Mahatma Gandhi is revered world over for his ideals of peace and non-violence, but who would imagine that this titan of a human being showed fleeting signs of juvenile delinquency?
As a child, Gandhi was caught smoking after his uncle spotted him puffing away. He would pick up cigarette stubs and smoke them. I’ll let Gandhi relate his experiments in his own words.
“The stumps,” he writes, “were not always available and could not emit much smoke either. So we began to steal coppers from the servant’s pocket money in order to purchase Indian cigarettes. We managed somehow for a few weeks on those stolen coppers. In the meantime, we heard that the stalks of a certain plant were porous and could be smoked like cigarettes. We got them and began this kind of smoking.”
An Odd Guy
These anecdotes come from Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments with Truth. It’s the guilelessness of the language that overwhelms a reader. The anecdotes reveal this great man was a very odd guy indeed.
Gandhi and his relative (he doesn’t specify who) got tired of their plant cigarettes, and one day decided to commit suicide. They had heard that dhatura seeds were an effective poison and went into the jungle to collect it. “Evening was thought to be an auspicious hour,” he writes.
We went to Kedarji mandir, put ghee in the temple lamp, had the darshan and then looked for a lonely corner. But our courage failed us.My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi
That wasn’t all. At the age of 15, Gandhi stole a bit of gold from his brother’s armlet to pay off a Rs 25 debt his brother had contracted.
But it is Gandhi’s visits to prostitutes that make for the most hilarious reading. His descriptions are roundabout, the language is prudish and Victorian, but the picture he gives jumps out of the page. You can listen to the full story here.
In My Experiments With Truth, he writes: “My friend once took me to a brothel. He sent me with necessary instructions. It was all pre-arranged. The bill had already been paid. I went into the jaws of sin, but God in his infinite mercy protected me against myself. I was almost struck blind and dumb in this den of vice. I sat near the woman on her bed, but I was tongue-tied. She naturally lost patience with me, and showed me the door with abuses and insults”.
I then felt as though my manhood had been injured, and wished to sink into the ground for shame. But I have ever given thanks to God for having saved me.Gandhi in My Experiments with Truth
But Gandhi was a stubborn fellow. This stubbornness drove him to visit a prostitute another four times. But he didn’t have sex which he said was due to his “good fortune”.
Almost everyone knows the anecdote that when Gandhi first ate meat, he couldn’t sleep at night, imagining a live goat bleating inside him. Interestingly, over a course of one year, he tried another five or six times to eat meat, he says in My Experiments with Truth.
A Suspicious Husband
Gandhi also writes about being a jealous husband, suspicious of his wife. Two other girls, he had earlier been betrothed to, had died. That was perhaps why he was jealous. This is his first night after his marriage in his own words.
Two innocent children all unwittingly hurled themselves into the ocean of life. My brother’s wife had thoroughly coached me about my behaviour on the first night. I do not know who had coached my wife... The coaching could not carry me far. But no coaching is really necessary in such matters.My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi
Then Gandhi’s suspicion took over. “I had no reason to suspect my wife’s fidelity, but jealousy does not wait for reasons… She couldn’t go anywhere without my permission,” he writes.
He went on to say that the restraint he imposed on his wife Kasturba made her feel imprisoned. Often, husband and wife didn’t talk for days. Gandhi also regretted what he saw as his “great lust” for his wife. Even while in school, he would think of her and the separation was unbearable. He later wrote that if he hadn’t felt so much lust, he would have used the time to teach her.
Imitating the Brits
One of the most charming bits in Gandhi’s autobiography is about his days in England where he went to study. First he bought new clothes and then a costly hat for 19 shillings. Then he got an evening suit for ten pounds from Bond Street, and asked his brother in India to get him a watch-chain of gold. As if that wasn’t enough, Gandhi started taking lessons in Western dance, French, and elocution. He discovered he wasn’t a good dancer.
It was beyond me to achieve anything like rhythmic motion. I could not follow the piano and hence found it impossible to keep time.My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi
Then Gandhi bought a violin for three pounds and paid a fee to learn how to play it. But he was getting frustrated and he decided to give up all his efforts to become an English gentleman.
The recluse in the fable kept a cat to keep off the rats, and then a cow to feed the cat with milk, and a man to keep the cow and so on. My ambitions also grew like the family of the recluse.My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi
(Arvind Kala is a freelance journalist. This article was first published on 30 January 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the death anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)