Millennium Post

Repackaging the Mahatma

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is an integral part of the Indian consciousness, if such a thing ever existed. School curriculums have played a part in inculcating this ‘common consciousness’, about the man, who gave this nation independence from colonial rule. Despite his receding influence over the independence movement after World War II, many consider his application of truth, non-violence and principles of Swaraj, as key elements that drove the British away from India. Movies and mass political movements have taken a ride on this legacy. However, Jason Quinn, despite glossing over a few events, has resisted the temptation of converting a biography into a hagiography. Chronicling Gandhi’s life is a difficult task because there isn’t much left to shed light on.

If measured on both these counts Jason Quinn’s graphical novel is an excellent one. It’s peppered with anecdotes about Gandhi life which were previously unheard of and more importantly it tells the story of Gandhi without eulogizing him. Jason Quinn’s My Life is my Message is an impressively researched work of art which should help in making the Mahatma’s life more accessible to the layman.Gandhi’s constant struggles with Kasturba are laid bare. The friction caused within his own family by his socio-political actions, is depicted in all its conflict, despite claims that his ‘family’ extends beyond the wife and children. His constant annoyance at being referred to as ‘Mahatma’, even when Rabindranath Tagore addresses his, depicts his insecurities in being placed at such a high pedestal.

His growth as an individual occurs at many levels. During his childhood, we witness his growth from a boy unwilling to partake on some meat, but pressured into doing so by his peers, to taking responsibility for his invalid father. The next stage of growth occurs from his days as a shy young lawyer in Southampton, wearing the wrong cloths and surviving on cabbage, to his exploits in South Africa. Finally, his rise from his exploits in South Africa to leading the struggle for indigo farmers in Champaran and drought stricken farmers in Kheda, to leading the entire nation against the exploitation of colonial rule, is a story told through the medium of subtle illustrations.

According to old literary stereotypes serious readers will not be attracted to the raucous pulp world of graphic novels. The growing sales of graphic novels however suggest otherwise. Historically speaking, Indian readers have always had a strong appetite for pictorial stories. Although publications like Amar Chitra Katha would not exactly qualify as graphic novels they still straddle that no man’s land between comics and graphic novel. So what exactly is a graphic novel? Is it publisher jargon to legitimize some comics? Or is it just a slightly longer comic devoid of adolescent fantasies? The jury is still out on that one.

But let’s not get in the semantics. A graphic novel may just be another effective way of telling a story well. Stylistically, Quinn’s work is a little text heavy, considering it is a retelling of Gandhi’s thoughts into words. However, Sachin Nagar’s art work and overall layout, does a wonderful job of seamlessly carrying the reader from one page through to another.  The art is muted in its use of colours, but nonetheless it doesn’t fail to capture the liveliness of Gandhi’s journey over 200-odd pages.

There are elements to the story, which are glossed over. In Arundati Roy’s recent essay in Caravan magazine, titled ‘The Doctor and The Saint’, Gandhi’s life is carefully scrutinised through the lens of Ambdekar’s seminal essay, ‘Annihilation of Caste’.  His fast unto death in 1932 against separate electorates for ‘untouchables’, had brought Ambedkar to the negating table.  Ambedkar’s take on the state of Hinduism and the curse of the caste system is reflected in a speech in conference in Yeola, 1935, where he said, ‘Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus, we are treated thus. If we were members of another faith none would treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair our mistake now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power’.

Gandhi however, was hell bent on keeping them into the fold and called them, patronisingly according to some, Harijans (sons of God). In the pictorial, Ambedkar is seen complaining at Gandhi’s bedside, where he says, ‘Mahatmaji you know you have been very unfair to us’.  Gandhi’s reply to the accusation is, ‘It is always my lot to appear to be unfair’.

Events take a dramatic turn and the author says, ‘in every city Brahmins sat down to dine with untouchables’.  It all gloriously ends with the signing of Yeravada Pact. Strangely enough, without Ambedkarever saying it, Gandhi seems to feel that there is much common between the two. History will tell you otherwise.

However, despite such moments of clichéd storytelling, the entire exercise has been executed very well. It is a great introduction to Gandhi’s life and strangely enough still relevant to the turbulent times our political course has taken.
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