WHAT a man! And what a book! And what a delight to read it from cover to cover! Mandela reminds us over and over again of Mahatma Gandhi, but any comparison between the two would be odious. The Mahatma and Mandela hail from two different words and two different cultures, but in many ways their thinking is so similar and so utterly endearing, that one is bowled out! Conversations with Myself is not an autobiography. It is a collection of his letters, speeches, interviews and other related papers from across several decades – he was born in 1918 and was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of South Africa (much against his own will) in 1994-that tell us more about him than, one suspects, even any biography would have succeeded in conveying. That is this book’s U.S.P. As President Obama tells us in his Foreword, “the story within this book – and the story told by Mandela’s life – is not one of infallible human beings and inevitable triumph. It is the story of a man who was willing to risk his own life for what he believed in and who worked hard to lead the king of life that would make the world a better place”. Mandela doesn’t require any special introduction. A South African black and a leader of his tribe, he fought against apartheid – racial discrimination – then rampant in South Africa and paid for it heavily. He was arrested and imprisoned for almost a quarter of a century (1964-’88) which is unbelievable. No leader in the world – and that includes not only Gandhiji and Nehru but many others – has paid such a heavy price. That never made Mandela vengeful. On the contrary, he was truly Mahatmic in his approach to suffering. As he put it: “The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings”. He engaged himself in spiritual pursuit. In a letter to his wife he wrote: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weakness and strength. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps trying”. Gandhi would have applauded on reading this. As he wrote to another person, a friend: “I shall stick to our vow; never, never, under any circumstances, say anything unbecoming of the other”. It is well to remember that Mandela had written his autobiography entitled Long Walk Freedom, but this book tells us more about the man within the man, not an icon or saint, elevated far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, but someone like the rest of human beings, full of contradictions and as Mandela himself puts it, like “people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides”. The letters he wrote to his wife and to his children and to his many friends – many of which were never delivered or delivered after an unconscionable wait – tell us a lot about him that not even an autobiography would have. He was not totally sold out to non-violence. As he told a friend in conversation: “We (African National Congress) took up the attitude that we would stick to non-violence only insofar as the conditions permitted that once the conditions were against that, we would automatically abandon non-violence and use the methods which were dictated by the condition. Our approach was to empower the organisation to be effective in its leadership. And if the adoption of non-violence gave it that effectiveness, that efficiency, we would pursue non-violence. But if the condition shows that non-violence was not effective, we would use other means”.
On one occasion, when a political collegue was going overseas, Mandela told him “When you reach the Peoples’ Republic of China, you must tell them, ask them, that we want to start an armed struggle and get arms”. But Chief Arthur Luthuli was opposed to the idea of violence and opposed armed conflict. Luthuli believe in non-violence as a principle whereas for Mandela non-violence was a tactic to be used when necessary and to be given up when possible. Strangely enough, while Mandela admired Gandhi, he told his friend that “Jawaharlal Nehru is really my hero!” Mandela incidentally was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding by the Government of India in 1979. Released from prison in 1990 he won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993. Mandela had tried to persuade his party to use non-violence only as a tactic and not as a principle. He failed. He was told by his party leaders: “Let us not embark on violence…. You go and start that organisation. We will not discipline you because we understand the conditions under which you have taken this line. But don’t involve us; we are going to continue with non-violence”.
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