When I travel, I often select my reading material based on something appropriate to my destination. Headed to Johannesburg in May, I read Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories, a collection of vivid vignettes of South African life after apartheid. Headed to Seoul in September, I picked up Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom to get a view into everyday Korean life. And over the last thirteen days in India, I read Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography – or, as he titles it The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Gandhi was one of the most effective and influential advocates for Swaraj (Indian home-rule) and his accompanying tactic of ahimsa (non-violence). His name is known the world over. As I loaded him onto my Kindle I expected to read about the story behind the “Very Big Things” he accomplished: Articulations of high-minded ideals. The narrative of an epic political movement. Sweeping insights into leadership.
Do you know what I found?
Instead of hearing about Gandhi’s “Very Big Things” I was struck by the mundane, the minute, and the everyday. Gandhi spends his life doing what most of us would recognize as the same “Very Normal Things” we ourselves do, but with a heightened sense of morals and meaning. Here’s 80% of what Gandhi talks about in his autobiography:
Very Normal Thing #1: Eating
If Gandhi has one lifelong obsession, it’s food. In his teenage years, Gandhi starts running with the ‘bad boy’ crowd and sneaks away to eat meat. He later repents of his rebellious ways and becomes a relentless advocate for vegetarianism. Over time, he pushes this even further, swearing off salt, lentils, and dairy. At one point, while sick, he drinks some goat’s milk at a doctor’s recommendation and then beats himself up for the rest of his life about it. He ends up as a fruitarian who eats five or fewer types of food each day and finishes dinner by sundown.
Very Normal Thing #2: Getting Dressed
Gandhi talks extensively about his Anglicized clothes in London. He buys a chimney-pot hat for nineteen shillings and an evening suit for ten pounds. When he moves to South Africa, he’s still consciously distinct from other Indians in his attire, in his hybrid frock-coat and turban. In fact, there’s an entire turban-wearing fiasco when he joins the courts. Over time, however, Gandhi dresses more simply. He moves to a shirt, coat, and dhoti combo and later resolves to wear only khadi (locally produced hand-woven cloth) – a highly politicized fashion statement in keeping with the Swadeshi movement.
Very Normal Thing #3: Moving Around
In the years he travels between India, England, and South Africa, there are long recounts of boat trips. We learn what he ate on the boat (fruits and nuts), what he did on the boat (played chess, learned Tamil and Urdu, accidentally visited a hooker in Zanzibar), and who he hung out with on the boat (the Captain, a couple of English guys, a Puritan). Later in life, Gandhi takes a lot of trains, particularly in third-class. There is plenty of drama about train ticket cancellations, whether he gets bedding or not, how dirty and crowded the trains are, and the difficulty of getting on the train when people block the doors (it’s true; it’s happened to me as well).
In short, Gandhi’s autobiography is filled with extensive descriptions of “Very Normal Things.”
With that, I’ll pause this post given the length and continue with Part Two. Look forward to “Very Normal Things” #4 through #6 as well as how it all comes together. Continue in Part Two of Two here.
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Glad to be home,
Fun facts about Gandhi:
- Gandhi thinks the Eiffel Tower is ridiculous.
- Gandhi ends up in a brothel a couple of times, but always by accident (oops!).
- Gandhi was all about home-schooling for his kids.
- While living in England, Gandhi took dance lessons.
- Gandhi was a married as a child at the age of only thirteen.