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Gandhi through a Marxian lense

 | September 9, 2011

Originally written in Bengali in 1955, an English version is only available now and it reveals the Indian freedom fighter's affinity towards communism and socialism.

BOOK REVIEW

(Revolutionary Gandhi) Did you know that India’s independence father Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had leftist leanings? Or that he had no hesitations in calling himself a socialist or even a communist?

In fact, Gandhi’s ideology to develop the nation, which was then under colonial rule, was premised on the concept of socialism, claims a newly published translated version of an original Bengali book on the iconic statesman.

Translator KV Subrahmonyan has done a brilliant job in painstakingly translating “Gandhi Gabeshana” to become “Revolutionary Gandhi”. The book was originally written by Indian author and a top communist leader Pannalal Dasgupta in 1955 and the English version offers an insight into the thinking of Gandhi on socialism and how he thought it could help form a nation.

“Revolutionary Gandhi” tells its readers of Gandhi’s firm belief that a thorough change in the socio-political environment must start with an individual, rather than with society as a whole. Gandhi’s approach to socialism was inspired by the spirit of putting oneself in order first.

“Beginning with oneself was central to all his thoughts and actions. He also felt the need for a classless society and had no hesitation in calling himself a socialist or even a communist,” wrote Pannalal.

Pannalal argued that on hindsight, left-leaning Indian freedom fighters had failed to recognise Gandhi as a true revolutionary force. He even ventured to state that this was a historical blunder.

Pannalal should know. After all, he was a revolutionary communist leader – widely known as the indomitable rebel – during the years India was fighting for her independence from the British.

The 490-page “Revolutionary Gandhi” is not the ordinary biography or narrative-based book on Gandhi; rather it offers a valuable, penetrating vision into the thoughts of Gandhi while in the midst of preparing his non-violent campaign against the British.

The book gives us a chance to understand and see for ourselves the inner character and underlying truth for all the actions taken by Gandhi, including his decision to embark on the non-violent movement, as well as on his fallouts with other nationalists at that time, including with his one-time ally and revered leader, Subash Chandra Bose.

Pannalal had done extensive research for this book, and had quoted various authoritative sources, including from Gandhi’s own writings, to establish a single thesis – to show Gandhi in a new light to the Indian leftists and to present the historical Gandhi to the so-called diehard Gandhians.

So many lessons

For any reader of Gandhi, the two chapters on ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth force) are well worth reading as the author has attempted – successfully, if I may add – to formulate Gandhi’s ideologies and definitions of these two concepts, which have now become universal catchphrases.

There are 18 chapters in “Revolutionary Gandhi”, including two which give excellent insight into Gandhi’s relationships with Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and the great Indian thinker Rabindranath Tagore.

Other interesting highlights include Gandhi’s views on Hindu-Muslim unity, education, women empowerment, religion, the Harijans and his experience with the truth. A chapter is also dedicated to Gandhi’s perception of individual life, where he expounds on his concept of socialism.

Translator Subrahmonyan (picture below) though not a Bengali himself, has succeeded in keeping Pannalal’s underlying message intact in his English version.

“Shed your ego. That’s what Gandhi wanted to teach everyone. His sadhana throughout his life was to reduce himself to complete insignificance,” Subrahmonyan told this writer.

“The formula for life is to equate oneself to zero,” he added. Gandhi himself had said: “Think of ‘I’ and ‘0’ in juxtaposition and you have the whole problem of life in two signs”.

“He has left us with so many lessons to learn. This book will show us some of them,” said Subramonyan.

The story of the book

“Revolutionary Gandhi” is no ordinary book indeed. It would not be wrong to say that it has been a work-in-progress from 1954-1955 when the author was languishing in the Alipore Central Jail in Kolkata, serving a life sentence over a mishap which occurred in a fight against a factory management.

Pannalal was then the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) and had taken responsibility for the incident. He was later released when there was a change of the Bengal government.

While he had worked on the manuscript in 1954, the first edition of the book in Bengali was only published in January 1986, followed by the second edition in December 1998.

Pannalal had always harboured the intention to have his book translated into English and the opportunity for that arrived when he met the saintly Subrahmonyan in Haridwar in the early 1990s. However, since no copies were available then, translation work only started on a few years later.

“Gandhian philosophy was his (Pannalal’s) every breath of life. He was political extremist turned holistic revolutionary.

“I offered to translate ‘Gandhi Gabeshana’ into English. If no Bengali came forward to translate it, why not a Tamilian attempt?” quips Subrahmonyan in his note in the English version of the book.

Subrahmonyan told this writer that he only translated three pages per day, calling it an arduous task that nevertheless deepened his understanding of Gandhi.

Pannalal passed away in West Bengal in 1999, at the age of 96, just before Subrahmonyan could complete his translating task.

“Pannalal died when almost all chapters had been translated. I completed the translation three months after his death,” said Subrahmonyan, who is 80 now and has lived in ashrams in many parts of India for more than 40 years, including in the Himalayas.

Gentle and erudite in speech, he is conversant in seven languages and passable in another handful.

Having completed the translation, Subrahmonyan had to wait for another 11 years for a publisher to release the English version, in which time the translator had moved to the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu.

“In 2009, I met Ramanendu Chatterjee at this ashram through whom the initiative to publish the English translation through Earthcare Books was revived,” he explained, adding that his translated version was eventually ready for sale in January 2011.

The book is not available in Malaysia. Interested readers can make direct purchase from Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu.


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