//The Mahatma’s Words, The Telegraph

The Mahatma’s Words, The Telegraph

One of the most remarkable individuals I have known was K. Swaminathan, a professor of literature from Madras who went on to become Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Swaminathan was born in the town of Pudukkotai on 3rd December 1896. When his centenary was observed in 1996, I wrote a biographical profile of him in The Hindu (published in expanded form in my book An Anthropologist among the Marxists and Other Essays). Now, a quarter-of-a-century later, I shall use the occasion of his birth anniversary to focus instead on the great project of editorial scholarship which he oversaw and brought to fruition.

After the Mahatma was murdered, the Congress Working Committee set up a National Memorial Fund in this name. Apart from promoting inter-faith harmony and the constructive work programmes so dear to Gandhi, this resolved to ‘collect, preserve and publish all his writings and teachings in various languages, and to maintain a museum where articles connected with Gandhi may be preserved.’

The memorial fund, known as the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, was established in 1949. With the aid of the Sabarmati Ashram, it began collecting the scattered writings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in different genres, on an astonishing variety of topics, and in English and Hindi as well as his native Gujarati. Gandhi wrote three books, several pamphlets, dozens of petitions, hundreds of newspaper articles, and tens of thousands of letters. He gave many interviews and delivered many more speeches. He even invented a writing genre all his own; these being the ‘silence day’ notes he penned on many Mondays, the day of the week he had chosen not to speak at all.

By 1956, the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi judged there was enough material to begin bringing it out in book form. An Advisory Board was constituted for the Collected Works, chaired by Morarji Desai, after Vallabhbhai Patel’s death the pre-eminent Gujarati-speaking Congressman. Other members of the Board included a representative of the Navajivan Press—whose co-operation was necessary since it held the copyright to Gandhi’s writings—several social workers who had been close to Gandhi, and the Mahatma’s youngest son, Devadas, himself editor of the Hindustan Times newspaper. Devadas Gandhi had been instrumental in having a documentary film made about the Mahatma’s life, and would now play a part in preserving for perpetuity his writings as well.

The first person to be appointed Chief Editor of the Collected Works was Bharatan Kumarappa. Bharatan was a scholar of philosophy and religion, who, after taking doctoral degrees from Edinburgh and London Universities, spent many years working with Gandhi on rural reconstruction. After the Mahatma’s death he edited several important anthologies of his writings.

Bharatan Kumarappan was supremely well suited for the job of collating and editing Gandhi’s writings. However, after sending the first volume to the press, he died of a heart attack in June 1957. His replacement was a former freedom-fighter named Jairamdas Daulatram, whose heart was never in the job. After two unhappy years he resigned to take up a seat in the Rajya Sabha. Daulatram’s replacement was K. Swaminathan, who had come highly recommended by Vinoba Bhave, the English edition of whose lectures on the Gita Swaminathan was instrumental in having published.

When K. Swaminathan moved to Delhi at the age of sixty-three, he had a distinguished career as a teacher of literature behind him. His training and orientation resembled in many ways that of the project’s exceptional first editor, Bharatan Kumarappa. Both were proud of their roots in the Tamil country, both bilingual in their mother tongue and in the language of global intellectual currency, English. Both were religiously ecumenical, Bharatan a Christian who wrote a book on Ramanujacharya, and Swaminathan a Hindu who loved reading the Bible.

In retrospect, one of Swaminathan’s most relevant qualifications for an assignment of this kind was his ability to get along with people and get them to work as a team. He served for a long period as the head of the English Department of the Presidency College in Madras, and was Principal of the Government Arts College for five years. After retirement from his university job he edited the Sunday Standard newspaper, where he oversaw a large contingent of reporters and sub-editors and compositors and proof-readers.

One of Swaminathan’s first recruits was C. N. Patel, also a professor of English literature but like Gandhi himself a native Gujarati speaker. Although based for the most part in Ahmedabad, Patel worked closely with Swaminathan, and played a vital role in the project, particularly in rendering Gandhi’s extensive Gujarati writings into English. He served as the Deputy Chief Editor of the project. Others in Swaminathan’s team were likewise deeply committed and extremely well qualified. They included J. P. Uniyal, who had worked with Gandhi’s disciple Mirabehn in the Himalaya, and through her acquired a keen interest in the Mahatma’s life and legacy. Then there was the eminent poet Bhawani Prasad Mishra, who joined as the editor in charge of the Hindi translation of the Collected Works.

In 1964, by which time nine volumes had appeared, the American scholar of Gandhi, Joan Bondurant, wrote about the Collected Works in the Journal of Modern History. The project, she said, deserved ‘the highest praise. In no instance have the editors intruded themselves; yet they have managed to answer the repeated questions which even the best informed of readers needs to ask of the material. In the verification of sources, authentication of authorship, identification of little-known persons in letters, and addition of valuable background and appendix materials, they have met the highest standards of scholarship’.

These standards were scrupulously maintained in the years to come. There was however, a slight hiccup during the Emergency of 1975-7, by which time more than fifty volumes had appeared. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s minions wanted to get rid of Swaminathan, on the grounds that he was sending the Gandhi volumes, one by one, to the Chairman of his Advisory Board, Morarji Desai, who happened to be in detention. Fortunately, wiser counsel prevailed, and the Chief Editor stayed on for several years thereafter, retiring only in 1985 after the original ninety volume set of Gandhi’s chronological writings was completed (seven supplementary volumes were to follow).

Swaminathan was enormously admired by his colleagues. The Gujarati writer Hasmukh Shah wrote of his Chief Editor that ‘he brought in processes to bear on the mammoth task of editing and research. He had been quick in estimating the limitations and personality quirks of his team. I have never heard him raise his voice or scold anyone. His life and dedication were hallmarks of another era altogether, the age of ancient seers, rishis.’

After six years with the Collected Works, Hashmukh Shah joined Morarji Desai as his personal secretary. Just as Shah was leaving, Lalitha Zackariah was recruited for the project, fresh from a Master’s degree in English Literature. Many years later, she wrote of how the ‘Chief’ (as Swaminathan was known in the Collected Works office) was ‘the giant figure in a quiet corner, illuminating a sentence here, a footnote there, with a mere comma, but eloquent where he supplied it. So sure, quick and catalysing was the K. S. touch that it was as if he spoke from under the skin and within the spirit of Gandhi’.

I first read the Collected Works, volume by volume, page by page, a decade ago. I have now begun re-reading them, this time paying more attention to the editorial work done on each volume. I have, as before, found much to admire in Gandhi’s words, and occasionally something to provoke and annoy me too. However, it is only on this second reading that I have come to appreciate the ways in which Swaminathan and his team so expertly set Gandhi’s words in context. The insightful prefaces which begin each volume, the appendices of relevant documents and the chronologies and indexes which end them, and above all the richly illuminating footnotes that pepper the pages of the main text—all these compel respect as well as admiration.

I myself own a complete set of the printed volumes of the Collected Works. They are also now available online, best viewed at the most authoritative of Gandhi websites, the Gandhi Heritage Portal hosted at the Sabarmati Ashram. By now, several thousand books and dissertations have been written on the basis of this series. It remains a magnificent and unsurpassed work of collective scholarship, of a kind always rare in India, and rarer still when conducted under the auspices of the Government of India. Scholars as yet unborn, and of many nationalities other than Indian, have reason to be grateful to K. Swaminathan and his superbly skilled team of editors and translators.

The Making of Gandhi’s Collected Works
(published in The Telegraph, 4th December 2021)