Mahatma vs Gandhi by Dinkar Joshi

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most venerated political leaders of India. He is lovingly called the ‘Father of Nation’. His fame is so widespread that each and every citizen of this country is aware of his great contribution in the freedom struggle of India.

When I saw the title ‘Mahatma vs Gandhi’, the first thought that struck me was that it must be another attempt by a biographer to write something new about Mahatma Gandhi’s life, his ideologies and great sacrifices, he made for the country.

But, the book turned out to be a surprise. This book is not at all about Mahatma Gandhi, but revolves around the tragic life of his eldest son, Harilal Gandhi.

The private life of Mahatma Gandhi was over-shadowed by his larger-than-life political career. His family and particularly his children’s lives are hitherto shrouded in mystery and darkness. This book gives a glimpse into that little known aspect and beautifully describes how the great moralities of Mahatma Gandhi had an adverse impact on his son’s life.

Though, the book is based on the real life incidents of Hari Lal and is written in the form of a biography, but the simple, direct, narrative style of Dinkar Joshi makes sure that it becomes an easily comprehensible tragedy, swaying readers’ emotion between sympathy and disgust for the anti-hero of this wonderful book.

The book opens with the death of Harilal Gandhi as an obscure man, who could be identified only through a prostitute. Somehow, one of his distant relative is informed to claim his body from the hospital mortuary. Even the doctor who does postmortem of his body, is not aware of his real identity as Mohan Das Gandhi’s son. Though, ironically, he dies within a few days of his father’s death.

The story moves in flashbacks, beginning with the youthful enthusiasm of Harilal, who ends up as a dejected drunkard, turned away from his own father’s funeral lest he would spoil the calm, serene atmosphere by behaving notoriously. He is treated as the family’s shame.

The young Gandhi is initially hailed as the promising successor of Gandhiji, who would be able to carry forward the baton raised by his father, by standing against the atrocities of British Govt. But the budding talent is wasted due to a characteristic flaw in Hari Lal. He is whimsical and worldly unwise. He has high opinions of himself and wants to be known as a successful barrister.

However, his practical father is of the firm opinion that education imparted at his own ashram is much more useful than the ones provided by Law schools of England. He was himself a barrister and had learnt it the hard way that the qualifications can not make someone bigger than a lowly British servant. Moreover, he feels that all his money was earned by the hard labor of ashram resident and his followers and had to be utilized for betterment of society, rather than being wasted on the whims and fancies of his son.

Hence, Gandhiji, who was well aware of his son’s inadequacy, prevents his son from following his heart’s desire and sponsors someone else’s name, citing moral grounds. This episode creates life long rift between the father and the son. Hari loses heart and doubts his father’s love and intentions. He leaves Durban and heads to India with a zeal to educate himself and be financially independent. However, he was not educated enough to find a job, and his business ideas were not as brilliant as he had believed them to be.

As a result, he loses money, gets trapped in the fatal habits of drinking and gambling, and is reduced to penury. He misuses his father’s name to gain favors and borrow money from acquaintances. Soon, he becomes notorious as a parasite, living off his father’s good will. Some rival politicians try to take advantage of his condition and instigate him against Gandhiji so much that he abandons his family name and converts to Islam.

He is used by religious fanatics as a weapon against Gandhiji. He insults his own father publicly. At last, Gandhiji is compelled to disown him. Only then, Harilal realizes the treachery of his so called Muslim friends. He is left friendless and penniless once again. He loses control and drowns himself in liquor. He even abandons his children, and the man who always accused his own father for all his problems, proves to be the worst father himself. A budding talent is wasted and his entire life is filled with disappointment, anger and disdain towards the society.

Dinkar Joshi has described the sufferings of Hari Lal in the most convincing way. There are many tear jerking dramatic scenes in this book. Particularly, the death bed scene where dead drunk Hari Lal confronts his dying mother, or when old tired Hari approaches his son and daughter-in-law affectionately to draw some solace from his tragic life, or when he is barred from attending the last rites of his own father for fear of public shame, are some of the events that hogged my mind, long after I had put down this book.

It is truly a tragic account of a promising life fated to a deadly end. Hari Lal comes across as a young sapling planted in the shadows of a huge Banyan tree, which is destined to die, due to lack of sunlight and water. Joshi has done justice in portraying Hari Lal as a young lad, burdened with the widely acclaimed morals of a strict disciplinarian father, who could lead the world, but was unable to understand his own child.

Quite a different book, that presents the facts in a straight forward manner and yet touches your heart. I would recommend everyone to read this book, at least once, and understand the harsh realities of life, even the great Mahatma Gandhi could not cope with. The real beauty of this book lies in the fact that it presents Gandhiji as a distressed loving grossly misunderstood father and exposes his vulnerable human side, often hidden behind those determined bespectacled eyes. A laudable effort!


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