If Gandhi truly admired any one person, it was Leo Tolstoy, the celebrated Russian thinker and writer. While in London, Gandhi had been debating whether he should write to the great man, who had just celebrated his 81st birthday.

He revered Tolstoy almost to the point of idolisation. Count Tolstoy was a nobleman who had given up a life of luxury and power. He had no equal among European writers but lived a simple life and believed in his own version of non-violence. Gandhi read Tolstoy’s works constantly and his bible was The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a book he recommended to almost everyone. He even presented a copy to the superintendent of the jail in Volksrust where he was imprisoned. Gandhi’s ideas on peaceful resistance had been reinforced by Tolstoy’s example.

He finally wrote a letter to Tolstoy on 1 October 1909, in which he introduced himself, giving details of his campaign in South Africa and asking for the writer’s blessings. In the letter, he asked for permission to reproduce a tract that Tolstoy had written and distribute 20,000 copies of it. The tract was titled “A Letter to a Hindu” and was written as a reply to a young Indian revolutionary who had asked Tolstoy whether the Indians had not the right to counter British rule by force and acts of terrorism.

Tolstoy’s reply was that the situation the Indians found themselves in was their own fault because they had willingly accepted enslavement and collaborated with the British. If the Indians truly wanted to free themselves from the British, he suggested, they had a weapon more powerful than guns or terrorism, and that was non-cooperation. In a memorable passage, Tolstoy rubbished the Indian obsession with their gods. “Cast aside all religious beliefs. Paradise, hell, the angels, the demons, reincarnation, resurrection and the concept of god interfering in the life of the universe – all these must be abandoned.”

In his letter to Tolstoy, Gandhi asked if he could omit the word “reincarnation” in the catalogue of religious ideas denounced by Tolstoy. “Reincarnation or transmigration is a cherished belief for millions in India,” he said, adding that it “explained the many mysteries of life.” Gandhi’s letter reached Tolstoy a week later, who noted in his diary: “Received a pleasant letter from a Hindu in the Transvaal.” Two weeks later, he composed a reply. Gandhi would later write in Indian Opinion: “No one should assume that I accept all the ideas of Tolstoy. I look upon him as one of my teachers but I certainly do not agree with all his ideas. The central principle of his teaching is entirely acceptable to me.” The two men would go on to exchange a number of letters. Tolstoy’s last letter to Gandhi, dated 20 September 1910, reached its recipient after Tolstoy’s death on 20 November 1910.

The making of Tolstoy Farm

When Gandhi returned from England to South Africa in 1909, political necessity led him to try and establish a cooperative where “civil resisters” would be trained to live a simple and harmonious life. Hermann Kallenbach’s gift of a large piece of land outside Johannesburg, which Gandhi named Tolstoy Farm, provided the necessary impetus. Tolstoy Farm would house an ideal community of satyagrahis, living their lives in purity and prayer, working without complaint for the common good.

The 1,100-acre farm had over a thousand fruit trees, wells, a spring and a single house. More houses were added later. Kallenbach joined Gandhi and his family on the farm. Gandhi was the baker and jam-maker and much more. He once wrote to a friend in India: “I prepare the bread required on the farm. We have just made marmalade from the oranges grown on the farm. I have learned to prepare caramel coffee...At present, we are working as labourers on construction work.”

Kallenbach had learnt from German monks how to make sandals and he passed on his expertise to Gandhi. Being an architect, he also knew about carpentry. He taught Gandhi to make cabinets, beds and benches. Gandhi was also the general manager of Tolstoy Farm, which started with 40 young men, five women, three old men and around 30 children. Smoking and drinking were not allowed. At night, everyone slept together on an open platform. For Gandhi, it was an ideal situation, being able to live in a small community – of Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Parsis – devoted to the plans he had for them.

‘I am mostly busy making sandals these days. I like the work and it is essential too. I have already made about fifteen pairs. When you need new ones now, please send me the measurements. And when you do so, mark the places where the strap is to be fixed – that is, on the outer side of the big toe and the little toe.’ 

— Gandhi to his nephew Maganlal about life at Tolstoy Farm

Once, an incident at the farm involving two girls and some boys gave him a sleepless night. The boys had overstepped the mark in expressing their love for the girls. In the morning, Gandhi decided that to prevent such incidents in the future, the girls’ heads should be shaved to “sterilise the sinner’s eye”. Such happenings filled him with guilt and he decided to perform an act of penance. He would go on a fast. It led to the discovery of a new form of protest, one for which he was ideally suited; it was an instrument he would use to great effect in the fight for Indian independence and thereafter.

Excerpted with permission from Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography, Pramod Kapoor, Roli Books.