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Gandhi's Hindi and His Aesthetics of Poverty.

Never has hindi, my mother tongue, touched me the way it did as I read through a short prarthana-pravachan (prayer discourse) by Gandhi from his lonely last days. So moving was his bare transparent prose that even the fear of being seen crying in a public library failed to deter my tears. They came not from something tangible, something tragic or painful in the pravachan, but from the sheer purity--guilelessness--of Gandhi's language. They were tears of adoration and anguish. Adoration for the possessor of that purity, and anguish that that purity, that perfect thought-word convergence, would never be mine. This special quality, I would discover later, is described by Vincent Sheean, the perceptive American journalist, as "some extraordinary faculty of speaking from the depths to the depths". (1)

That one pravachan led me irresistibly to the two volumes of Gandhi's last pravachans, and these, in turn, led me to write Gandhi: Ek Asamhhav Sambhavana. (2) It is a measure of the power of Gandhi's Hindi that it made me realize, for the first time after more than 40 years of academic writing in English, that this book could only be written in Hindi.

Having for years felt that power, it is only now that the invitation to write this essay has made me try and understand how a Gujarati could evolve such unique and extraordinary Hindi. Of course, the vital force of Gandhi's language, no matter whether he used Gujarati, English or Hindi, came from his growing inner purity and from his aesthetics of poverty, of wantlessness. Integral to his worldview, this aesthetic found its most dramatic manifestation in his progressive sartorial denudation. But even before that sartorial experiment began, Gandhi's pursuit of truth had alerted him to the shadow that separates thought from its verbalization and vitiates the latter. Aware that verbalization generally veils more than it reveals, he realized that silence was the purest form of language. Since silence would not do in real life, he aspired towards the second best, a minimalist and transparent language.

Properly schooled in both languages, Gandhi was perfectly at home with Gujarati and English. For all his minimalism, there was about his Gujarati and English an unmistakably Gandhian grace and elegance. His skills in these two languages show the minimalism of one who, possessing a wealth of words, allusions and associations, had chosen to make less more. But in Hindi, a language he never formally learnt, his minimalism was of one who possessed just about what he needed. Without fail, in contradistinction to the polish and elegance of his Gujarati and English, his Hindi was quaint, odd and awkward. Charmingly so, it never failed to reach home.

As late as February 1916, in his 47th year, Gandhi found himself obliged to make a public speech at the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha. Venturing, appropriately for the occasion, to speak in Hindi, he began with an apology: "I feel ashamed that before you I cannot speak well in Hindi. You know that I used to live in South Africa. It was there that I learnt a little Hindi while working with my Indian brethren. You will therefore forgive me my failing." (3) He went on to inform his audience: "You are perhaps not aware that I have with me thirty to thirty-five men and women. They have taken a pledge to use Hindi.... I was in need of some books which I could not get. The Sabha has done something and I offer it my thanks."

On reading this authorized English version of the speech in the Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi, one would not suspect that in it has been translated away the evidence in the original that he, indeed, could not speak Hindi well. (4) A mere two years later, this man would preside over the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, the language's supreme literary forum, yet again betraying in his presidential oration want of familiarity with the Hindi language. (5) Back as President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan a further 17 years later, he jokingly told the language's giants in 1935: "My knowledge of Hindi is almost nil.... Of the few girls who are present here, many have passed Prathama [elementary examination] and are preparing to sit for the Madhyama [intermediate examination]. Even if I sat only for the Prathama, Purushottamdasji [Tandon] here may not give me enough marks to pass it because I do not know grammar." (6)

This was no false modesty. Let alone the Hindi purist Purushottamdas, even a hero-worshipping examiner could never have managed to help Gandhi clear the Prathama examination. His Hindi carried till the end marks of his technical deficiencies in the language. These marks, paradoxically, contributed in no small measure to making it attractive and effective.

He who said "my life alone is my message", set out to cultivate, and eventually master, the Hindi he wished to be the national language. His diffidence of 1916 gone, he combined exhortation and haranguing to advise the rashtrabhashavadis (those pressing for Hindi to be made the national language) at the 1918 Hindi Sahitya Sammelan to develop their language along two cardinal principles. One, Hindi as the national language should be Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani. Two, it should not look down upon the rustic and the colloquial: "Hindi is that language which is spoken in the North by both Hindus and Muslims and which is written either in the Nagari or the Persian script. This Hindi is neither too Sanskritised nor too Persianised. The sweetness which I find in the village Hindi is found neither in the speech of the Muslims of Lucknow nor in that of the Hindu Pandits of Prayag." (7)

To these Gandhi later added a third cardinal principle--having borrowed it from Ghanshyam Das Birla--for developing Hindi into the national language: "... it should adopt words of other provincial languages which have become conventional." (8) But--and this is missing from the English translation--only words worthy of inclusion in the national language were to be adopted. (9)

Harnessed to the summum bonum of transparency in language, these principles gave Gandhi's Hindi its defining features and its magical power. The more prominent of these features are: simplicity and avoidance of ornamentation, liberal utilization of idioms and proverbs, non-recognition of distinction between rustic and elite modes of expression, uninhibited use of Gujarati words and expressions. A feature that outshone all the others was the frequency with which pithy unvarnished epigrams emerged from his depths and went straight to the depths of the reader/listener.

Gandhi also practised something extraordinary which, unfortunately, has not only not been followed but not even noticed. He variously slipped into his Hindi words and usages from his native Gujarati. When, as President of the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, he confessed to his ignorance of Hindi, he did that with a literary flourish appropriate for the occasion. He had not even had, he said, "chanchupaat" of (had not even dipped his beak into) Hindi literature. (10) His Hindi audience would have immediately recognized their own term "chanchu-pravesh" in Gandhi's chanchu-paat. No non-partisan Hindiwala can miss the fine rhythmic balance in chanchu-paat which is missing from chanchu-pravesh. Yet, disregarding Gandhi's advice, Hindiwalas have refused to adorn their language with this and other similar gems.

Similarly, Gandhi often used "kamnasibi" (ill luck) common in Gujarati rather than the kindred "badnasibi" current in Hindustani, or relatively distant equivalents like "durbhagya" or "badkismati". He also brought evocative words like "miskin" (poor, helpless), "aqbat andesh" (clairvoyant), "dilgir" (sorry) and "nest nabud" (total destruction). Such words were still in greater circulation in Gujarati where the campaign to drive out "alien" Arabic and Persian words and stick to a Sanskritized vocabulary had not been as aggressive as in Hindi.

What Gandhi also did was to use words that were common to both Gujarati and Hindi in ways that were new to Hindi. One such word, which he very frequently used, was "darkar". (11) Investing the word with a malleability that it did not possess in Hindi, he could say, "mujhe kuchh pustaken darkar theen", (12) whereas one would invariably say in Hindi, "mujhe kuchh pustakon ki darkar thi" (I needed certain books). He also revived a meaning which Hindi lacked or had lost. In his historic letter of October 5, 1945 to Jawaharlal Nehru, outlining the India of his dreams, Gandhi said that he was simply reiterating what he had said in Hind Swaraj. However, he did not have the book with him as he wrote the letter. Of that, he stressed, he had no "darkar". An average Hindi reader would take this to just mean that Gandhi did not need the book. But he was saying much more. He was saying: "I don't care."

The naturalness with which words like "nest nabud" and "aqbat andesh" figure in Gandhi's Hindi--Hindustani--shows how effectively he had obliterated the Hindi-Urdu distinction. A master symbol-maker, he used his Hindustani to great political effect. With one brilliant linguistic turn, for example, he subverted a narrow conception of patriotism and of Indian culture, and rehabilitated its catholicity. Quietly, with no histrionics or polemics, he started saying Hind Mata instead of Bharat Mata. He did that unobtrusively at his prayer meetings. (13) He also did that, with the unconcealed provocation of a nonviolent resister, while addressing the volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh. (14)

Gandhi's Hindi welcomed words of "respectable" provenance like "aqbat andesh" and "nest nabud" with as much warmth as it did workaday expressions like "wahiyat" (useless), "fizul" (worthless), "bewakuf" (stupid), "bakwas" (rubbish), "kartut" (misdeed), "matiyamet" (reduce to dust), "hawai baatein" (big talk), "kaudi-kaudi ka hisab" (accounting for every penny). This, of course combined with the clarity of his thinking, enabled him to come up with simple formulations of unparalleled rhetorical power. "Ahimsa," he would say, "koi haldi mirch nahin" (nonviolence is no turmeric or pepper that you can order from the grocer's). (15) It is indicative of the acute sensitivity with which Gandhi used a particular language that he would not attempt a literal translation while expressing the same idea in English. Thus, in English, he would say of nonviolence: "It is not like a garment to be put on and off at will." (16)

Consider also: "Jaise bhashak waisi bhasha" (As the speakers so the language), (17) "Dharma ko dharma ki marfat hi bachaya ja sakta hai" (Dharma can be saved by dharma alone), "Jo nyay chahte hain unhe nyay karna hoga" (Those who want justice must do justice), "Ek kaudi hum kharch to karen, lekin wah Hindustan ki jhopadiyon mein jati hai ki nahin, mere liye to yahi hisab kafi rahta hai" (When we spend a penny, does it go to the huts of India? For me, that account is enough), "Tedhe raste se seedhee baat ko nahin pahuncha ja sakta" (That which is right cannot be reached through a crooked route). And my own favourite: "Har koi apne ko dekhe" (Let everyone see themselves).

Gandhi's Hindi is eminently worthy of emulation. That emulation is nowhere yet in sight.


Gandhi's innovations and thoughts on the Hindi language were conveyed mainly in his speeches and partially in his letters. The letters accompanying this essay showcase his style of writing and the warm informal inflections they carried. All translations are from the Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi, and the images are courtesy Gandhi Heritage Portal, Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad.


(1) Vincent Sheean, Lead, Kindly Light: Gandhi and the Way to Peace, London: Cassel & Co. Ltd, 1950, p. 205.

(2) Published in 2011 by Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi, the book has been translated into Gujarati, Kannada and English. The English translation by Chitra Padmanabhan, Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility, was brought out by Routledge, Delhi in 2017.

(3) M.K. Gandhi, Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi (henceforth CWMG), Vol. 13, New Delhi: Publications Division, p. 209.

(4) M.K. Gandhi, Sampurna Gandhi Vangmay (henceforth SGV), Vol. 13, New Delhi: Publications Division, 1998, pp. 211-12.

(5) CWMG, Vol. 14, pp. 292-97. For the Hindi original, see SGV, Vol. 13, pp. 277-81.

(6) SGV, Vol. 60, 1974, pp. 443,452.

(7) CWMG, Vol. 14, p. 294.

(8) Speech at the 1935 Hindi Sahitya Sammelan from CWMG, Vol. 60, p. 449.

(9) Exemplifying the powerful brevity of Gandhi's Hindi prose, this third example is stated in one simple sentence: "Rashtrabhashavadiyon ko chahiye ki vibhinn prantiy bhashaon mein jo shabd roodh ban gaye hain aur jo rashtrabhasha mein ane layak hain unhe le len", SVG, Vol. 60, p. 491.

(10) Ibid., p. 494.

(11) Occurring in Gandhi's first public speech in Hindi, "darkar" keeps recurring till the very end.

(12) SVG, Vol. 14, p. 212.

(13) M.K. Gandhi, Prarthana-Pravachan, Vol. I, New Delhi: Sasta Sahitya Mandai, 1948, p. 214.

(14) Speech at the Delhi rss, September 16, 1947, quoted in Braj Krishna Chandiwala, Gandhiji ki Dilli Diary (Tatha Dilli ka Swatantrata Sangram), Vol. 3, Delhi: Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and Gyandeep, p. 295.

(15) Unless otherwise stated, this and the following epigrammatic formulations by Gandhi are quoted from his Prarthana-Pravachan in my Gandhi: Ek Asambhav Sambhavana.

(16) Young India, August 12, 1926.

(17) SGV, Vol. 14, p. 278.

Caption: 1 Gandhi writes a letter, Birla House, August 1942. Photograph: Kanu Gandhi. Chi. Malkani,

Caption: 2 Letter to N.R. Malkani, September 17, 1946.

I have received several letters about Karachi Khadi Bhandar. Please write to me what the facts are.

Blessings from Bapu

Caption: 3 Letter to Moolchand Agrawal, February 12, 1933

Bhai Moolchandji,

I shall publish the questions and the answers somewhere as the occasion permits.


Caption: 4 Letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, January 18, 1948.

Chi. Jawaharlal,

Give up your fast. I am sending herewith a copy of the telegram received from the Speaker of West Punjab. Zaheed Hussain had said exactly what I had told you.

May you live long and continue to be the jewel of India.

Blessings from Bapu

Caption: 5 Letter to Raihana Tyabji, New Delhi, April 5.1939

Dear daughter,

I have your letter. I never even dreamt that I had anything more to do or say after all that had happened. I only quote your own words here. Yes, Raihana, I do admit that Mother and you people are not deceitful and this I admit sincerely. I never believed that you people could ever be deceitful. Is Saroj with you?

I am happy to hear that Mother is well.

Blessings from Bapu

Caption: 6 Letter to Pandurang N. Rajbhoj, May 8, 1936.

Bhai Rajbhoj,

I regard it as necessary to encourage the craft of leather work. I hope you will acquire proficiency in this craft and you must not be satisfied till you attain it.

M.K. Gandhi

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Author:Chandra, Sudhir
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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