Gandhi and his autobiography will be needed as long as we desire to rise above our failings: Tridip Suhrud
Gandhi's autobiography can aid one in the quest for truth and desire to live an ethical life, says Tridip Suhrud who has authored the recently published Critical Edition of My Experiments With Truth
Mohandas Gandhi is difficult to unremember, let alone to expunge from the historical record. On a more prosaic dimension, this can be ascribed to his proliferation across quotidian registers of political life – Gandhi resides in our calendars, our textbooks, our courts, our currency. But the memory of the Mahatma is, particularly for India, not only an emblem of the everyday but an immortal archive of sovereignty and nationality whose political principles are sparsely understood but forever salutary in the exercise of the nation.
To remember Gandhi in the twenty-first century is to, at the peril of narrowing the discursive field, choose between two salutations. The first register, although well-intentioned, remembers Gandhi by the secular trajectory of Indian nationhood, sanitising the complexity of his being where unnecessary and otherwise divesting it of its variegated economies. Here, Mohandas Gandhi becomes the Mahatma, a taxonomic burden he ceaselessly resisted, and in becoming so, as Ambedkar warned us, raises dust but no level. In the second register of memory, Gandhi is persecuted in a palpably juridical presence, castigated for his conspiratorial complicity in the sustenance of structures of caste and patriarchal governance.
Tridip Suhrud’s Gandhi is no Mahatma, but is also never banished to the recesses of philosophical and political insignificance – in fact, it is Suhrud’s case that we need Gandhi with greater immediacy than we realise, that the crises we attempt to confront in the vocabulary of the realpolitik are spiritual lapses of a dark, loveless world. It is, therefore, to the credit of Suhrud’s critical edition to Gandhi’s autobiographical endeavour, My Experiments with Truth (Penguin Books, 2018) that even in operating with a text whose immortality has remained as facile as its author’s, it abdicates the two registers of memory to remember Gandhi differently. It does so, in Suhrud’s words, by reading Gandhi in two tongues.
Before proceeding towards the interview, it is imperative to trace Suhrud’s work on Gandhi’s work in two frames – first, the ashram and the ashramic, and second, the translation, translator, and the translative.
The Gandhian ashram is a site whose elusive moral economy has been appreciated and derided in equivalent measure. It is, to some, the locus of upper-caste religion, and to still others, of spiritual discipline germane to/in the making of political rectitude. Here, too, the figure of Gandhi, as if in an unmediated fixture, dissipates into refracted nothingness. In its perfect Gandhian incarnation so fructified at Sabarmati, the ashram was a moral economy where the modern atomisation of the individual could, in the creation of the community, be undone.
To Suhrud, the ashram is not merely a site, but a moral, even philosophical creature understood only by in-dwelling within its circular confines. It is in this in-dwelling that the first, and last, fragments of the autobiography take confident shape, and here that the Mahatma prefers to spend most of his time writing as pieces and parts are serially published in the Navjivan – making it a curious text birthed in in-dwelling and nurtured in conversation. The autobiography is, for Suhrud, inextricable from the ashram, for it is in the ashram that Gandhi comes to formulate the selfhood we find worded in the lettered record. This is a selfhood of remarkably fluid contours, steadily furthering itself to not only transcend the ‘I’ but encompass the ashramites, the nationalists, even Gandhi’s countrymen. To extend the self is also to extend one’s deeds and one’s culpability in their effect. Every lapse, even those committed in the shadow of Gandhi’s sentient presence, so come to belong to Gandhi, “a torment almost no other leader in the world has borne.”
Although an accomplished translator, such as of the Hind Swaraj, Suhrud resists the temptation to translate the text, or even alter Mahadev Desai’s canonical translation. He prefers, instead, to introduce the text and by side-notes, take the English translation closer to the cadence of Gujarati inflections. This, as Suhrud explains in the interview, is born of both reverence (for Desai) and self-deprecation owing to one’s “moral lack” (from the Editor’s Introduction).
This is a curious, seemingly trivial inscription, but here Suhrud leaves us with a very meaningful meditation on the act of translation. In ascribing a moral personhood to the otherwise unidentifiably structured constitution of the translator, Suhrud renders the translation of Gandhi’s autobiography a sacral act, short-changing the forceful, albeit misguided, conviction that words and languages can pass unmediated and when the author treats his text as a religious exercise, secularly. Suhrud professes reverence for the translator, but in this choice, he is also being reverential of the text and its ever enigmatic author. One cannot, with the vain confidence of the literary critic, declare that this text, too, like its original, will live, but one can hope that it will. For as Suhrud declares at the end of the interview, we will need Gandhi for as long as we need an ethical universe.
I would like to begin, as it were, at the beginning. Here, I am speaking not only of what drew you to Gandhi – although that, too, is profoundly central, but what drew you to My Experiments with Truth in particular. By genre, it is not terribly unexceptional, since political figures across the world have made the autobiographical tradition their own. Yet, in substance, My Experiments… is an unprecedented, path-breaking text because for Gandhi, to write of the self is not merely to trace the history of one’s political experience; it is to make a sincere appraisal of the self in its subliminal incarnations whilst locating it within oneself and in others.
I grew up in Gujarat, reading Gujarati, and for a long time, it was the only language available to me. In that way, Gandhi was a recurring, inescapable figure, written about by some of the most creative intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century such as Swami Anand, Uma Shankar Joshi, poet Sundaram – it is they who introduced and tethered me to Gandhi. This was a more gentle, literary introduction – in how artists and writers responded to him – and not one that would come to me through politics or social thought. Gandhi became my anchor for understanding modern Gujarat and indeed, modern India.
Before we slide into the critical edition without recourse or tangential explorations, another question on the text per se should benefit the reader. This is, of course, a question too identifiable when one is speaking of My Experiments…: to you, what is, for Gandhi, truth? Clearly, it is something that Gandhi is experimenting with, which carries a definitive connotation of discursive flexibility, but it remains ambiguous who or what bends – is truth an obstinate, even sacral, entity that Gandhi reaches through a precariously drawn and experiential way, or is truth itself thrown into frequent question, making it possible for there to be as many truths as personhoods?
This is a question that has always fascinated me – what, indeed, is this truth that Gandhi is experimenting with? Isn’t truth something you arrive at and not experiment with? My understanding now is that the experiment with truth is the experiment with brahmcharya – this does not only mean celibacy and/or chastity, but conduct which leads one to truth. Truth is thus a charya you practice every day, a conduct which allows you to glimpse the truth. For Gandhi, truth is unitary – this does not mean that there is only one truth – and one conduct that leads one to it. Human vocation is to realise this truth in the self. Indeed, if Gandhi were to be asked what truth is, he will say, “I do not know, I merely practise it,” whether it is by satyagraha, nonviolence, ashramic observances, or brahmcharya. Truth to Gandhi, therefore, is a mode of conduct, and this is what draws him ever so often to the Bhagavad Gita and even Jesus Christ.
The critical edition, and what a wonderful text it is, merits a question on the art of translation. This, however, is tenuous terrain in this particular case, because you reconfigure, or refashion, Mahadev Desai’s ‘authoritative’ translation, one approved of by Gandhi himself. What would you like to say about Mahadev Desai’s method of translation? I would also like to know how you engaged with and worked around it.
There has been considerable discussion on translating the autobiography, and chief here has been Mahadev Desai’s authoritative translation. I find it truly amazing not only in its authorisation but also its substance. This does not mean that there cannot or should not be a new translation – I believe that every age has the liberty to engage with its classics in its own way; I am convinced, however, that I am not the person to do it. I have deep fondness for Mahadev and reverence for his translation, which I see as being an enlightened, illuminating translation filled with light. It dispels darkness, shows you a path, and I have cultivated a very special relationship with this exemplar. Mahadev had a very clear conscience and his relationship to Gandhi was fairly transparent, unmoved by greed or ill-will. My way of engaging with Mahadev’s translation was asking if I could bring it in conversation. I wanted to understand the process by which Gandhi thought and wrote the text at the ashram, his process of in-dwelling within the self and the ashram, and how Mahadev translated it. I wanted to discover how the autobiography came to be written as a narrative crafted in real time – it is for one, vaguely serialised, and people are responding to it as it is being written. It is an autobiography published as it is being written, a very unique piece of literary effort matched by Mahadev’s effort of bringing several language traditions to bear on the translation.
In your difficult task of introducing and in a way, annotating the text, you have confessed, and many reviewers have noted, glaring problems with the English translation, particularly when read with its more authentic (?) Gujarati version. Given your excellent facility with both languages, could you sketch what inversions of meaning from Gujarati to English you found most problematic and obfuscating? Would you place the error in the translator or the fundamental un-transibility of certain ideas and meanings?
I can read Gandhi in all the three languages he thought, spoke, and wrote in – my engagement is, thus, not mediated by translation. Preliminary in reading Gandhi are two texts, the Hind Swaraj and My Experiments with Truth, both very sincere and unsettling. I made it a habit to read anything by Gandhi in the language that he had written it in. Gandhi was an exceptionally bilingual thinker – in Hind Swaraj, he thinks through very large arguments in English and puts them to Gujarati. Sometimes, he fails in doing so, such as in translating satyagraha as passive resistance. Therefore, I began to read Gandhi in two tongues – it has shaped my engagement with the two texts as bilingual texts. I am myself a translator, and realised the need to read the autobiography in Gujarati and English together. That meanings might be lost in translating is not the translator’s error, but merely the very process of translating. I did not want to override and underride Mahadev’s prose, but bring English readers closer to the cadence of Gujarati meanings. In the introduction, for instance, Gandhi says that some things are communicable while others are incommunicable. Mahadev, however, translates it to say that some things are known to the self and some to one’s maker – this ascribes an agency to God as someone who makes. The Gujarati version has no such meaning and is in a very different philosophical inflection. Similarly, Gandhi often uses Homeric, Biblican, even Shakespearean idioms, which can lead one to even read it as a Christian text! For instance, Gandhi calls the moment when he was with Kasturba while his father was dying as his moment of “double-shame.” In Gujarati, there is no such notion. I wanted, in the critical edition, to draw the attention of the reader to this cadence.
My Experiments…, as indeed Gandhi, is a text that has lived despite its antiquity, or perhaps, because of. In placing this critical edition to its readers, what do you hope of/for its reception? Why do you think the text remains profoundly relevant to the contemporary?
I think today, the quest for truth and the desire to capture it and live an ethical life are not any different than they were in Gandhi’s time. This is an instrumentalist reading, but I think the autobiography can aid one in this quest and this desire. Some things like the quest for truth remain inviolable, and as long as we desire that we rise beyond our failings, we will need Gandhi and his autobiography. We will need Gandhi for as long as we desire unattainable but attractive things larger than oneself, and more profoundly, an ethical universe.
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