Pages have been written about Mahatma Gandhi. Is there anything new to be uncovered or said? Pramod Kapoor partly succeeds because this is an illustrated biography. In fairness, he also succeeds because he waded through 97 volumes of collected works and picked up facts others found unimportant.
The product is a treasure-trove of information and illustrations, even for those who know their Gandhiji exceedingly well. The material is arranged chronologically. Here are a few of my favourites (you will, no doubt, have your own)—photograph of Gandhi with members of the Greyville Cricket Club, Durban; hand-written manuscript of Hind Swaraj, written both with the right hand and the left; pictures from Chauri Chaura (did you know about the association between Amrita Sher-Gil and Chaura?); an artist’s sketch of the 1922 Great Trial; a painting of Gandhi being operated upon by hurricane lamp in Poona (1924); a portrait of Gandhi having tea in Buckingham Palace with King George V and Queen Mary (1931); and Harilal’s letter (1915). But this only gives a flavour. There are many more.
I had never seen the satirical poem (modeled after Edward Lear) titled ‘The Saint and the Demagogue’ with Gandhiji as the Saint and Jinnah as the Demagogue. (The date is not explicitly stated, but seems to be 1944.) Nor had I seen instructions issued to passengers (February 11, 1948) who travelled on the Mahatma Gandhi Asthi Special from New Delhi to Allahabad, carrying his ashes. “After all, so much has been written on Gandhi that unless the safe vaults of private archives are unsealed or Gandhi’s descendants decide to make public or auction their private papers, there is little left to discover... Despite his ‘order’ to his friends to keep his life ‘an open book’, the private papers of some of those very close to him (the Pyarelal papers is one such example) as also his personal letters to his immediate family, are not in the public domain—they remain unpublished and inaccessible to most biographers, locked away in government and private vaults. Hopefully one day, they will be made public, if they survive.” This is a quote from the introduction. This volume is described as a biography, with the qualifier “illustrated”. This is not quite a biography in the usual sense, which is just as well. There are several of those conventional biographies floating around and at least a dozen are fairly decent.
This one is new and delightful because it steps away from that trodden path, both because it uses illustrations (not just photographs) to great effect and because it also focuses on trivia. Thus, it is anything but boring and is “research” in a completely different sense. It isn’t quite a book you will “read”, in the conventional sense. But it is a volume you will acquire, flip through, treasure and keep. It is precisely because Pramod Kapoor hasn’t inflicted a heavy tome on us that you will discover quite a few new things about Mahatma Gandhi.