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Documenting A Movement


Tridip Suhrud

A FIRE THAT BLAZED IN THE OCEAN: GANDHI AND THE POEMS OF SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA, 1909-1911
By Surendra Bhana and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt
Promila and co., New Delhi in association with Bibliophile South Asia, Chicago, 2011, pp.213, 600.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 2 February 2012

Two young men barely fifteen are seated on upholstered chairs, one resting his arm over an ornate, marbled topped table, while the other has his arm over the chair handle. The one seated next to the table has worn a long coat; all buttoned up, dhoti, a cap, while his friend is in a pair of trousers, a long sleeved shirt and has a Kathiawadi headgear. Both have worn closed shoes. They are looking straight at the camera, for what would be their only surviving portrait together. The year was 1893. The one in dhoti is Mohandas Gandhi and with him is his friend Sheikh Mehtab. Sheikh Mehtab occupies an ambiguous position in the Gandhi lore. He is that 'companion' that Gandhi writes about in two chapters, entitled 'A Tragedy' in his autobio-graphy, he is also the person who would make an appearance in the autobiography once again in the chapter called 'As a Householder'. Gandhi regarded this friendship as 'a tragedy' of his life. Gandhi recalled that he formed this association 'in the spirit of a reformer'. Mehtab initially a friend of Gandhi's elder brother became his close friend. Mehtab was all that Mohan was not, and perhaps aspired to be. Mehtab was strong, athletic, with impres-sive physique and could withstand any amount of corporal punishment, while Mohan was frail, shy and afraid of snakes, the dark and ghosts. All this was, of course, the result of eating meat, argued Mehtab. Gandhi's elder brother had already bought this argument. Mohan was soon convinced of the utility of meat eating, if not for pleasure then for overcoming his weak constitution, his fears and for overcoming the British. Gandhi was to quote a doggerel of poet Narmad: Behold the mighty Englishman He rules the Indian small, Because being a meat-eater He is five cubits tall. This bait had its effect. Gandhi recalled in the autobiography; 'I got over my dislike for bread, forswore my compassion for the goats, and became a relisher of meat-dishes, if not of meat itself.' This went on for about a year in which they had half a dozen meat feasts. Mohan remained convinced at that time of the goodness of meat eating but gave up as it involved treachery and lying. Sheikh Mehtab also sought to initiate his friend in seeking pleasure with prostitutes. Gandhi's shyness became his shield. Inexplicably Gandhi invited him to join his ...


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