Distilled Letters

by Sameer Kulkarni


Mahatma Gandhi was tremendously influenced by Leo Tolstoy in his fight against the British with the concept of nonviolence and satyagraha but, unfortunately, their correspondence only lasted a year from 1909 to 1910 before Tolstoy’s unfortunate death in 1910. Although their correspondence was largely based around Tolstoy’s beliefs and Gandhi’s application, one wonders if they wrote to each other about life in general as friends would.

While the exact nature and content of their letters is safely guarded behind the walls of the National Trust, reconstructing this fictional correspondence, if nothing else, will at least give us a glimpse into their mortal lives. Considering the great men that they were, life must still have nipped them at ankles at countless times, knowing that they were still men underneath and trodden with problems like the quotidian anger of a wife, belligerent children, annual tug-of-war with taxmen, hangovers, and so much more.

Letter 1: Gandhi to Tolstoy

Westminster Place Hotel align
4, Victoria Street
London, S.W.
1st September, 1909

To: Count Leo Tolstoy
Yasnaya Polyana

Sir,

I hope this letter finds you in tip-top health. In our last correspondence, you said your physician had advised you to stay away from that orange-infused vodka you are so fond of. I hope you can get back to it soon. After all, what is life without these small pleasures?

For me, I have moved from cow’s milk to goat’s milk. You might wonder why, and the reasons aren’t related to health, but the last time I tried to milk a cow, she kicked me, and I caught her hoof right in my midriff. Never milk a cow that chews only with the left side of her mouth. Someone later told me that she had mad cow disease.

Pray tell me if there are any good barristers that you know of. I should very much like to talk to a few of them concerning how they go about their practice. I am finding it extremely hard to get new clients. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have picked an easier profession. It’s actually come down to a point where I shall have to pay the clients for handling their cases. Nevertheless, there we are. Another degree down the toilet.

Ever since I showed your photo to my younger son, he has been pleading me to grow my hair and beard. You know how children are. I have managed to convince him that I cannot drink soup with a beard on guard, and he looks convinced. Of when he will conjure his next tantrum, there is as much gruesome darkness there as is in the gruesome lives of Dostoevsky’s heroes.

Before I digress any further, let me greet you with the wonderful news that I have translated your book Beard Grooming 101 into English and am sending you a copy with this letter. My friend in Allahabad has also decided to print 20,000 copies and, upon success, will also have it translated into more Indian dialects.

By the way, my original writing of Simple Vegetarian Cooking was confiscated by the Government of India, but I had managed to make some copies that were already circulated. The proceeds will be forwarded to Tolstoy Farm for covering maintenance costs.

I will remain, as always,

Your obedient servant,
M.K. Gandhi

Letter 2: Tolstoy to Gandhi

Yasnaya Polyana
27th September, 1909

M. K. Gandhi
London

Dear M. K.,

I received your letter in the mail today and, to my utter dismay, with more postage than it was supposed to have. The postman was a Bolshevik, and you wouldn’t believe his chutzpah, for he said to me, “Your pen-pal is depriving others of communication by using more than he needs.” Be careful next time, won’t you?

I am delighted to tell you that I am back on my orange vodka diet, and the physician has given me a clean bill. (Literally, a clean bill. His daughter works on my estate. He is worried I will have her flogged.) Everything should be in moderation, he says, but tell me, how can one resist the finest caviar and the ripest of vodkas?

There’s one very good barrister I know, Dimitri Polyanov. He defended Dostoevsky when he was involved in that Petrashevsky Circle bit, and the word on the street is that Lenin is also planning to hire his services. I will have his address for you in a couple of weeks.

Reading about your son confirms my notion that they are all like bulbs: we don’t know which one will crack when. My 13-year old son’s birth anniversary is coming up, and he wants me to get an Indian fakir who will walk on a sheet of burning coals for his party. I think it’s his mother who tells him stories about such. Where else will a mere child get such ideas from?

That aside, is there any way you could talk to someone and get me an address? It should be okay even if he is an amateur, and wants to sleep on a bed of spikes instead of the burning-coals ramp walk.

Since you have practically hijacked all my learnings under the holy name of influence, I feel no obligation in asking you another question that has risen to plague my existence, namely, laundry. Where it is that you send your dhotis to launder?

The local laundry-man has joined the Revolution and I can’t seem to find anyone new that is reliable. I am supposed to write to Lenin about this and ask him to send this man back, but I am unable to get hold of Lenin’s whereabouts at the moment. I wonder what jail bed he is warming up.

Now reverting to the matters of economical importance, I am thoroughly pleased with the publication and circulation of my writings, translated into English and other Indian dialects. I am also impressed with the fact that you are sending the proceeds towards the work to be done at Tolstoy Farm. Could you send me the receipts for these? The tax inspector here is very bullish, and I would like to throw these receipts in his face and break a tooth or two of his when he visits me next time.

Your friend,
Leo Tolstoy

Letter 3: Gandhi to Tolstoy

Johannesburg
15th October, 1909

To: Count Leo Tolstoy
Yasnaya Polyana

Dear Sir,

By talking about the postman you have certainly piqued my interest in the Russian postal system. I see his yearning for the revolution in his act. In British India, being literate is the foremost requirement for a postman. You see, they must read all the letters before they deliver them. Needless to say, I shall be more careful about the postage from this time.

I could not help but notice that you have a new seal on your letterhead: two fingers forming a ‘V’, white doves and butterflies flying from the sides. I cannot think of it symbolizing anything but peace. I hope you won’t be disturbed by my pluck and will pardon my importunance if I further its use in my local correspondence and rallies. You haven’t patented it or anything like that, have you?

My earnings having taken a bit of a tumble. I cannot afford the services of a laundry-man and hence wash my own clothes. But I recall that Nehru Sr. sends his laundry to Paris and, from what I have heard, the French are real fanatics about laundering. I shall have his address for you in the next letter.

Keeping in line with the services you need from me, which I am only too happy to offer, I know the exact person you need for your son’s party. Standing in line for our British visa, we got to talking and amongst a myriad of things that he does. He hosts these marvellous parties and is quite a showman. You should definitely hire him, I will send a letter of recommendation on his person.

I have been talking to the leaders in India about this fight of non-violence against the British. But they don’t want to be bothered right now, because the British are buying all the tea that is produced, and the finances look strong. They don’t want to jeopardize it by fighting that doesn’t even include actual fighting. I hope this changes soon, else we will both be out of business. At least you can go back to writing novels, but me, I will be left with nothing. I will have more news from the Indian front soon.

I don’t want to be gossipy or such, but I have always wondered how Dostoevsky was in real life. Was he at all like any of his heroes? I tried to read Crime and Punishment once, and it was so drab I think I will have to read Wodehouse for the rest of my life just to rid myself of the bitterness.

Your work is an exception to my generalization, but it seems that all the Russian authors famous in the West somehow specialize in hopeless misery and dingy surroundings with under-heated apartments.

I will end my scrawl with the address of the showman: Mr. Balti, 331H, Chowrangi Lane, Patiala, Punjab- 415123. To you my most warm salutations and prayers for your good health, as I remain,

Sincerely yours,
M. K. Gandhi

P.S. I recently saw your portrait by Repin, and I very prominently noticed your black pirate sarwar. May I dare say that they seemed extremely comfortable, and a perfect attire for hot summers. I shall, of course, if I decide to get one, take it in white.

P.P.S. Sending the receipts of the proceeds that were forwarded to Tolstoy Farm.

Letter 4: Tolstoy to Gandhi

Yasnaya Polyana
2nd December, 1909

M. K. Gandhi
Johannesburg

Dear M. K.,

By linking the Bolshevik postman and the Revolution, you have certainly touched a varicose vein. The Revolution has been nothing but trouble. First of all, everyone wants to read red propaganda scrawl, so the sales of War and Peace and Anna Karenina have gone down.

Secondly, because of all the poverty the revolution has brought, everyone is keeping a beard, the women too. Now how can that be good for me? I used to be singularly known by my white flowing beard. Now, there are countless moujiks who have emulated my look.

In your earnest attempt to do me a good turn, you have managed to push me halfway to my grave. Two weeks ago, a man with a beard as dark as the Black Hole of Calcutta arrived here with your letter of recommendation. His showmanship was mind-boggling, I will give you that, and the children watched him as if he were Hecate.

But, as the evening wore on, seeing many a beautiful woman around, this raffish ruffian decided to park the bus by producing a python from one of the rags and wrapping it around his neck like a cashmere scarf. Needless to say, the children went berserk, and he had the birthday boy take it in his hands and help him wrap it around his neck.

The snake, cunningness shining in his eyes, escaped before my boy could hand it over to your man and he, the snake that is, made himself scarce. My wife, who was busy catering to the food requests in the kitchen, upon seeing the snake freaked and hit him on the head with a wrought-iron pan.

Seeing that the man was in a shock for having lost his pet, I allowed him to stay for the night. Later when I went to the kitchen to get some hot water, I overheard his voice from one of my daughters’ bedroom. When I knocked and interrupted, he curtly replied that she was reading War and Peace to him and rudely asked me if I was going to call for a priest for that python’s funeral tomorrow, upon which my daughter and he burst into peals of laughter.

He was gone when I woke up, and I found a note on his pillow suggesting that I should try and write lighter stuff. To show this audacity to my wife, I proceeded towards the kitchen whence I heard my usually demure daughters and wife, like hens, having a conversation about a “nooky.” I wouldn’t bore you with details, you are a barrister after all. But if I see that there is a need for “emergency landing” in the next eight months, I should know where to send all the bills.

I will give you some sensible advice: do not add your nationalist views to it. Your highfalutin’ talk about wanting to build a better nation, I think, needs serious direction in this line. Promiscuity is a devil’s hand, and he hardly ever shows what cards he has up his sleeve. If you want to build a better nation, fix your youth.

If I were younger, I would have had interrogations to find out more but, as it happened, I was going to get interviewed by the National Public Radio that morning and they asked me what steps should be taken for women’s emancipation in Russia.

In my correspondence with Victor Hugo, he had said that a game called tennis was extremely popular amongst French women and many were doubling up with men to show that anything a man can do, a woman can, too. I pointed out that today’s Russian woman should do something similar. The idiots couldn’t read in between the lines, took it verbatim, and now there are women everywhere with racquets under their arms.

Spare me of any rhetorical questions from your side on this topic, and hope that those bills don’t have to see a step of your Ashram. I am and will always willingly remain,

Your friend,
Count Leo Tolstoy


Copyright © 2017 by Sameer Kulkarni

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