The Mahatma & the Doctor: The Untold Story of Dr Pranjivan Mehta - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

The 2 October eBulletin- Mahatma Gandhi and his tryst with print- celebrated Bapu's 150th birth anniversary. PrintWeek India was delighted to receive a letter from Arun Mehta of Vakil & Sons.

In this Sunday Column, we share Arun Mehta's letter in which he describes how Prof SR Mehrotra spent six years putting together the book - The Mahatma & the Doctor: The untold story of Dr Pranjivan Mehta

13 Oct 2019 | By Noel D'Cunha

(l-r) Arun Mehta, Prof SR Mehrotra and Sudheendra Kulkarni

Greetings Editor 

PrintWeek India made my day on Bapu's 150th birth anniversary, with your article on Vakils, Feffer and Simons publication of The Mahatma & the Doctor - The Untold Story of Dr Pranjivan Mehta, Gandhi's Greatest Friend and Benefactor (1864-1932).

I met Prof SR Mehrotra in 2008, when he walked into my office. The first thing he said, “Are you Arun Mehta, the great-grand-nephew of Dr PJ Mehta?”, to which I replied, “Yes, I am, but beyond that I know nothing more”. This was the beginning of our association. In the next few years he wrote the book and I published it.

It took us six years to put the book- The Mahatma & the Doctor- The Untold Story of Dr Pranjivan Mehta together. For me, it was the exhilarating time of my life, as I got to learn from India's great historian, how one goes about researching. And then, how each fact is verified and re-verified. This was essential, as no one even amongst Gandhi's close associates, his children, had heard of Dr Pranjivan J Mehta. Therefore Prof Mehrotra's research had to be perfect. For 200 pages of text, he has 23 pages of notes to support his findings. I can say with pride that since the book was released in 2014, no historian has questioned his findings.

There are several questions that arise, which probably will remain unanswered.

  1. What would have happened if Dr PJ Mehta had not insisted that Gandhiji return to India in 1914/15, when Gandhiji was settled in South Africa for more than 21 years? Further Dr PJ Mehta provided financial support for someone to takeover Gandhiji's responsibility in South Africa. The question is, how would the Indian freedom movement pan-out in India if Gandhiji had returned, say, 10 years later?
  2. When Gandhiji returned to India in 1914/15, he was not a leader. The Indians had heard of his work in South Africa. Gandhiji would have to start earning a living especially when there were five widows in the Gandhi family. Would Gandhiji be able to devote full-time to the freedom movement?

Dr PJ Mehta solved two problems with one stroke. He purchased a plot of land in Ahmedabad. He told Gandhiji, to create a Phoenix farm in Ahmedabad as he had done in Durban in South Africa. Today that place is known as Sabarmati Ashram. Dr PJ Mehta also said to Gandhiji that he would financially support his family expenses. This meant, Gandhiji was able to devote his full-time to India's freedom movement. There was an understanding between the two friends that no one should know about this arrangement. Gandhiji made this fact public in 1940, eight years after the death of Dr PJ Mehta in Rangoon in 1932. Without Dr Mehta's financial support for more than 20 years, would Gandhiji have been so successful in the freedom movement?

When the book was published in 2014, Prof Mehrotra said to me, “Arun, we have rescued Dr Pranjivan Mehta from oblivion”. Needless to say, the six years I spent with Prof SR Mehrotra was one of the most exciting times of my life.

(Besides helming operations at Vakils and Sons, Arun Mehta, in his capacity as the president of BMPA and AIFMP, endeavoured to make technology accessible by organising Pamex in different parts of the country – Bombay (now Mumbai), Banglore (now Bengaluru), and Calcutta (now Kolkata). In addition, Arun Mehta was the mastermind of the first Indian print industry survey)

Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Pranvijan Mehta

In September 1888, Mohandas Gandhi and Pranjivan Mehta met for the first time in London as law students. Also a trained doctor, Dr Mehta had grown up in the Kathiawadi village - and the two Gujaratis established a rapport. This was the beginning of a long, close and fruitful friendship between the two.

Even after Dr Mehta moved to Rangoon, where he had a profitable jewellery business, he remained Gandhi’s trusted and most intimate confidant. They met whenever they could and wrote to each other regularly, discussing every issue that caught their attention.

Other than being Gandhi’s closest friend, Dr Mehta is also believed to be the first person to call Gandhi a “Mahatma” (though the title was bestowed on the leader by Rabindranath Tagore).

On 12 March, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi and his supporters set off from his Sabarmati ashram on a 390 km march across Gujarat to the coastal city of Dandi. Again, not many know that Gandhi had discussed the idea of the Salt March with the Kathiawadi doctor a decade ago.


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