Isabel Hofmeyr. Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading

Isabel Hofmeyr. Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. 218p, ill. ISBN 9780674072794. US $24.95 (hardback).

Can we really ignore a man whose face keeps appearing on every banknote printed in the Republic of India during the last 69 years? More importantly, given Gandhi’s known hostility to the Western ideals of politics and technological progress, can we ignore the nature of contradictions inherent in his use of the printing press as an experimental device for political and spiritual communication?

If printing, according to McLuhan, was a ditto device which first outlined the contours of the West-European idea of ‘nationalism,’ the ubiquitous Gandhi face on the Indian banknote is an important reminder of the fact as how that idea was appropriated, reinterpreted, and powerfully reinforced by the medium of print in non-Western societies. The iconic representation of Gandhi on the banknote as the ‘Father of the Indian Nation’ often makes us forget the Nandalal Bose linocut of a pensive Bapuji leading the Dandi March in 1930, a powerful image that too had been endlessly replicated in print to drive home the idea of Gandhi as anti-colonial liberator who favoured village-based decentralized democracies over what was to follow: a centralized Nehruvian welfare state. Still lesser known is Ramkinkar Baij’s powerful portrayal of another Gandhi, mostly because it’s fairly impossible to technologically replicate its desolatory feel – sculpted in the isolation of stone, the pensive Bapuji of the Nandalal linocut reappears in Baij’s 1947 work as a self-absorbed figure stepping on a heap of human skulls, cemented in the twilight of the Empire, the Noakhali riots, and the Partition.

In a world of a million political Gandhis, therefore, and a million other possible Gandhian simulacra that exist with or without reference to the complex nature of the Gandhian corpus, the person who appears in Hofmeyr’s book, thankfully, and without any associations of guilt or pain, has a strong element of nostalgia about him. Here Gandhi is a young Gujarati lawyer at work in South Africa, experimenting with a Tolstoyan farm, and trying to run a periodical meant for a primarily Gujarati readership, the Indian Opinion. And there, perhaps, lies the principal charm of this book. Without the exclusivist focus on the evolution of Gandhian politics, and with little interjections on the debates surrounding the later iconic stature of Gandhi, Hofmeyr tries to contextualise the strange corpus of early Gandhian writing by offering a vision of a man who takes his slow reading very seriously, and the processual beginnings of an imagined ‘Indian nation’ existing as a “virtual entity some four thousand miles distant.” This imagining wouldn’t have been possible, Hofmeyr argues, if Gandhi was not caught up in the production cycles of this expat bilingual Gujarati newspaper in the colonial Indian Ocean world of the late nineteenth century.

The usual eyes and eyebrows would be raised at this point: those that practise severe practical criticism by squinting closely at the typographical device called hyphen (which someone famously deployed to link the words ‘print’ and ‘capitalism’) while being oblivious to the fact that the hyphen might not have been inserted at all if the compositor had been in more of a hurry and the proof-reader a little less intent on reading page proofs. For those Sauronian eyes, therefore, and particularly for those who dismiss any efforts to study the interconnections between material processes of textual production to the intellectual dispositions of an author encountered in print, Hofmeyr’s book will be another instance of the ‘technologically deterministic’ vagaries of academic life. For others, however, this might serve as an important eye-opener. Dealing with an author as complex as Gandhi, Hofmeyr makes her points very strongly about the interconnectedness of print to the processes of textual production. Does it shock us, or horrify us, that as a believer in Ruskinian and Tolstoyian ideals, Gandhi continued to identify Africa as an unproblematic non-existent zone while contesting ideals of white civilisation in print? How is one supposed to read his reliance on cheap African labour at Phoenix, Natal, employing “four hefty Zulu girls” (in Millie Polak’s words) to substitute the donkeys which worked as engines of a decrepit mechanical press? (66–7)

Hofmeyr’s book builds its arguments around a simple proposition: in order to seriously understand M. K. Gandhi’s early forays in the realm of political philosophy and his later expositions on satyagraha, we need to locate his role as a publisher, experimental editor, anthologist, and proprietor of a South-African periodical called Indian Opinion. To a later self-reflexive Gandhi, the Indian Opinion experience constituted almost a medicinal exercise towards spiritual discipline, where his passion for long expositions fought an engaging battle against his soul’s commitment to remove the weeds of superfluity and exaggeration in writing, resulting in direct ethical benefits: the practice of self-restraint. Hofmeyr, however, situates this with the contingencies of running a periodical journal in South Africa which made its niche by, and its identity largely dependent upon, translational summary of texts and ‘news’ from diverse periodicals: a previously-ignored matrix in which Gandhi’s writing style had been largely forged. It was during these experiments, observes Hofmeyr, that the plain prose style so characteristic of Gandhi’s later writings, the mode of composition where “not one word more was necessary,” took shape. This juxtaposition of ethical “exchanges” next to “news”, created a new textual reconfiguration, which Hofmeyr argues, “redefined both genres, making ethical discourse ‘news’ and slowing down news reports to the pace of philosophy” (71). Hence, the beginnings of Gandhi’s experiments in “slow reading”: the rejection of the “deinstrumentalization of time” across specialized “uneven” reading surfaces of the Indian Opinion, in opposition to the fast-paced information pouring out of other “macadamized” newspaper surfaces (91).

Indeed, by the time one has finished reading this book there is a growing awareness that  the textual dispensation of Gandhi’s condensed prose writings acquires newer significances once we locate its important moorings in a periodical past which sought to create ethical “exchanges” by abridging, summarizing, and extracting texts from across the world, and juxtaposing them next to “news” clippings to highlight his ethical visions and also to outline the rough but rigid contours of a continuously re-imagined moral, the ‘Indian nation.’

Hofmeyr’s efforts in identifying a Gandhian theory of reading (of “The Reader as Satyagrahi”) exclusively founded on contextualizing the Hind Swaraj, in the textual environment of the Indian Opinion, is where retrospective (and nostalgic) judgement weighs most heavy. Hind Swaraj (1909) is one of the most iconic political pamphlets written by Gandhi, but also one of his weakest. There isn’t much by way of explicit politics of satyagraha as anti-imperial resistance in Hind Swaraj, in fact, in what we have of a resistive ‘Indian-ness’ in the fictional world of Bankim’s Anandamath (1882), nothing to show quite how Gandhi’s views of political resistance might be evolving, if they were, during the time he was writing it for the Gujarati readers of Indian Opinion.

Apart from this small issue of consequentiality, this book is largely successful in communicating the understanding that Gandhi’s involvement in the periodical business in South Africa can indeed be connected to his later emergence as an important political journalist and thinker in the Indian subcontinent. Unlike Prince Albert’s efforts to popularize homoeopathy in Victorian England, the practical and medicinal benefits of exercising spiritual restraint in response to the fixed print space mosaic of a periodical were in this case, as we’ve retrospectively come to know, quite ecumenical.

Deeptanil Ray
Jadavpur University