With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims. Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID. His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement. He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.Continue reading
The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today. They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.Continue reading
(on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)
Since the high and the mighty in this ancient land of ours will use the opportunity of Gandhi Jayanti to garland the statues of the Mahatma and spin the usual homilies about the eternal values of truth and nonviolence, values which are being shred to pieces in India, I can turn to the more humble work of attempting to lay out briefly what remains of Gandhi in an India that is increasingly taking the turn towards becoming a Hindu nation. The attacks on Gandhi are coming fast and furious from every corner. His assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being hailed by some Indians as a martyr, a true shaheed. Reportedly, Godse is trending at #1 on Twitter in India. Gandhi’s statues are vandalized and in social media he is accused of the worst atrocities that can be imagined. Yet Gandhi was in his lifetime synonymous with India. When Nehru was once asked what is India, he replied with this short sentence: “Gandhi is India.”Continue reading
Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist
In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi. As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US. In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States. Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism. A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).
Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”. Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson. John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.
Part II of The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race
The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident. Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma. A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan. The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.” There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies: he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being. When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.” Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime. British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler. Continue reading
First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue: Gandhi and Race
A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before. The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Continue reading
One more Gandhi Jayanti [Birth Anniversary: October 2nd] has gone by and the thought that occurs to me is this: just how was the life of Gandhi conveyed, in his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his death, to his countrymen and women, across towns and in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages? What did they, who could not read, know of his life in panchayats and little hamlets? Did the Patuas or Chitrakars move from village to village and unfold the panels of their scrolls and so make vivid the episodes drawn from Gandhi’s life? If they did so, the scrolls appear not to have survived. There is something suggestive, in this regard, about a touching scene in the classic movie, Garam Hawa: the workers at the shoe factory of Mirza Sahib are gathered around a man who reads from a newspaper an account of Gandhi’s assassination.
There may thus have been many modes by which the life of Gandhi was put into circulation and the mind instinctively turns to biographies. Of biographies of Gandhi there is now no end, and each generation, so says Ramachandra Guha in justification of yet another life of Mohandas, needs its own Gandhi. India sent us Mohandas, Mandela is reported to have said, and we sent back a Mahatma, and it is in South Africa that the first slim biography of Gandhi was penned. Many of the biographies that followed are, as befits an epic life, gargantuan in scope. There was, at first, D. G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma in 8 volumes; various volumes by Pyarelal appeared at a leisurely pace over the course of a few decades. But these works were published many years after independence, as is true of something like 700-800 biographies of Gandhi in English alone.
Anthologies of Gandhi’s writings began to proliferate around the mid-1920s, and his own ‘lieutenants’, most famously Mahadev Desai and later Pyarelal, were quick in bringing out systematic narratives of his satyagraha campaigns. The two volumes of Gandhi’s autobiography, written in Gujarati and rendered into English by Mahadev, appeared in 1927 and 1929, but the autobiography takes the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Gandhi’s writings began to be disseminated by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that he had established in 1929, but nevertheless it is unlikely that most Indians would have become acquainted with the contours of his life through published works.
By the early 1920s, print makers, working out from a number of cities, among them Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lahore, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, had begun to take the narrative of the nationalist movement to the masses. These prints may have been passed from one hand to another; they may have been framed and placed prominently in homes, but it is also likely that they were affixed to walls, doors, or poster boards in public spaces. Gandhi figured prominently in these prints, many shaped around the non-cooperation movement, the Salt Satyagraha, or the teachings with which he became associated on subjects such as the constructive programme, swadeshi, and the economic impoverishment of India under colonial rule. One of the more striking of such prints, from the Delhi-based Hemchander Bhargava & Co., takes as its subject the totality of Gandhi’s life, from cradle to ‘martyrdom’, and offers cues on how Gandhi’s life was stitched into the fabric of the nation.
Entitled “Poojya Gandhiji ki Jivan Caritra” (The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji; fig. 1), the print invites the viewer to read Gandhi’s life through rites of passage or critical events. The narrative commences at the bottom left with the infant Gandhi; moving along a vertical axis, the viewer encounters him at various stages of schooling in his native Gujarat and England before he arrived in South Africa as an attorney. It is there that he developed the idea of nonviolent resistance: in doing so, he stripped himself of his Western clothes and donned the garb of a satyagrahi. As the viewer moves along the horizontal axis at the top of the print, the next phase of his life is vividly brought to the fore. In 1915, Gandhi returned to India with Kasturba, and campaigns at Champaran and Kheda acquainted him with the conditions of Indian peasantry. By the mid-1920s, Gandhi was preoccupied with the constructive programme, and finally in 1930 he launched the next phase of mass nonviolent resistance with the Salt Satyagraha.
The viewer, at this point, moves vertically down the right side of the print. Gandhi made his way to London for the Round Table Conference to negotiate the terms of India’s future; he also met with the King-Emperor. In the mid-1930s, he installed himself at an ashram in central India. Visitors to his ashram almost invariably found him spinning. He appeared to have withdrawn, once again, from the struggle for political emancipation; however, the print can also be read as inviting the viewer to reflect on the relationship of political independence to economic independence and social change in Gandhi’s thinking. He launched the final phase of the freedom struggle with the call for the British to ‘Quit India’. With this, the print-maker turned to some of the people who filled the last years of Gandhi’s life: Nehru, children, and his grandnieces Manu and Abha. The two young women were his constant companions and sometimes dubbed his ‘walking sticks’. Finally, Gandhi’s life is brought to a close with his assassination: the martyred Gandhi is placed squarely in the center of the print and both dominates and anchors the entire narrative.
Other similar prints of Gandhi’s life story circulated as well. From Picture Publishing Corporation in Bombay we have a print, created by Lakshminarayan Sharma, with some significant, indeed extraordinary, variations (fig. 2). The narrative is structured in a like fashion, but the Indian tricolor, which is noticeably missing in the first print, occupies a good portion of the lower third of Sharma’s print and offers a different framing device. The baby’s cradle is draped in the tricolor, as if to suggest that Gandhi was ordained from birth to lead the country to freedom; on the bottom right, Gandhi foregrounds the flag and the words, ‘Sampurna Swaraj, 15 August 1947’, suggesting that he successfully shepherded the country to its destiny. Most significantly, Gandhi lies in complete repose, his body adorned by the tricolor. The script at the bottom enumerates the date of his death; the smoking gun suggests that the satyagrahi met a violent end. “He Ram” are the words that Gandhi is thought to have uttered as the bullets pierced his body and he fell to the floor, but both the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his younger brother Gopal would dispute that Gandhi said anything at all. The text to the right, “Bapuji Ne Diya Jalaya / Uski Jyoti Barayen Hum” (‘Bapuji lit the flame, It is for us to further that light’), read in conjunction with his draped body and the globe that he has conquered with his stride suggests not only that Gandhi has merged into the nation but that he belongs to the world.
There is much else that is captivating in Sharma’s print, but it is in the juxtaposition of the two prints that we can discern what is remarkably different in openly pronouncing Gandhi the “Father of [the] Nation.” I have had various occasions to remark, elsewhere in my published work, that Gandhi was just as much Mother to the Nation as he was Father of the Nation. It is not even remotely accidental that Manu’s greatest testimonial to Gandhi is a little book called, Bapu, My Mother. The print from Picture Publishing is, if we may put it this way, far more masculine in its sensibility and representational apparatus. It excises not only Kasturba, who was Gandhi’s life companion for something like 60 years, from the narrative but all women. One can dispute the degree to which Gandhi was comfortable with idea of women’s complete autonomy, but it is inarguably the case that Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women into the public sphere. There is not a hint of this in Lakshminarayan Sharma’s rendering of Gandhi’s life story (fig. 2). The Bhargava print (fig. 1), by contrast, is sensitive to the place of women in Gandhi’s life, and in its recognition of the role of women in the Salt Satyagraha it offers more than just an affirmation of how women came into the freedom struggle. Gandhi sought not only to liberate India from colonial rule but to emancipate politics from its association with an unforgiving masculinity.
A biography is seldom only a chronological narrative of a person’s life; these prints are no exception. We may, in conclusion, take a few illustrations of how the print from Hemchander Bhargava’s workshop seeks to offer a decisive interpretation of Gandhi’s life. It is attentive, for example, to the sartorial Gandhi: as we encounter Gandhi along the different stages of his life, we find him stripping himself of clothes and trying, in his own words, to reduce himself to zero. Of Gandhi it can be said that he commenced his adult life vastly over-dressed and ended it, by the reckoning of some, vastly under-dressed. His dhoti and shawl are not just blood-stained; blood drips down. The nation, too, has been stained by the dastardly act of the assassin; the country is drained, dripping with the blood of the innocents. The loss of blood points to the sacrifice of the Mahatma, but was this sacrifice in vain? Was the martyrdom of Gandhi necessary so that he could begin life anew?
(First published in a shorter version in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 October 2018) as “The Imprint of a Man’s Life”; the online version called “Gandhi and the Printed Image” can be accessed here: https://www.thehindu.com/society/gandhis-story-in-images/article25113640.ece)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968. Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age: the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle. King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt. This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum: there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.
King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years. I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others. Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles. He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.
What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett. The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited. I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.
Vinay: At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960. I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.
Rev. Lawson: I think that’s reading into it.
Vinay: You think it’s reading into it?
Rev. Lawson: It’s also something else. Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.
Vinay: Can you say more?
Rev. Lawson: How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.
Vinay: Was he at that time?
Rev. Lawson: Oh, absolutely.
Vinay: Already? In early 1960?
Rev. Lawson: Oh, yes.
Vinay: Undisputedly so.
Rev. Lawson: Undisputedly so. I watched it.
Rev. Lawson: I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be. Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world. He was not the chosen one. I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62. The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way. They said it then.
Rev. Lawson: They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way. King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work. They rejected that idea, and said no to that.
It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible. That’s excluded from these [academic] books. Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism. It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed. It does not arrive with tactics in place.
Vinay: Yes, it’s a process.
Rev. Lawson: It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new. We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds. I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.
Vinay: I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah.
Vinay: I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.
Rev. Lawson: In Atlanta.
Vinay: In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.
Rev. Lawson: What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself. That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’
Why? Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together. They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta. His father is a member of that group. King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to. Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time. They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta. King is hesitant. He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.
King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership. That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta. Now the students do not understand that. I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.
King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that. Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that. Others close to him had no about that. He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.
Vinay: Yes, all of them, right.
Rev. Lawson: Now none of that is in these books.
Vinay: Yeah. Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who. Mohandas.
Rev. Lawson: Yes. Mohandas K.
Vinay: Gandhi, yes. Mohandas K.
Rev. Lawson: That’s right.
Vinay: He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah.
Vinay: He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.
Rev. Lawson: He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.
Rev. Lawson: He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.
Vinay: Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.
Rev. Lawson: Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is. Exactly. You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies. It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think. In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around. You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.
Vinay: Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments. Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia. Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.
Rev. Lawson: Yeah, it’s locally started.
Vinay: Right yeah. It’s locally started, locally initiated.
Rev. Lawson: That’s right, it’s locally started.
Vinay: SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.
Rev. Lawson: By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany. I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.
Rev. Lawson: He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.
Vinay: Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following. It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this. Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany. The perspective then generally amounts to the following.
Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany. Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India. In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here. This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …
Rev. Lawson: Yes, I know the story.
Vinay: That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story. The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably. Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there. Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?
Rev. Lawson: Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff. It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling. When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.
There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves. How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked. One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard. Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.” He said that boldly years ago to me.
King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure. Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable. I don’t know them myself. King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.
(after a viewing of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”)
No matter how often one might have heard the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, it never ceases to astound. G. H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematician with whose life Ramanujan’s story is inextricably intertwined, put it poignantly when he remarked that his collaboration with him was “the one romantic incident in my life.” Even those who are mathematically illiterate are touched by the story. It is a romance that nothing can kill. And when the life of a mathematician appears as a romance to ordinary people, then one can only turn to Hamlet’s admonishment to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
However sophisticated the interpretations surrounding Ramanujan’s life and his extraordinary genius, the bare outlines of the story appear in a form that is inescapably present to every reader of the narrative, which goes something like this: A little-known, indeed rather obscure, Indian mathematician was toiling away as an office clerk in Madras in the early part of the 20th century.
Though recognized by his peers in Madras as man of unusual mathematical gifts, Ramanujan could find no one in his vicinity capable of understanding the theorems which he had a habit of recording in his notebooks. Meanwhile, Ramanujan had been published in the journal of the Indian Mathematical Society. Ramanujan eventually, and altogether fortuitously for the history of mathematics, came to the attention of G. H. Hardy, quite possibly the greatest mathematician of the day in the Anglo-American world. The two would commence a famous intellectual collaboration after Ramanujan had been brought over to Britain. Alas, five years in Britain, while they would bring Ramanujan to the notice of fellow mathematicians all over the world, would also be his undoing. The inhospitable climate and food took its toll of the fastidious Brahmin, and a year after his return to India in 1919 Ramanujan passed away at the age of 32.
At first glance, a casual reading of Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which has inspired the film of the same name, might appear to convey the impression that the Ramanujan-Hardy encounter is best read as a ‘culture clash’. Hardy, writes Kanigel, was a “Fellow of Trinity College, the mecca of Cambridge mathematics, hence of English mathematics” (111); Ramanujan, on the other hand, was largely an autodidact, and was bereft of any degree.
Though Ramanujan spent five years at Trinity College, and the two worked in close proximity throughout this time, Hardy was little aware that Ramanujan was a strict vegetarian and that his complete rejection of meat, fish, poultry, animal lard, and, I suspect, eggs was leaving him starved in a country that for centuries had remained clueless about vegetables. (Now that Britain had been civilized by South Asians, at least this problem has been addressed.) Even less would Hardy have understood that vegetarianism alone is construed by some as a religion—though, as shall be seen, Ramanujan’s religiosity went well beyond dietary preferences. Watching this film, where episodes that point to the difficulties that Ramanujan encountered in being able to satisfy his hunger without violating the tenets of vegetarianism with which he had grown up appear intermittently, brought to mind an evening in 1992 I spent with T.G. Vaidyanathan, a comparatively little-published but maverick thinker (and even more so teacher) of great reputation. TGV, as he was known to friends, was visiting New York; we walked to dinner; and when I inquired whether he had any preference for a particular cuisine, he stated only that he was a strict vegetarian. What stays with me from our conversation that evening is TGV’s remarkable rendition of his faith: Vegetarianism is my Bhagavad Gita, he told me.
So with Srinivasa Ramanujan, except that he further expressed himself as inspired by the Goddess. Hardy, by contrast, was an unflinching atheist. But this was not, as is commonly supposed, a clash between the mysterious and spiritual East and logos-centered West. True, there are moments when the film might appear to descend into such clichés, as when Hardy, in a moment of exasperation, berates Ramanujan for ignoring “proofs” and relying on “intuition”. However, Kanigel wisely eschews the satisfaction of embracing the easy distinction between the spiritual Orient and the material Occident that continues to inform many popular readings of their encounter, gesturing instead at least at what are some of the more fundamental questions that emerge from the collaboration of these two minds. Both Ramanujan and Hardy were consumed by numbers, though there is the arresting question about what we mean by numbers at all—and particularly very large numbers, broaching, shall we say, infinity. What did either of them understand by numbers? What, in turn, were the sources of their creativity, and what might the fact that Ramanujan was unschooled have to do with Hardy’s inability to comprehend how Ramanujan’s mind worked? How, Hardy asks Ramanujan more than once in the film, do you know what you do know? How do you arrive at these theorems? Is there, in other words, a method to this madness—for surely it was madness that drove Ramanujan to his results and then to extinction?
The Hardy-Ramanujan narrative is a parable about the politics of knowledge and the incommensurability of knowledge systems. Against Hardy’s repeated insistence that Ramanujan offer “proofs”—which I would liken to the stations of the cross, the steps that culminate in the apotheosis of mathematical truth—for his theorems, the South Indian Brahmin countered that the “proofs” barely mattered. If a theorem was correct, then what need was there for proofs? Hardy’s knowledge was more than merely bookish; nevertheless, he had been schooled in certain styles of mathematical thought and was bound to a bookish conception of mathematical rigor. What Hardy barely recognized was that his own knowledge, formidable as it may have been when measured against other mathematicians, had constrained him; Ramanujan, in contrast, was unburdened by formal learning, and that was also the source of his extraordinary creativity. To me, Sir, Ramanujan told Hardy, “an equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Now Hardy could simply have dismissed this as a nonsensical remark, the residual effect of superstition from which the mind of a Hindu, no matter how much given over to the work of logos, is never entirely free. Or he could have assimilated Ramanujan’s statement to a worldview for which he had some affinity, namely that mathematical truths have something of the ineffable about them, a beauty and purity which approximates spiritual truth. Or he could have taken Ramanujan’s strange expression of truth as a tacit invitation to at least momentarily unburden himself, desist from proof-seeking, and allow a less charted framework of knowledge to inform his work.
There are, as the film amply suggests, a great many other features that are important to an understanding of the Ramanujan-Hardy narrative and an appreciation of the immense odds against which Ramanujan had to struggle. The racial element was always present, if not in their relationship, certainly in Cambridge and in wider mathematical circles: an unschooled, “bloody Indian” had slowly but surely established himself in the Mecca of mathematics and cut the venerable dons of this institution down to size. Kanigel misses out, however, on the politics of sexuality that is incipient in a narrative which has tacitly opposed a masculinized Hardy representing the imperial and ratiocinative vigor of Britain to an effeminized, vegetarian, superstitious Brahmin belonging to a subject race. Their story, though it has never been read this way, is also a parable about how ostensibly neutered and highly objective forms of knowledge are also captive to dominant registers of masculinity. But, amidst these and many other strands of thought that emerge from this story of the meeting of two minds, it is the politics of knowledge to which we must remain supremely attentive as we continue to grapple with this story.