READING GUIDE: Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Part II, chapters I-XI.
There is a room in the headquarters of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, in Boston, called the maparium. The maparium is an inside-out globe. The walls are glass and hemispherical in shape; the map of the world at the time of construction—1932, if I remember correctly—is painted on them. Every part of the British Empire is painted in red, and, when you step into the room, you’re overwhelmed by how much red there is. Canada is red. Many islands in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, are red. Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Burma are red. Much of the continent of Africa, including an unbroken connection from Egypt, through Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Botswana to South Africa, is red. The subcontinent of South Asia, comprised of the present-day countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India, is red.
What’s arresting about the maparium is that it conveys not just color, but power. You realize, when you see it, that all that red represents what was, in fact, the dominant political, economic, cultural, and linguistic association in the world. Gandhi was born into that association, and he remained, for all but the last year or so of his life, a subject of the British Empire. That’s why he learned—or grew up speaking—English; that’s why he went to London to study law.
That’s also why traveled to South Africa to practice law. His time there as a young lawyer is the topic of the reading we’ll do for our class meeting of Friday.
Students of Gandhi’s life, including Louis Fischer, who wrote an excellent, definitive biography of Gandhi, see his first months in South Africa as life-changing. They point to one specific event as especially transformative.
That event is part of our reading. I’ll be interested to see if you can even determine what it is, because Gandhi continues to pace his writing very evenly. The chapters are of a pretty uniform length, and he uses none of the devices—increased description, quotes, a slowing down of the action—that we associate with signaling importance in writing.
Why should this be? I can think of three possible explanations:
· Gandhi wrote his biography originally in Hindi. Maybe that language does not share with English the same values or methods of showing importance in writing.
· Gandhi is not a skilled writer. (?)
· Gandhi does not see any event in his life as more important that any other.
It’s this third possibility that I find especially intriguing. If it’s true, it would indicate a very different philosophical and psychological orientation to the world than most of us have. Let’s come to class on Friday prepared to talk about this before we buckle down to our freewrite.