi, the relationist, supported Shantiniketan and collected funds for it. This was despite the fact that his educational philosophy, as expressed in his experiments of Buniyadi Shiksha or Nai Taleem, were at a divergence from Tagore’s educational philosophy. Gandhi’s practice of Bangla continued even after the death of the poet. His companions report that when Gandhi was in Noakhali in East Bengal, dousing the violence set afire by Muslims against their Hindu neighbours, he carried with him a slate on which he kept practicing Bengali. Till the evening he was killed, he carried on his daily practice of Bengali.

Gandhi, in many ways, crafted his unique Indianness through his interaction with the West. He is seen as a person who launched the dismantling of colonialism, and he was instrumental in changing the emotional geography of the 20th century. But, early in life, he went to study in London, the heart of the colony of which he was a subject. He had a London in his imagination – an abode of poets and philosophers. So, he was not going to a foreign land. His biographers have noted the doggedness of his will to go to London. He begged for money, fought his community’s religious prejudices, and persuaded his reluctant mother, so he could go to his dream land.

It is not very difficult to see that Gandhi would not have been what he ultimately became, had he not gone to London, the geography where he found his tongue. Talking to the Daily Express, Gandhi remembers his dear London thus: “I know every nook and corner of London where I lived for three years, so many years ago, and somewhat of Oxford and of Cambridge and Manchester too: but it is London I specially feel for. I used to read in the Inner Temple Library and used to attend Dr. Parker’s sermons in the Temple Church. My heart goes out to the British people and when I heard that the Temple Church was bombed, I bled. And the bombing of the Westminster Abbey and other ancient edifices affected me deeply.”

Gandhi made friends with the English in London, South Africa, all over Europe, and in the United States of America. He won for the cause of India, the affection of the best of that race and language, which considered itself superior to India and its languages. This was possible because Gandhi remained all his life a translator, an interpreter and an interlocutor between the West and the colonies. He started his life as a petitioner and practised this art to perfection, seeking to appeal, persuading the opponent. This art he learnt as a colonial subject seeking his rights from the Empire.

Gandhi, in this process, developed a unique non-violent language, full of Biblical references. It was his stay in London that brought him closer not only to the Bible, but also to the Gita. It was the circle of his Western friends which motivated him to read and study The Song Celestial, the translated version of the Gita. He felt greatly ashamed that he had not read the Gita in the original, but this encounter led to a lifelong relationship with the Gita. He produced an interpretation of the Gita which unseated the interpretation of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the protagonist of militant nationalism in India. And, he was not interested in placing the Gita above books from other religions. In fact, even before becoming a devotee of the Gita, he had developed an affinity for “The Sermon on The Mount”. He famously said that even if he forgot every word of the Gita or the book itself was lost, but he still had the Sermon, that would give him the same solace. This does not mean that, due to his acceptance of the Bible or Quran, he was ready to leave his dharma. On the other hand, he innovatively created a unique prayer which included words significant to nearly all religions.

Gandhi’s germinal contribution to modern human thought, compiled in a small book, Hind Swaraj or Self Rule, was again the result of his interaction with the thoughts of Western thinkers such as Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoreau and Ruskin. It was also triggered by his encounter with some Indian youth in London who, in his opinion, though fighting the British were only following the Western path which led to violence. Gandhi asked the colonisers to leave India to be free themselves. He challenged them from the stand point of Christianity. Beginning from Hind Swaraj to his last days, he lamented that what the colonisers were doing was a clear betrayal of the Christian principles. Gandhi held that his struggle was to help them, to remind them of their forgotten Christian values.

Gandhi often invoked Christian motifs when in dilemma or agony. These were the lines he found most apt to describe his mental and emotional state when in his free nation, Hindus and Muslims were at the throats of each other:

It is by my fetters that I can fly;
It is by my sorrows that I can soar;
It is by my reverses that I can run;
It is by my tears that I can travel;
It is by my cross that I can climb
into the heart of humanity;
Let me magnify my cross, O God.

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