Some months ago, I wrote in these columns about Nirmal Kumar Bose, the anthropologist who worked with Mahatma Gandhi and also wrote about him. That piece attracted the attention of a resident of Bangalore named Biren Das, whom I knew of as a patron of classical music and as the great-grandson of the inventor of the roshogoola. What I did not know was that Mr Das was also a family friend of N. K. Bose. On reading my column, he gifted me a CD with two rare recordings of Bose speaking about Gandhi, in the American town of Madison in 1958. Listening to the CD has provided me more illumination than many of the books about Gandhi that I have read.
‘Despite the greatness with which we clothe him’, remarks Bose, ‘Gandhi was intensely human’. His own talks succeed splendidly in humanizing Gandhi, with personal recollection skilfully mixed with analytical judgements on the Mahatma’s thought and practice. Bose gave up a great deal to join Gandhi—his career, a family life–but he would not give up his scholarly detachment or sense of humour, both of which are on display here. (It is striking, for instance, that he never uses the appellation ‘Mahatma’, speaking throughout of ‘Gandhi’.)
The anthropologist begins by recalling his first acquaintance with Gandhi, which was through his writings. As a student at Calcutta University, he subscribed to the journal Young India, where the Mahatma put forward his views on politics and social reform, and invited arguments and disagreements.
Bose started reading Gandhi in the early 1920s. However, they met only in 1934, when the Mahatma was touring rural Bengal. There is a vivid description here of that first meeting. ‘The only slavery Gandhi admitted to’, says Bose, ‘was that of time‘. Invited to join Gandhi on his morning walk, the anthropologist had as his companion the great Pathan exponent of non-violence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Bose was at least six inches taller than the Mahatma, and Ghaffar Khan a further foot taller still. Yet, as he recalls, the two were hard put to keep pace with Gandhi. They, could, however, gather their breath when Gandhi stopped to collect stones which would later be used to build a road to the ashram where he was staying.
Bose’s most intense engagement with Gandhi was when he walked with him through Noakhali in 1946-7. As recollected here, the Mahatma asked him to become his secretary and interpreter on the grounds that of all his Bengali associates Bose had the job that was most dispensable. Gandhi could scarcely ask a social worker or medical doctor to abandon what he was doing, while the work of a university lecturer was, in comparison, less than essential.
While on the road, Bose and Gandhi had many interesting arguments. When the anthropologist said he did not believe in God, Gandhi asked what he did believe in. The pursuit of truth, he answered. (That was a faith the Mahatma was prepared to accept, and one he followed himself, except that he usually dignified it with a capital letter, as Truth.)
As Bose recalls, Gandhi’s message to Bengal after the riots was that ‘it was not consolation that will save us, but courage’. There is a moving account of Gandhi’s work in restoring communal peace in Calcutta during August/September 1947. Several times during his talk Bose says: ‘I bore witness to that’. He did, indeed. For Bose was with Gandhi during what might have been the most heroic months of a very heroic life. With his skill as a scholar and writer¬—and, as this tape show, speaker—he recorded them, with great sensitivity and insight, for the benefit of posterity.
Bose also speaks about Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards India’s colonial rulers. The nationalist movement, insisted Gandhi, was against British rule, but not against Britain, and certainly not against Englishmen. Nor, he believed, should India win its freedom merely in order to oppress and exploit other countries in turn. Reflecting on the meaning and efficacy of non violence, Bose asks a question whose answer is perhaps contained in the manner of its posing: ‘Does a person have the right to kill another human being simply on acount of a difference of opinion?’
On the evidence of these talks Bose must have been a most impressive speaker, with a voice that was clear, powerful, and resonant. The talks were originally recorded on tape, and later transferred to a Compact Disc. When I opened the CD on a computer, the screen announced that this was an ‘Unknown Album’, featuring the work of an ‘Unknown Artist’. That is how the Windows programme would, I suppose, designate any disc that is not pre-recorded or which it does not recognize. It is for the listener to supply the facts that the ‘artist‘ was once well known as an anthropologist and writer, and that the ‘unknown’ album contains a priceless eyewitness account of the life and work of the greatest Indian of modern times.
Published in The Hindu, 8/10/2006