Monday, March 31, 2008

The Mahatma's Marksheets

[This article, authored by Ramachandra Guha, was email to me by Arvind Gupta recently. I later found it on the internet as an article that appeared in the Hindu a few years ago. With the stress on grades and exams these days, it is refreshing to read that one of the most influential men of the 20th century was a very mediocre student in school. A lesson for all of us, or have times just changed too much?]

The Mahatma's Marksheets

Ramachandra Guha

Once, while I was in college, I picked up the autobiography of a man who, at various points in his career, had served as vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, governor of the Reserve Bank, and finance minister of the Government of India. Curiously, his memoirs had as many pages on his achievements in school and college as on his experiences running central banks and devising union budgets. He first reproduced his matriculation re­sults: the marks listed by subject, never less than 96 per cent. We then learnt of how, in his intermediate examination, he set a record that stood for years in the Bombay Presidency. As if this was not enough, a statistical proof of his gold medals in the B.A. and M.A, followed. Later, as I read more such works, I came to regard this as characteristic rather than curious. When they came to write their memoirs, famous professors of sociology and high officials of the Indian Civil Service alike seemed to single out, above all other high-water marks, success in school examinations. Then I came across an exception: the autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The Mahatma claimed: 'I was not regarded as a dunce in high school', before—in the spirit of truth with which the work was conceived— speaking of the difficulty he once had with Sanskrit and, for a time, with Euclidean geometry.

Gandhi spoke in general terms, but his somewhat vague recollec­tions of life at school were to be given a devastating specificity in a book published in 1965. It is called Mahatma Gandhi as a Student, and its author, J.M. Upadhyaya, had been principal at the high school in Rajkot where the Mahatma had spent seven years.

Upadhyaya's book packs a great deal into its seventy-four pages. The boy Gandhi, we learn, changed several schools before he reached the age often. At times his attendance was noticeably lax: a mere 110 days out of 238 in standard III, for example. His marks at the annual examinations normally averaged between 45 per cent and 55 per cent. In junior school he was always comfortably beaten by one Tribhuvan Bhatt, who in the manner of 'coppers' of the time ended as a babu, albeit an elevated one. (His last job was as chief minister of Rajkot state.) The one early sign of the young Mohandas's superiority to his fellows was that his elder brother Karsandas was a less distinguished student still. Karsandas lost two years, and ended up in the same class as his sibling, where he usually logged lower marks.

Things turned worse in middle school. Mohandas's attendance slipped again, as he attended on a sick father and a newly wedded wife. Asked to repeat a year, he bucked up and for once 'grew quite serious in studies'. He achieved 8th rank in class, with a (for him) remarkably high overall score of 66.5 per cent. The momentum carried over into high school. Outside the classroom, his life was rich in incident—he played the 'lustful husband', experimented with meat, and tried un­successfully to sell some of the family gold to payoff a debt incurred by brother Karsandas. Yet, despite this, his attendance at school was 125 days out of 125, and he came fourth in class, with an average in excess of 60 per cent. In Upadhyaya's words, 'he could no longer be described as a mediocre student.'

This judgement was put sternly to the test in the third week of November 1887, when Gandhi travelled by train to Ahmedabad to take the matriculation examination of Bombay University. This was his first visit to a city he was to later make his own. In a lovely detail, Upadhyaya notes that Gandhi's examination number was 2275. There were 3067 candidates in all. Of these, 799 were success­ful. Gandhi's rank was 404th, and his marksheet was as follows:

English 89/200

Gujarati 45-5/100

Mathematics 59/175

General Knowledge 54/150

The total, 247.5 marks out of 625, comes to an average of about 40 per cent. Mohandas K. Gandhi could once again be described as a mediocre student.

Mahatma Gandhi as a Student is a work that bears testimony both to the author's industry and to the Gujarati respect for old records. And it contains much more than marksheets. We learn here that despite his rather ordinary performance in examinations, Gandhi's middle-school teacher marked his conduct as 'very good', whereas the best any other student achieved was 'good'. Upadhyaya's reproduction of the English paper that Gandhi answered in his matric exam seems to give certain clues to his later development. For 45 marks, he was asked to 'write an essay of about forty lines on the advantages of a cheerful disposition.' Could not this answer have helped encourage him to become that rara avis, a politician who was never known to have lost his temper? For 25 marks, he was asked to paraphrase a poem which described how Jesus would reveal himself only to the poor peasant, not to the rich men whose chariots went contemptuously 'whirling past'. Might not this exercise have stoked a precocious awareness of exploitation and injustice?

We must also consider the significance of the sociological snippets that Upadhyaya so casually throws our way. Consider this: Mohandas's best friend in high school was a Muslim, while their headmaster was a Parsi. The school building was constructed with a gift of Rs 63, 000 from the Nawab of Junagadh. In his last years in school, as Mohandas's marks percentage climbed into the upper fifties, he was given a scholarship of Rs 10 per month, this award being in the names of two Kathiawad nobles, one Hindu, one Muslim. Should we not consider this as part of an early training in multiculturalism, as essential pre­paration for the making of the inter-religious Mahatma?

But, the cynic will say, we can't finally gel away from the mark sheets. Byway of apology and, indeed, justification, let me then remind the reader of the career of one Albert Einstein. Nothing, writes one biographer, 'Nothing in Einstein's early history suggests dormant genius'. The boy was able to speak fluently only at the age of nine. When Albert's father asked the headmaster of his elementary school what profession he thought his son should prepare himself for, he got the answer: 'h doesn't matter; he'll never make a success of anything.' Later, at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, Einstein was 'still slightly backward' and failed to complete his diploma. Later still, after he had moved to Zurich, Einstein failed the entrance examination to the university. 'The accepted reason for his failure is that although his knowledge of mathematics was exceptional he did not reach the necessary standard in modern languages or in zoology and botany.'

Such, in summary, were the academic records of the two men commonly regarded as the best, the wisest, and the most influential indi­viduals of the twentieth century. Long ago, in the 1930s, the Bombay journalist D.F. Karaka wrote a biography of Gandhi entitled Out of Dust, He Made Us into Men. The reference was to the countless nationalists whose heroism and self-sacrifice was a direct consequence of the Mahatma's influence. Without him, these Indians would have been content being ordinary lawyers, teachers, brokers, and clerks or, perhaps, even black-marketeers. One knows what Karaka meant. So did J.M. Upadhyaya, except that he added a meaningful caveat: 'Gandhiji, it has been well said, could fashion heroes out of common clay. His first and, undoubtedly, his most successful experiment was with himself.'


[Cross-posted on educatorslog.in]

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