Mahatma Gandhi had expressed the opinion that a human life could span 125 years and that he would quite like to live that long. “If he had his way, he would have departed not in 1948 but around 1994,” best-selling author Manu S. Pillai writes in his latest book, also posing some intriguing questions, among them: would he have sided with Indira Gandhi to end genocide in East Pakistan and help birth Bangladesh, would Mrs Gandhi have thrown him into prison during the Emergency and most importantly, “would the tragedy that was Babri Masjid have pierced the Mahatma’s heart as he aproached his own deadline of a century and a quarter?”
Admitting that to venture on a journey of ‘what ifs’ could be a “foolish exercise with a man who said and did things with no parallels and which are still open to endless interpretations”, Pillai adds: “There is little that can be said with certainty, but many are the questions one must ask of the Mahatma and his message, of what he offered then, and what he might have offered later had he had the chance.”
What if Nathuram Godse’s revolver “been snatched from his hand before the trigger that changed history was fired, asks Pillai, the winner of the 2017 Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award, in his third book, “The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin: Tales From Indian History (Context-Westland/pp 384/Rs 599).
“Would India, on the cusp of its socialist embrace of modernity, have grown tired of its greatest elder, parking him on some variant of the present day Margdarshak Mandal? Or would be have retired to his ashram, writing as much about his bowel movements as against the new dams and Jawaharlal Nehru’s industrial ‘temples’? Gandhi is to us a martyr, but might he have become, instead, a resigned old man with no place in the world,” wonders Pillai, who has worked as an aide to Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, with Lord Karan Bilimoria and with the BBC on its “Incarnations” history series.
Noting that “Gandhi in the flesh had raised a formidable question to new leaders who replaced foreigners in the old seats of power”, Pillai asks: “Had he acted on his desire to live in Pakistan, would the old man have become, for Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, that inconvenient thing: ‘an international problem’?”
Then, it is “not impossible to conceive” of relations between Nehru and Gandhi “crumbling into polite disrepair”, especially on the question of India’s governance.
“As early as 1938, the two had clashed, each as determined as the other, and in this lay the seeds of discord. Perhaps, at first, Nehru’s affection might have let the Mahatma prevail, but eventually would they have parted ways,” the author asks.
While Gandhi sought ‘legitimacy…in the conscience of man’ as one scholar put it, Nehru, meanwhile, “absorbed more lessons from history – institutions and courts married to the steel frame of bureaucracy alone offered stability to a diverse land which, even during the midnight tryst in 1947, saw bloodshed in the West and rebellion in the East”, Pillai notes, also pointing to severe differences on issues like economic planning and modernisation.
What would have come of Indian education had Gandhi lived?
“Would Gandhi, through his words, have breathed life into causes that were strange then and remain so to this day? Would the tallest Indian leader have gone down in the minds of many as a proponent of what we know as the imposition of Hindi,” Pillai wonders.
“Never will we know what Gandhi might, or might not have done. But a glance at the history of this nation can assure us of one fact – if the Mahatma had lived a full life, as he once desired, the obituary on his death would have sadly said: ‘Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one-time barrister at law, one-time freedom fighter and neglected thinker of an orphaned philosophy, passed away yesterday. He was 125 years old and died of a shattered heart, in a country he no longer recognised’,” Pillai cocludes. poignantly.
Divided into three parts – Before the Raj, Stories from the Raj and an Afterword – the book grew out of a weekly column, “Medium Rare” on a series of historical themes dating to the past that Pillai began writing for the ‘Mint Lounge’ section of the Mint newspaper in 2016.