Professor and director of CEPT Archives, Dr Tridip Suhrud is the editor of a new, annotated edition of Mahatma Gandhi’s momentous autobiography. He speaks to Sheela Bhatt.
Dr Tridip Suhrud, former director and chief editor of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, has done commendable work in setting up the Gandhi archives. The Ahmedabad-based Gandhian scholar is currently professor and director of the CEPT Archives. Here, Dr Suhrud talks about his introduction and commentary written for the new critical edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Dr Suhrud’s deeply researched notes add value to what Gandhi has said in his all-time bestselling book. The context and characters of Gandhiji’s Autobiography are explained lucidly by Dr Suhurd for Gandhi’s new readers in the 21st century. This critical edition of the book is unique and an original guide to Gandhiji’s life and times.
Q. Your new critical edition of Gandhi’s autobiography is the first of its kind. Tell us about it.
A. Gandhiji wrote his autobiography in Gujarati and it was serialised in Navjivan. Almost simultaneously, it was translated into English by Mahadev Desai. And the translation was authorised by Gandhiji. So the attempt is to do a critical edition of the autobiography which provides references, contexts and explanatory notes. There was some debate over the nature of translation itself and that is something I wanted to engage with. There are two issues—one, the very act of writing the autobiography; it was never written as a book. It was serialised week after week after week. So a part of the process is to understand how this text came to be written, because people were responding to Gandhi while he was writing. People were writing to him, saying can you add these sections, can you elaborate on these etc. It is actually a text which is formed in conversation with the reader and in that sense, it is a very contemporary text—like a blog being written and someone responding in real time. Second, it is the act of writing which is important. In translation, as it always happens, there are things that get transposed. There are things that the translation is unable to capture and even if it captures, it captures in a very different kind of a language—a more universal language. For example, in Gujarati, which is very fundamental to Gandhi, he says that “amuk vastu atamama ugechhe ane atmamaa kshamchhe ane atamamaa jaanileshe”, and it has been rendered in English as “some things are known only to me, and my maker”. Now, the maker is absent in Gujarati. Gandhi’s god is not somebody who makes, Gandhi’s god is truth. So, you actually need to bring the cadence of the original to the English reader available. So two editions have been published, one in Gujarati and one in English.
Q. Done by you?
A. Both done by me. In English, the attempt is to bring Gujarati into conversation with the English translation where I have provided, in some instances, alternative translations; in some, I have said that these are some parts that have been added to the English translation and these have been left out in English. So a reader who does not have access to Gujarati comes closer to the experience of reading it in Gujarati. The other thing is explanatory notes on persons, events.
Q. Can you give some examples?
A. There is this very important instance that happens in South Africa where the Attorney General, a man called F.E.T. Krause, invites Gandhi and there is a conversation; he plays an important role in the struggle of the Indian people. Most people do not know who F.E.T. Krause was or what relationship Gandhi had with him. When people write their memoirs or journeys, without the aid of notes, certain things slip in which is important for a scholar or a historian who wants to read the text closely. So, I explained it in notes. Gandhiji speaks of the No Breakfast Association which was started in Manchester. When we started to look at the records, we could not figure where this idea of no breakfast came from. But when we went back, there was actually an association started in America, which later moved to Manchester, but a very important and powerful society was formed which spoke of how you consume this food and the relationship of food and body. There are many of these references which are, to a contemporary reader, not available. Gandhi’s autobiography is one of the most widely read texts in the world. It gets reprinted every year in multiple languages. So, this book would help.
Q. Why now?
A. Gandhi began publishing it between 1927 and 1929. It is when the two volumes of the autobiography were published, including in Gujarati. So it has been almost 90 years since its publication. But I think the resonance of Gandhi’s story and life continues and perhaps becomes more meaningful with each passing day. In that context, it also becomes important that texts like these are reinvented. I think the first task of an intellectual tradition is to get the text right. Therefore, we require the critical edition of this foundational text.
There are two texts of Gandhi that we think are fundamental. One is his autobiography and the other is Hind Swaraj. I had worked on a critical edition of Hind Swaraj about 10 years ago, which came out in two languages. If Gandhi’s studies, political or cultural thought and theory have to be taken seriously, then you need fundamental texts to be opened up. So it is one way of opening up the texts.
Q. Why read your book when one has read the original Satya na Prayogo in Guajrati? Will my understanding of Gandhi change?
A. I don’t know if it will change, but it will certainly add layers to it. And I think the role of a critical edition is to add layers of meaning and make the text more intelligible. I’ll explain. For example, Gandhi speaks of an act of fasting. So we know that the act of fasting is fundamental to Gandhi. So in Gujarati, we would say, main upwaas karyo—I undertook a fast. But we know that there are types and types of fasting—fasts where fruits are allowed, fasts where no food is allowed, fasts where not even water is allowed and fasts where only one meal is allowed. There are prolonged acts of fasting that Gandhi does. To even understand the relationship of Gandhi to what seems a very simple act of fasting, you need notes to say that on such and such day, when he is talking about this fast, it is a fast where he will not even drink water. This is a fast where he is actually having one meal a day, this is the fast where water is allowed, but no lime in water is allowed. He actually had all the details and why should details not be available to a reader of the text?
Q. You have read the Gujarati and English versions closely. Do you think the English version is missing something in a big way, because Gandhiji was quintessentially a very fine Gujarati writer?
A. I think the translation is one of the best in the history of translation. It is a translation which I say is imbued with light. You know sometimes the translation can take away from the original and sometimes it can add meaning to the original. What Mahadev bhai does, is when he draws upon his familiarity with the English idiom, or idiomatic English or the kind of literary references that he has are so immense and powerful that if something is said in idiomatic Gujarati—and Gandhi’s Gujarati was idiomatic—he is able to capture that in English. He would translate that with the help of Homer, he would translate with the help of Shakespeare, from phrases from Bible from part of the translation. Mahaev bhai was an exceptionally literate person. He was trained as a lawyer in Bombay, but deeply fond of literature, was the first person to translate Tagore into Gujarati. So his literary interest and imagination ran very wide. He was exceptionally well read in European literature, he had read his Shakespeare really well. I think with Gandhi, he read the Bible very closely, so the Biblical references come through. He read the Greek classics, in translation, but references from Prometheus Unbound. So there have been references, lines from Homer which he uses which makes it clear that he was someone who was extremely familiar; because to do that and do that with the ease that you don’t even recognise that it is blending in so beautifully.
Q. Some may say that you made an audacious attempt to audit Gandhi.
A. It is an audacious attempt, but I am not auditing Gandhi. I think what I am trying to do is to understand him more deeply. When I say more deeply, I mean sometimes we don’t recognise that Gandhi was also a bilingual thinker with very large ideas and he rendered them in Gujarati. Sometimes he thought in Gujarati and rendered them in English. And this is the quality of Gandhi that we don’t necessarily associate with—we certainly don’t associate Gandhi as a bilingual thinker who had an exceptionally fine command over English. My argument has been that the best way to read Gandhi is to read him in two languages. I am also doing an accountant’s job. I’m counting each instance going back, verifying them, and that is the job of a good historian or somebody who aspires to a historian’s sensibility. Pointing out an error doesn’t take away anything from the text. It adds to the text. Even in instances where I point out that there is a lapse of memory here or that the records suggest otherwise, it is actually adding to the text rather than taking away from the text.
Q. How will such a book help in current times, when India is so divided?
A. Gandhi is the ground from which I have tried to engage with modern India. I think Gandhi would say that India might be divided, but it is united by its poverty. It is an insight that Gandhi gives us: what unites us is our deprivation, what unites us is our poverty, what unites us is our tendency to violence. If we need to overcome any of this, if we need to move towards a society that is more humane, just and more ethical, we need references. We need references that are larger than our selves. And for me that reference is Gandhi. I don’t think that can be the sole reference; you need to bring other people into the picture. I can think of two or three people that we need to bring into the conversation. Dr Ambedkar would be one, Tagore would be the other. Read Gandhi if you are unhappy with your times—any sense of unease that we have with our society, and our society could be the society here or somewhere else. Because here is a person who is deeply unhappy with his times, who is deeply dissatisfied with his times and wants to change that. So anybody who aspires to change the world, in which they live, would find Gandhi a good friend to have. Not necessarily a guide, but a great friend to have.