Sunday, June 2, 2013

Gandhi's Experiments With Reading

This week's Sunday Guardian column

On a winter’s day in 1904, four wagons, each pulled by 16 oxen, set off from Durban with a load of precious cargo. Fording rivers and braving rugged terrain, they reached their destination safely, with the burden being unloaded and installed in a corrugated iron building. The cargo was the printing equipment of an organization known as the International Printing Press, which had just been shifted to the first structure of the 100-acre Phoenix settlement, Gandhi’s South Africa ashram. From its plates emerged periodicals and publications that were immensely influential in disseminating Gandhi’s ideas.

In a fascinating new book, Gandhi’s Printing Press, Johannesburg professor Isabel Hofmeyr discusses and analyses the origin and nature of these publications, focusing on Indian Opinion and Hind Swaraj, and shows how their specific nature reflected Gandhian thought. Of particular interest is Hofmeyr’s slant towards Gandhi’s views on reading, which resonates with our fragmented, frantic age.

For Gandhi, an ideal mode of reading was akin to satyagraha, a way of asserting sovereignty over the self. (As others have noted, many activities that Gandhi was known for, such as spinning, fasting and celibacy, were also individual acts in a public sphere.) Hofmeyr dissects this approach: “Through patient reading, through a careful selection of texts, through mentally inserting ethical extracts into hasty news items, and through resisting macadamization, readers could slow down the system, turning themselves into nodes of autonomy not through abstract ideals but through these small daily textual practices.” Further, by phasing out advertisements from Indian Opinion and taking scant note of copyright restrictions, he tried to will into being a reader who was simultaneously liberated from the compulsions of the market and strictures of the state.

This was in the wake of the Victorian age, with inventions such as steam trains, steamships and the telegraph hastening the pace of everyday lives. As Hofmeyr writes, "Commentators expressed dismay at a situation where dramatically increased volumes of print turned reading into an indiscriminate, addictive, incoherent activity in which people became machine-like.” A reflection of the situation that prevails today, with those such as David Shields – as the author notes – encouraging a disjointed mode of writing, one “built from scraps”.

In the excerpts, summaries and abridgments that constituted the pages of Indian Opinion can be seen Gandhi’s attempts at meeting the needs of the reader-as-satyagrahi. Interspersed with news items culled from other sources were quotations from people such as Tolstoy and Thoreau, almost as though to make people slow down and reflect on what they had read. “Week by week I poured my soul into its columns,” Gandhi writes in his autobiography, and one effect was to hone a prose style known for brevity and clarity.

Exhortations to the reader to pay attention and ponder are an essential part of Hind Swaraj, originally a pamphlet for readers of Indian Opinion. Here, Hofmeyr writes, “reading became a way of thinking about satyagraha as a patient rule of the self”. This meant not just reading, but re-reading, clipping extracts, discussing them with others and allowing ideas to percolate until they informed action. Memorization was also called for, which, apart from other benefits, enabled readers to visit imprisoned satyagrahis and narrate sections to them. (Incongruously, while reading this, one was reminded of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.)

This, then, is a Ruskinian mode of reading, “a form of work, self-discipline and cultivation of inner nobility”. In addition, there’s an emphasis on reading at the speed one is comfortable with, matching the rhythms of the body and not making haste for haste’s sake. The focus shifts from what and how much to read, to how.

Clearly, such apotheosis makes great – some would say unrealistic -- demands upon the reader. The rewards, as spelt out by Hofmeyr, are that “those who do so with virtue and application will turn themselves into true readers and writers, exemplars and analogues of self-ruling subjects, and miniature and summarized zones of sovereignty.” An ideal as much worth aspiring to nowadays as it ever was.

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