In all fairness, Chapter 2 of Lelyveld’s book Great Soul should rightly be described as the Latrine and Feces Chapter given its preoccupation with turds.
So, if you are the sort that gets a hard-on by how Gandhi was repulsed by the stench of the human shit at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress in 1901 and how he took a broom and cleaned the latrine, then read on:
There were only a few latrines, and the recollection of their stink still oppresses me. I pointed it out to the volunteers. They said pointblank, “That is not our work, it is the scavenger’s work.” I asked for a broom. The man stared at me in wonder. I procured one and cleaned the latrine…Some of the delegates did not scruple to use the verandahs outside their rooms for calls of nature at night…No one was ready to undertake the cleaning, and I found no one to share the honour with me of doing it. (p.30)
Not just the filth but the blatant untouchability practiced by many Congress leaders, mostly from the South, at the Calcutta session appalled Gandhi.
Well, at least some things never change in India.
If Congress party workers in 1901 were shitting around literally in public and leaving the cleaning up to honorable souls like Gandhi, in 2011 these shitty Congress bastards are doing it figuratively via their corrupt deeds and leaving the cleansing to good souls like Anna Hazare. And the new untouchables for our Congress leaders are the vast masses from whose drudgery our netas are so completely divorced and insulated living as these parasites do in opulent luxury guarded from the ire of the common man by a phalanx of security guards.
But the shit hit Gandhi’s fan even before 1901. Gandhi was preoccupied with, what we’ll call, the shitty business in India as early as 1896. During a trip back home when the plague was ravaging Bombay, Gandhi was on a sanitation committee in his native Rajkot and inspecting latrines.
The latrines of the rich and the temples, Gandhi found during his inspections, were:
dark and stinking and reeking with filth and worms. (p.43)
The quarters of the untouchables, poor as they were, had no latrines.
In the Latrine Chapter, feces and latrine cleaning collide with untouchability for it was the former untouchables that were assigned this rather unpleasant task of carrying the nightsoil and cleaning the latrines.
It does not seem that Gandhi arrived at the sanitation, shit fixation and untouchability stations on his own.
For heightening the sensitivity of Gandhi’s nostrils to the stench of sanitation and untouchability around him in India, we have to give thanks to the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who was still alive when the Great Soul was in South Africa.
A significant event that had a profound impact on Gandhi’s life was the receipt of a parcel from England containing Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You, a rant against the hypocrisy prevalent within the key Russian institutions of church and state.
In a subsequent work What Is to Be Done? Tolstoy makes a pointed reference to the shitty business.
According to Tolstoy, the laws of God will be fulfilled:
when men of our circle, and after them all the great majority of working-people, will no longer consider it shameful to clean latrines, but will consider it shameful to fill them up in order that other men, our brethren, may carry their contents away. (p.38)
What a powerful impact those printed words had on Gandhi!
Would Gandhi have turned into the Mahatma were it not for Tolstoy’s book? Unlikely, we say.
No wonder Gandhi established a settlement called Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg.
What a Shame
If Gandhi were to be alive today, he’d drown himself by diving head first into a deep human cesspool over the shitty country that his India has turned into.
When it comes to public shitting, India is unbeatable and way, way ahead of every other country in the world. Of the 1.1 billion people that shit in the open, 638 million live in Gandhi’s India. The poor man would have been heartbroken to see this shitistic or this one.
All of Gandhi’s tireless screeds against poor sanitation have fallen by the wayside in independent India. 🙁
It’s more than likely that Gandhi’s stay in South Africa awakened his eyes to the filth and social oppression that pervaded India (p28-29).
Lelyveld appears to agree with the author V.S.Naipaul’s remark in An Area of Darkness that Gandhi was “…the least Indian of Indian leaders.” By the way, Aurobindo Ghosh also appears to have held similar views on Gandhi.
In a broad sense, Chapter 2 traces the “sprouting of a social conscience” in Gandhi and provides a brief overview of the caste system and its exploitative nature.
Lelyveld argues that while Tolstoy made a powerful impact in the development of Gandhi’s social conscience, the Mahatma initially was more concerned mainly with social equality within the empire for his merchant and trader benefactors (p.39) and not for the indentured Indian laborers toiling away in the mines and elsewhere in horrible conditions.
In between, Lelyveld manages to dredge up a bunch of incidents to suggest that Gandhi was, to use the feces terminology, a bullshitter (p.38-40), or at least exaggerated his role in some instances, and that untouchability practiced within the Indian community in South Africa did not engage the Mahatma’s attention.
In South Africa, the great social divide for Gandhi, according to Lelyveld, was class not caste.
Lelyveld notes that Gandhi may not have taken up the untouchability issue in South Africa to avoid splitting the Indian community and to prevent further anti-Indian sentiments among the Whites. Who’s to say if he’s right?