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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

As History Whispers through Amazing Letters...

Tuesday 14 May 2019, by Avijit Pathak



Friendships of ‘Largeness and Freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi: An Epistolary Account, 1912-1940 by Uma Das Gupta (ed); Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2018; pp. xc+502; Price: Rs 1495.

I know that I am reviewing this book at a time when things around us are toxic and violent. This is also the time when the tyranny of rhetoric has replaced the possibility of a nuanced dialogue, and politics is becoming increasingly separated from deep moral and ethical questions. Yet, amid this darkness, I begin to renew my faith in human possibilities as I read the book, feel the fragrance of Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi, understand the meaning of their friendships, and realise that love and trust can grow even if the friends differ on certain issues. I cannot deny that my experience with this book is immensely therapeutic.

And I must congratulate Uma Das Gupta for the spirited work she has done—the way she has compiled the letters that these three visionaries wrote to one another at different junctures of history, and the brilliant introduction she has written.

I am not a student of history. Yet, the very art of this book has made history alive, and Das Gupta has made it possible for a man like me to walk with Andrews, Gandhi and Tagore, and feel those cruicial moments in our politico-cultural history—from Santiniketan to South Africa, from Non-cooperation to anti-untoucha-bility movement, and from the ‘Rowlatt Bills’ to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Furthermore, in the age of instantaneity, Twitter and e-mail, I rediscover the beauty of a lost art—the art of writing long letters filled with intense experiences and philosophic sensibilities. And I have no hesitation in saying that Das Gupta has succeeded in generating a positive and life-affirming spirit; and hence, I too see ‘a spirit of largeness and freedom as felt by the three friends and practiced by them through their work’.

The Beauty of an Enabling Introduction

The letters were also their only available ‘messangers’ in such critical times as when the friends needed one another in great haste. There were occasions when they asked for one another across great distances and in an almost impossible hurry. Under those circumstances, one can hardly overestimate the critical role played by the letters between the three friends.

Uma Das Gupta

Uma Das Gupta is a gifted historian; every word she has written in her introductory essay reveals the rigour that characterises her craft. Furthermore, her mode of communicating the tales of history has its own aesthetics. It touches the reader. Let me quote a passage from the Introduction:

The ship, SS Umtali, carrying Andrews and Pearson reached Durban on 2 January, 1914. Gandhi was waiting at the Durban dockyard to receive them.... Andrews had earlier met Gandhi’s close associate, Henry Polak, who was waiting at the dockyard to receive the visitors. On landing, Andrews greeted Polak and asked if ‘Mr Gandhi’ was present among all the people waiting to receive them. In his account of that moment Andrews wrote: “He (Polak) pointed to an ascetic figure with a shaven head, dressed in a white dhoti and kurta of such coarse material as an indentured labourer might wear, looking as though in mourning, and said, ‘Here is Mr Gandhi.’ I stooped at once instinctively and touched his feet.”

Yes, it makes me see history—not fossilised, but living history. I begin to breathe it, smell it. In Das Gupta’s note, I also see an analytical framework that prepares the reader to classify and make sense of these historically relevant and aesthetically enriched letters. We know that Andrews, Gandhi and Tagore—all worked for India’s freedom. However, as Das Gupta reminds us, ‘the three friends were the seekers of the purity of ahimsa as the way to world peace’. Likewise, another common concern was ‘India’s cultural survival’. What is equally interesting is that ‘Andrews, Gandhi, and Tagore, collectively and individually, believed firmly that there must be no separation between the religious and the political even in a political struggle.’ Not solely that. They were equally concerned with the pathology of untouchability. Gandhi shared his concern—his determined urge to deal with the ‘Hindu Dyers’— with Andrews. And Tagore knew that ‘in Mahatmaji’s life there is no distinction between the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, the rich and the poor, amongst whom he has equally lavished his love’.

Despite these common concerns and mutual trust, there were ‘occasional differences’. Was it also the reason for their ‘loneliness’? Let me quote from the Introduction:

Tagore once wrote of his ‘moral loneliness’ because he could not always agree with Gandhi’s political methods. When differing over the Non-cooperation Movement, Tagore wrote to Andrews, ‘I am afraid I shall be rejected by my own people when I go back to India. My solitary cell is awaiting me in my motherland.’ 

Yet, these differences notwithstanding, they were deeply related and were never indifferent to each other’s personal worries. In fact, Uma Das Gupta helps us to understand the state of mind that Andrews was passing through when he came to know in August 1917 that Gandhi was ill. Feel the intensity of their relationship in the letter that Gandhi wrote to Andrews: the letter Das Gupta mentioned in the Introduction:

Dear Charlie, Your love messages are all before me. They are like a soothing balm. The more I contemplate this illness, the more deeply I realise what love of man to man must be and therefore love of God to man. I see nothing but the beneficent hand of nature and it seems to me that what appears to us on the surface to be violent visitations of nature are in reality nothing but so many acts of love.

What is amazing about Das Gupta’s introductory note is her clarity—her remarkably positive way of seeing things. Yes, I too agree that these three visionaries ‘were able to transform their loneliness into an enabling loneliness’. What further encourages me to read this book with great care is the observation Das Gupta has made:

Their letters confirmed for me that they were deeply and spiritually driven to find a national ideology in which politics and religion were inseparable. 

Pain and Longing: The Poetry of Friendship

Somehow I didn’t quite know how much you had learnt to love me till that morning when you put your hand on my shoulder and spoke of the loneliness there would be to you when I was gone, and when you told me you had kept those hurried letters I had sent you—then I knew.


Andrews to Gandhi (1914) 

The life-trajectory of Andrews fascinates me. He came to India in 1904 to work for the Cambridge Brotherhood Mission at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. But then, for this Cambridge graduate in the classics, life took a different turn as he began to interact with Tagore and Gandhi. It was in June 1912 that he met Tagore in London, and listened to his poetry. The impact was tremendous. It was difficult for him to come out of the ‘spell of Rabindranath Tagore’. Das Gupta makes us familiar with a poem Andrews wrote to celebrate his feeling of the moment of interaction with Tagore:

Rabindra, lord of a new world of song,
Heir of the sacred rishis of old time,
This homage comes from a far distant clime
To hail the crowned among the immortal throng.

No wonder, for Andrews, there was an irresistible appeal of Santiniketan. For him, it was a spiritual experience, a moment of gratitude and prayer. As I read a letter he wrote to Tagore in 1913, my faculty of ‘empathy’ is sharpened, and I can understand the soul of every word he wrote:

I was so very tired, but the tiredness went away when I reached the ashram and saw the boys and was taken up to the very room where you had lived—with that wonderful balcony and all the dreaming trees so close at hand and the distant view....It was all so pure and still and sacred.

Their communication was deep and sacred. Yes, Tagore could share his inner world with Andrews. On the occasion of his father’s birth anniversary, he wrote a letter to Andrews on May 17, 1914 from Ramgarh. I read this letter time and again. It touches me:

To be born naked in the heart of the Eternal Truth, to be able to feel with my entire being the life throb of the Universal heart—that is the cry of my soul. I tell you all this, so that you may understand what I am passing through and may help me when occasion arises. 

Yes, trust was the core of this relationship. It was abut love, care and understanding. While Andrews was in psychic and physical pain, Tagore—like an Upanishadic yogi—could advise him to ‘live in that pure atmosphere of shanti where happiness is simple like morning light and where everything is given to you because you expect nothing’. Likewise, Andrews trusted Gandhi, and shared his anguish when a group of Christian missionaries began to doubt his religious faith and Christian position, and fear that he was going to become a ‘Hindu’. He knew that Gandhi would understand his pledge: ‘I must all the more closely follow Christ himself and keep chastity and shanti.’

Andrews was in constant touch with Gandhi and Tagore. Well, for Andrews, Gandhi was like the ‘avalanche of moral force’. But then, there was doubt in his mind whether people would be really able to understand his spirit. It was only with Tagore that he could share this dilemma (‘I am with Mr Gandhi because of his glorious moral fervour and prophetic instinct and strength, but I have the critical faculty too strong in me to be with him altogether’), or this psychic turmoil. As I see a letter he wrote to Tagore in 1919, I feel his longing for Tagore’s ‘personal presence, help, guidance and wisdom’ at the moment of his inner churning.

We know Tagore’s discomfort with Gandhi’s position on the non-cooperation movement. And Tagore trusted Andrews; he could share the agony of his ‘moral loneliness’ because, as the poet felt, ‘to disagree with Mahatma and yet to find rest in one’s surrounding in India is not possible’. In fact, in a philosophically enriched letter that Tagore wrote to Andrews in 1921, I find the substance of the poet’s critique of Non-cooperation. ‘Our life’, Tagore wrote, ‘needs more colour, more expansion, more nourishment ..., not asceticism.’ ‘Deadness of life in all forms,’ he added, ‘gives rise to impurities—by enfeebling our reason, narrowing our vision, creating fanaticism through forcing our willpower into abnormal channels.’

Differences with Reverence

You have been to me a true friend because you have been a candid friend often speaking your thoughts aloud. I had looked forward to a firm opinion from you, one way or the other. But you have refused to criticise. Though it can now only be during my fast, I will yet prize your criticism, if your heart condemns my action. I am not too proud to make an open confession of my blunder, whatever the cost of the confession, if I find myself in error. If your heart approves of the action, I want your blessing. It will sustain me.

Gandhi to Tagore (1932)

I have always reflected on the relationship between Tagore and Gandhi. Tagore’s sublime poetry, his musical prayers, his Upanishadic universalism, and his deep awareness of the discontents of loud nationalism have always charmed me. Likewise, the ‘experimental’ Gandhi with his subtle interpretation of the Bhagavadgita and the Sermon on the Mount makes me realise the art of possibility—transforming politics into a domain of sadhana, and evolving a language of resistance based on high ethical principles. Tagore’s poetic abundance and Gandhi’s disciplined karmayoga, or Tagore’s aesthetics and Gandhi’s austerity: I keep thinking of the meaning of the engagement of the two minds.

Yes, they trusted each other; they depended on each other. And they could build the rhythmic bridge between ‘Santiniketan and Phoneix Schools’. Yes, the cultural landscape in India during those challenging times acquired a new meaning in the presence of a saintly political activist and a visionary poet. Yet, they differed. We know that Tagore could not give his consent to the philosophy of non-cooperation. However, for Gandhi, this non-cooperation was neither with the English nor with the West, but with ‘the system established by the British Raj with its attendant greed and exploitation of the weak’. Not solely that. Gandhi wanted the poet to ‘spin the wheel as a sacrament’ because it should not be forgotten that ‘when there is war, the poet lays down the lyre, the lawyer his law reports, the schoolboy his books; and the poet will sing the true note after the war is over’. Likewise, while for Tagore, it was difficult to agree with Gandhi’s argument that ‘the earthquake in Bihar is a divine chastisement for the sin of untouchability’, Gandhi felt that ‘super-physical consequences flow from physical events’.

The story of this subtle engagement becomes quite clear as, Das Gupta acts as a catalyst, and I read their letters. To begin with, I wish to refer to a statement Tagore made on Gandhi on February 6, 1934. What caused pain to Tagore was a ‘spirit of hostility’ amongst some people against the activities of Gandhi. Yes, Tagore too had strong differences with Gandhi. Yet, never did he doubt that ‘Mahatmaji is the one person who has done most to raise the people up from the slough of despondency and self-abasement to which they had fallen through centuries of servitude’. No wonder, Tagore’s critique was also filled with reverence:

I have often disagreed with him in public and even quite recently have criticised his belief that the recent earthquake devastation in Bihar is a divine chastisement, for the sin of untouchability but I have enough regard for the sincerity of his religious convictions and his abiding love for the poor as to hold his differences of opinion with me with respect. 

Yes, Tagore was certain of one thing: Gandhi triumphed ‘through sacrifice, through suffering, through supreme penance’. However, the two letters that Tagore wrote to Gandhi from Darjeeling on May 9 and May 11, 1933 indicate the poet’s discomfort with the Mahatma’s fasts. With deep pain and apprehension of the danger to Gandhi’s life, Tagore wrote:

I cannot bear the sight of a sublimely noble career journeying towards a finality which, to my mind, lacks a perfectly satisfying justification. And once again, I appeal to you for the sake of the dignity of our nation, which is truly impersonated in you, and for the sake of the millions of my countrymen who need your living touch and help to desist from any act that you think is good only for you and not for the rest of humanity. 

As I am about to conclude this review essay, I can say without the slightest hesitation that here is an amazing book. Yes, it is about history; it is about politics and biography; and it is about life—the beauty of relationships amid pain and struggle, and differences and longing. After reading the letters and Uma Das Gupta’s Introduction, I feel my understanding of Gandhi, Tagore and Andrews has acquired a new dimension. Let the readers—students and teachers, historians and sociologists, and artists and concerned citizens—embrace the book: the spirit that flows through the chapters and appendices.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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