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Defining Moments in a Titanic Career

Malvika Maheshwari

By Isabel Hofmeyr
Harvard University Press, London, 2013, pp. 218, Rs. 795.00


‘Why, its one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale. They was all bound alike,—it’s a good binding, you see,—and I thought they’d be all good books. […] But it seems one mustn’t judge by the outside.’   Since George Eliot’s Mr. Tulliver first said this in 1860 in The Mill on the Floss, not to judge a book by its cover has come to be one of the most important proverbs in the English language. But every now and then a beautifully bound book indeed lives up to its cover. One such is Isabel Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. A John Lund photograph of a crowd in India taken in slow shutter speed with pink, blue and white hues as its jacket cover along with the title very aptly reflects the various themes that the book touches upon and delves into. It is a book that lets us into the olden days of printing and publishing, of the ‘entanglements of the Empire,’ of the ‘new forms of community’ and the essential role of reading in their formation. But most of all it is a book about what Gandhi thought and did about all these.   Hofmeyr focuses on the birth and work of the International Printing Press (IPP) that was born at the behest of Gandhi at around the same time when he had begun fashioning the tenets of his political philosophy of nonviolent movement in South Africa (1893- 1914). While much (a gross under-statement) has been written about his philosophy, the reason this lesser known episode of ‘creating a newspaper,’ ‘an appa-rent footnote to a titanic career’ becomes important is, as the author tells us, because it ‘shaped the man who would become the world-changing Mahatma.’ ‘Pioneering publisher, experimental editor, ethical anthologist—these roles reveal a Gandhi developing the qualities and talents that would later define him.’ While such a proposition—to understand Gandhi’s role in the IPP as a decisive moment in the making of the Mahatma—may take the readers’ expectations a notch higher it also makes the reading equally revealing and interesting. An instance is the author’s argument that an important force behind the IPP was Gandhi’s hierarchical framing of ideas—of truth (satyagraha), then India and lastly the Empire that could first negotiate an identity for Indians in South Africa, then insert itself ...

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