At Work and Play

In My Early Life (1932), a much-abridged version of his earlier autobiography meant explicitly for “boys in Indian schools,” Gandhi informed his young readers that of all the books that had influenced him, none had “worked such a revolutionary change in my life as Ruskin’s Unto This Last.” Gandhi came under the book’s “magic spell” in 1904 when he read it on a train trip from Johannesburg to Durban. It “gripped” him and rendered him sleepless. He woke up resolved to adopt its principal teachings: “that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all; that a lawyer’s work has the same value as a barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work; [and] that a life of labor, that is, the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.”

Although John Ruskin’s book was not the only Victorian object that had a formative influence on Gandhi, it was certainly one that brought about “an instantaneous and practical transformation.” After reading it, he gave up his career as a successful barrister, and set out on a life dedicated to service, a Mahatma not just in name but also in deed. As he so dedicated himself, he maintained a punishing work schedule which invariably began at crack of dawn (sometimes even earlier) and ended late at night, and involved a range of activities: praying, reading and writing (extensively), meeting people (a lot), walking, and of course, spinning. In addition to these routine tasks, he would also get involved in nursing and taking care of the ill in his ashrams, in making or mending shoes, tending to plants, and caring for animals. We know from the diary of his teenage niece Manu, who joined him in prison in March 1943 for more than a year, that this rigorous routine was followed even in conditions of incarceration. Other children who grew up under his exacting care comment on it as well in their memoirs.

He was also known, particularly in his communal settlements in South Africa, to wash his own clothes, and to cook. As he informed the young reader of My Early Life, “Instead of buying baker’s bread, we began to prepare unleavened whole meal bread at home. Hand-ground flour was essential for this, and to this end I invested in a hand-worked flour-mill for £7. It would be worked by two…and the children usually worked it. The children liked and seemed to flourish in this exercise.” In Tolstoy Farm, the communal settlement that Gandhi established in 1910, “for three hours in the morning, the boys perform some kind of manual labor, preferably agricultural, of the simplest type. They do their own washing, and are taught to be perfectly self-reliant in everything,” as he wrote on 1 April 1912 to his Bombay-based patron Ratan J. Tata. Most unusually—and indeed scandalously for a man of his caste background and class upbringing—he also began to clean commodes and chamber pots “instead of expecting the servant to do it. This proved a good training for the children with the result that none of my sons developed any aversion for scavenger’s work,” he informed the young readers of My Early Life. Indeed, in all his ashrams, the residents were expected to take care of scavenging work, instead of delegating it to others. Decades later, he wrote with great passion to artist Devi Prasad about the “art of sweeping.”

Pertinent to the lives of the many children who grew up in his care was the fact that when he was in residence, he would teach them, from all accounts, on a wide variety of subjects including geography, history, and mathematics (digital album, 22, 23, 276). As he wrote from prison on 12 October 1932 to the seven-year-old Bablo (Narayan, the son of his devoted secretary and assistant Mahadev Desai), “All children play, but they should play when it is time for play and should work when it is time for work.” Even when he was away from his ashrams either travelling or in jail, he continued to play teacher: correcting their vocabulary, commenting on their handwriting, checking on their progress in their studies, and so on.

Being Gandhians themselves, the organizers of the painting competitions at Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya understand well the Gandhian work ethic, and over the years, have invited the children of Mumbai to contemplate Gandhi at work. In turn, the children’s paintings pay tribute to their Bapu at work: reading and writing, spinning, and sowing. Their paintings suggest an acute awareness of the fact that for Gandhi, manual labor and working with one’s hands was critical for the nation itself to grow and flourish. In particular, over the years, two of Bapu’s activities appear to have caught their fancy: sandal-making and tending to animals (digital album, 72, 80, 81, 149, 152, 153, 204, 205, 208).

Gandhi learned the art of making footwear in South Africa from his German friend Hermann Kallenbach. Tolstoy Farm had a sandal-making class where young residents learned to make sandals and repair shoes, as we also learn from the memoir of Gandhi’s grandnephew Prabhudas who grew up there. An instance of childlike playfulness that we associate with Gandhi turns around a pair of sandals that he gifted to his arch-opponent in South Africa during his days there as a disobedient activist. Years later, in a tribute to Gandhi on his 70th birthday, Jan Smuts recalled, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer since, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.” After Gandhi permanently returned in 1915 to India—where working with leather was confined to the lowest of the low, the so-called untouchables—tannery became critical to his Constructive Work agenda that he carried out across India’s villages. At his ashrams in Sabarmati and Sevagram, he opened tannery units, as well as offered advice over the years on the best ways to skin dead animals, treat leather, and so on (Fig. 6).

Gandhi’s ashrams were abodes not just for men, women, and children, but also for nonhuman animals. Much has been written about Gandhi’s devotion to the cow, and his embrace of goat’s milk, but he also seemed to learn from cats, as we glean from a letter he wrote in May 1932 to Nan and Tangai Menon, the two young daughters of his Danish devotee Esther Faering Menon. “We have made friends with a cat and her kittens. I call her sister. It is delightful to watch her love for her young ones. She teaches them all sorts of things by simply doing them.” He frequently addressed the child residents of his ashrams as “little birds,” in one instance writing to them from the hills while travelling in June 1929, “In the spot where I am writing this, birds in huge trees are chirping happily. How wonderful it would be if you too were in those trees chirping!” The child artists of Mani Bhavan are not surprisingly drawn to painting him in the company of animals and birds, fondling them, feeding them, or simply enjoying their company (digital album, 202–213) (Fig. 5; Fig. 7; Fig. 8; Fig. 10).

The paintings of the child artists also remind us what a playful man the Mahatma was, especially in the company of children, a quality that is occluded in the mantle of saintliness in which he has come to be cloaked. And yet his interactions with children suggest the opposite. Indeed, fifth-grader young Prajwal’s painting of Gandhi happily riding a bike towards freedom resonates with his Bapu’s own observation in September 1919 on the eve of catapulting to the status of the leader of the nationalist movement, that “innocent childlike fun” and being light-hearted would ensure that “the nation will be born anew every day” (Fig. 9). Prabhudas recalls that Bapu would “play with us. He carried each one of us on his shoulders and then dropped us on the sloping garden plot to roll down it. We returned to him again and again to be rolled down the slope by him.” He also recalled his granduncle telling him, “So that you may not say that I give you only work and no play, I am giving you the opportunity to play and then we shall work together with all our might.” Similarly, while incarcerated in prison with him with more than a year, young Manu led a strict life dedicated to work and study, but punctuated by playing a variety of games, including badminton, carom, and ping-pong, sometimes even with Bapu and Ba! The regimen in Gandhi’s communal residences was undoubtedly strict and rigorous, but it included ample time for children to play. Indeed, play was to be incorporated into the curriculum as much as possible, including games such as aatapaata, saat-tali, hututu, mag-matali, and moi-dandia that one imagines he learned growing up in Porbandar and Rajkot. Thus, football or cricket were not the only sports that mattered (a sentiment with which today’s children in cricket-crazy India might not necessarily agree!), though Gandhi worried over indigenous games like kabbadi that brought boys and girls in close proximity and contact.

Writing in 1932 on his views on schooling the child, Gandhi insisted, “Education should appear to the child like play. Play is an essential part of education.” In March 1946, he further elaborated on this idea, showing an openness to learn from the playful child, “For a child, everything is play. I would go so far as to say that thus his whole life becomes a kind of game. I have been doing this for many years now. I never feel that it is time for play and I should go and play. For me even writing is a game. Under basic education of my conception, children will learn while playing.” So, perhaps it is not surprising that for a young child like Narayan Desai, despite the rigors of growing up under the watchful eyes of his Bapu, “bliss was it to be young with Gandhi.”

Select References
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 11: 251; 16: 158; 49: 468; 50: 233; 51: 234; 79: 193–94; 83: 147–48; 92: 31.
M. K. Gandhi, My Early Life (1869–1914), Arranged and Edited by Mahadev Desai. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Prabhudas Gandhi, My Childhood with Gandhiji: Foreword by H.S.L. Polak. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1957; Narayan Desai, Bliss Was It to Be Young with Gandhi: Childhood Reminiscences. Edited by Mark Shepherd. Translated by Bhal Malji. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1988; J.C. Smuts, “Gandhi’s Political Method.” In Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work, Presented to Him on His Seventieth Birthday, October 2nd, 1939. Together with a New Memorial Section, edited by S. Radhakrishnan, 280–85. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1949; and Tridip Suhrud, ed. and trans., The Diary of Manu Gandhi, 1943–1944. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019.