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A lesser-known friend of Gandhi who gave the ‘Mahatma’ a lesson in European etiquette

A meeting between Dr. Mehta and Gandhi in London, 1909, became instrumental for Gandhi’s first book Hind Swaraj in Gujarati.

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Mahatma Gandhi was known for having a wide variety of friends and close associates across age groups and genders. Dr. Pranjivan Mehta has remained one of the most important yet least-known names on Gandhi’s friend list.

A Doctor of Medicine and a barrister by education, a jeweller by profession, a patriot with wide exposure and enormous wealth, Mehta spent his formative years in Bombay and Europe. Later, he went to South Africa and ended up in Rangoon, Burma where he brought out an English weekly United Burma. He identified Gandhi’s potential much before anyone else did and helped him monetarily throughout his movements in South Africa and India, shunning the limelight.

Mehta was probably the first person to use the word ‘Mahatma’ for Gandhi. In a letter to Gopalkrishna Gokhale, dated 8 November 1909, Mehta wrote, “…from year to year (I have known him intimately for over twenty years) I have found him [Gandhi] getting…more and more selfless. He is now leading almost an ascetic sort of life—not the life of an ordinary ascetic that we usually see but that of a great Mahatma and the one idea that engrosses his mind is his motherland.” (The Mahatma and The Doctor, S.R. Mehrotra, Vakils, Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, 2014, Page 28)

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The London meeting

Their first meeting took place in 1888 at Victoria Hotel, London when Gandhi, who was all of 19, had just arrived. He carried four letters of introduction with him. One of them was for Mehta, who was pursuing Doctor of Medicine at Brussels and had simultaneously secured admission in the Middle Temple, London to study law. Mehta went to see Gandhi, a novice sans exposure and five years younger than him, on the very day of his arrival in London.

During their conversation, Gandhi picked up Mehta’s top-hat and passed his hand over it the wrong way disturbing the fur. Mehta imparted the first lesson in European etiquette to Gandhi and told him not to touch other people’s things. He taught Gandhi, among other things, not to address people as “sir” as “only servants and subordinates address their masters that way.” (An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K. Gandhi, Second Edition, Page 62) Mehta also advised him to leave the costly hotel and stay with a family as it would be much cheaper. As Gandhi noted in his obituary, from the beginning, Dr. Mehta acted as his “guide and counsellor”. (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.50, Page 335)

When Gandhi returned to India as a barrister in 1891, he stayed at Dr. Mehta’s place in Bombay for a few days. The acquaintance “ripened into a permanent friendship” during this time. (An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K. Gandhi, Second Edition, Page 111) Gandhi met Reveshankar Jhaveri, the elder brother of Dr. Mehta, and also, Rajchandra or Raychandbhai for the first time during the stay. Gandhi developed deep bonding with Rajchandra who was a Jain philosopher, poet, ascetic, and son-in-law of Dr. Mehta’s elder brother Popatlal. Rajchandra became “refuge” in the moments of Gandhi’s “spiritual crisis” till his untimely death in 1901. (An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, M.K. Gandhi, Second Edition, Page 113) His relationship with Revashankar lasted much longer. Gandhi used to stay at Revashankar’s house Mani Bhavan at Laburnum Road during his Bombay visits.

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Mehta, an intellectual giant

A meeting between Dr. Mehta and Gandhi in London, 1909, became instrumental for Gandhi’s first book Hind Swaraj in Gujarati, later translated by Gandhi in English as Indian Home Rule. Written as a dialogue between the reader and the editor, it was largely based on the exchanges Gandhi had with Mehta in London. Speaking at Gandhi Sewa Sangh’s meeting at Malikanda in 1940, Gandhi recalled, “You may not perhaps be knowing for whom I wrote Hind Swaraj. The person is no more and hence there is no harm in disclosing his name. I wrote the entire Hind Swaraj for my dear friend Dr. Pranjivan Mehta. All the arguments in the book is reproduced almost as it took place with him.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.71, Page 238) As the arguments changed the heart of “an intellectual giant” Dr. Mehta, Gandhi thought to write it down.

When Rev. Joseph Doke wrote the first biography of Gandhi in 1909, Dr. Mehta translated the book in Gujarati and got it published from Bombay in 1912. The book had a long foreword by the translator who had referred to Gandhi as ‘Bhai Mohandas’. Dr. Mehta was always there to extend his generous monetary contributions for Gandhi’s activities, from sponsoring prizes of essay competitions and scholarships for the eligible student to go to England to study law to huge sums for building and sustaining institutions in South Africa and India. These included Rs 2.5 lakh paid for the construction of a residential college at Gujarat Vidyapith. (The Mahatma and the Doctor, Page 163-164)

During Dr. Mehta’s final days at Rangoon, Gandhi was in jail with Mahadev Desai and Sardar Patel. Yet he was getting cables about his health every day. (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.50, Page 329). The telegram carrying the news of Dr. Mehta’s demise reached Gandhi on 4 August 1932. In a consolation telegram to Dr. Mehta’s son, Gandhi wrote, “Sardar and Mahadev join me in condolence. For me I feel forlorn without lifelong faithful friend.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.50, Page 327) In a letter to the son of Revashankar Jhaveri, Gandhi wrote, “I know that all of you will feel the loss of Doctor. But my sorrow is peculiar. I had no greater friend than Doctor in this whole world, and for me he is still alive.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.50, Page 329)

Apart from S.R. Mehrotra’s well-researched book, Mani Bhavan — the house of Revashankar Jhaveri that was later turned into Gandhi Museum at Mumbai — and Pranjivan Chhatralaya at Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, are perhaps the only two other places where the memory of Dr. Mehta is alive even if as a plaque.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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