Books shapeth Man. They mould his thoughts and take him on a horizon-broadening tour of the world from the comfort of his arm chair. Of course they shape his opinions too.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more fondly called Mahatma Gandhi, was a voracious reader. He had enough time, considering the amount of time he spent in jail (it’s 11 years and 19 days in all). He read books on everything – Islam, Christianity, health and hygiene, childbirth, Hinduism and Hindu philosophy, fasting, vegetarianism and even the American prohibition.
Also on the Mahatma’s bookshelf was a list of classics that we should be reading, even today. Here’s a look at some of the works of fiction that inspired the Mahatma.
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel DeFoe
First published 297 years ago, in 1719, the adventure novel is credited with pioneering a more realistic genre of fiction writing. The book came out in April that year, but went through four print runs by the time December rolled around, making it a runway hit. It also spawned several other books, all of which can be filed under the ‘Robinsonade’ label, for similar story lines. Also, the word Man Friday first appeared in this book.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
A fictionalised account of life in London and Paris before the French Revolution, the book touches on themes including revolution, duality, resurrection and violence. The Mahatma name-checked Dickens, while describing his appreciation for his ‘simple and fascinating’ writing style at a Gujarati Sahitya Parishad meeting in October 1936.
Les Miserables,Victor Hugo
We don’t know what he would have made of the Hugh Jackman-Anne Hathway-Russell Crowe musical that scored three Oscars; but we do know that Gandhiji admired Jean Valjean (played by Jackman in the film). In his book My Days with Gandhi, anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose chronicles a meeting between the Mahatma and Robert Cartier, a French journalist, where the former describes a scene involving Valjean crawling through the drains of Paris; Valjean ‘still appeared to him in an unfading light.’
Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
Gandhiji read enough of Kipling’s writings in prose and verse while jailed at Yerwada Central Prison in Pune. Jungle Book also made it to his list, when he read it in 1924. The heart-warming story of an abandoned ‘man-cub’, who is then brought up by a pack of wolves, a panther and a bear appeals to the child in all of us.
Arabian Nights, Edward William Lane
Gandhiji read Lane’s translation of the a collection of Middle Eastern and folk tales written in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.
Richard The Third, William Shakespeare
Among the Shakespearean stories he read is Richard the Third, the story of the Machavellian English prince who plotted to steal the throne from his brother, Edward VI. Of course he kills and connives and gets the crown, but - spoiler alert! - things don’t go down too well for him. A few years into his reign, he’s killed by the Earl of Richmand, who then becomes king.
Man and Superman: A Comedy and A Philosophy, George Bernard Shaw
Also read by Gandhiji while incarcerated in Yerwada Prison in 1922, the comedy play was written in response to requests for Shaw to write something on Don Juan. While it’s a light-hearted story, the play touches upon social reform, capitalism and male and female roles in the quest to find a perfect partner. There’s also a scene that involves Don Juan visiting hell.
How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
Chronicling the life of a smarter than average miner from Wales in the United Kingdom, this award-winning book first won praise and then was at the centre of a scandal, when it was realised that the book wasn’t based on the author’s own experiences, as claimed by him. Still, it’s an engaging read.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, Robert Louis Stevenson
Read during one of his first stints in jail –in Pretoria, South Africa – the classic will no doubt have helped the young Gandhi bide his time in tough circumstances. Often, he was kept in solitary confinement in a dingy cell, and read books while standing under the dim bulb in his cell.
Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
On his reading list while in South Africa, Gulliver’s Travels was name checked by Gandhiji in a letter dated November 16, 1910 (in fact, he quoted passages from the book). He also referred to the book in a letter to Maganlal Gandhi in May 1911, calling it ‘an effective condemnation of modem civilization, written in an ironic vein’.
Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore
Tagore’s translation of his original Bengali work was also read during Gandhiji’s 21-year stay in South Africa.
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
Chronicling the lives of Becky Sharp and Emmy Sedley as well as their families and friends, during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the book was initially released in 19 chapters between 1847 and 1848, and was a satirical look at early 19th-century British society.
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