On one of my afternoons of site-seeing in Delhi, I visited Birla House, where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life trying to broker peace between Hindus and Muslims before his assassination in 1948. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a friend, I had been reading All Art Is Propaganda, a collection of George Orwell’s critical essays, which contains his 1949 Partisan Review essay, ‘Reflections on Gandhi.’ Orwell on the Mahatma:
“It is well to be reminded that Gandhi started out with the normal ambitions of a young Indian student and only adopted his extremist opinions by degrees and, in some cases, rather unwillingly. There was a time, it is interesting to learn, when he wore a top hat, took dancing lessons, studied French and Latin, went up the Eiffel Tower and even tried to learn the violin – all this with the idea of assimilating European civilization as thoroughly as possible. He was not one of those saints who are marked out by their phenomenal piety from childhood onwards, nor one of the other kind who forsake the world after sensational debaucheries…His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, and I believe that even Gandhi‘s worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive. Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have much value for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are founded, I have never felt fully certain.” (All Art Is Propaganda, ed. George Packer, Mariner Books, 2009).
On the numerous placards hanging on the walls of the museum, one of Gandhi’s quotes really stood out for me: “As I am nearing the end of my earthly life, I can say that purity of life is the highest and truest art.” I considered this statement while studying his scant ‘worldly remains’ and wondered what Orwell might have thought of it. Whatever else you can say about him, with regard to asceticism, Gandhi surely walked the talked. I found that extremely reassuring. Probably Orwell would, too, although not because he would have valued Gandhi’s asceticism per se, as much as the integrity with which he committed to its practice. I also found reassuring the single tchotchke to be found anywhere in the house, and next to his writing desk, no less: a wooden carving of the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys – a trustworthy, if trite, old proverb, which suggested to me that even a saint needs to be reminded daily how to live purely.