Reading the legacies of Gandhi with the contemporary voice.
On the 9th of September the UCT English Department hosted renowned academics Isabel Hofmeyr and Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie in conversation with Imraan Coovadia. The title of the seminar was Reading Gandhi and the panel opened the discussion with their personal accounts of what led them to Gandhi and what it was that shaped their research. How does one go about reading the enigma that has become such an international icon yet resists a single meaning? Gandhi is at once a symbol of resistance, freedom, thinker, the father of a nation and father of children, husband and man. He has become and remains a phenomenon over six decades after his death, a figure who is still able to render and shape opinion from beyond the grave. The UCT English department’s Africa, Reading, Humanities series (ARH) was pleased to host this esteemed panel for a discussion that addressed the icon that is Gandhi.
Professor of African Literature Isabel Hofmeyr
Isabel Hofmeyr, Professor of African literature at WITS and author of the much acclaimed Gandhi’s Printing Press (2013), opened the discussion by describing herself as a ‘lover of obscurity’. She was therefore surprised to find herself researching a figure as grandiose and well known as Gandhi. However, having tested her metal and sharpened her tools in the realms of the obscure, shifting her attention to Gandhi yielded some interesting results. Hofmeyr’s enquiry came into focus around ideas of copyright and ownership of text and how Gandhi’s time in Durban as editor of The Indian Opinion helped to shape Gandhi’s political thought through the process of slow reading. Building on this framework, Hofmeyr’s latest research centres around Mandela as icon and how the copyrighting of his name uses the legal instrument to new ends that were not intended.
Professor of history Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, great granddaughter of Bapu and leading scholar of India-South Africa connected histories remembers, at age 11, being given the Hind Swaraj and having the thought ‘He is talking to you’. Subsequently the book became a bible to her which she read constantly. She became aware of his vulnerable side and aware that it was a piece in the process of his becoming something great. As Gandhi’s great granddaughter Uma had access to his letters and personal correspondence and so knew him as the personal Babaji rather than the global Gandhi of the public space. This intimacy allowed her to examine his historiography and she came to realise over time that it is possible to ‘choose your Gandhi’.
Writer and director of the creative writing programme Imraan Coovadia
Gandhi as a cultural figure is malleable and remains mobile, even beyond the grave. It is in the exploration of these multiple Gandhi’s that a rich vein of intellectual discourse remains to be uncovered. Hofmeyr and Dhupelia-Mesthrie have tapped into the rich South African archive and spoke about the importance of the literary object, the form that texts take and mode of their becoming. Dhupelia-Mesthrie works through a personal investigation of relationships and readerships while Hofmeyr through a literary approach to the mechanisms of reading and production that emerged through and in reaction to, printing under colonial rule.
Story by: Andrew Hofmeyr