This piece would perhaps have never seen the light of day had not my younger colleague Bidisha at office insisted that I write on Bapu, as Gandhi Jayanti was just days away. More than anyone else, or perhaps even as much as politicians, we journos are content with, nay even addicted to tokenisms. Many a time, sadly enough, we are quite addled about whether we mean what we write or write what we mean.
That is why this piece is such a challenge to put together, because I have to strive and break free from the limiting ambit of hero-worship and hagiography to probe my deepest impressions of the man that is Gandhi – venerable patriarch, firebrand revolutionary, Machiavellian strategist, apostle of peace, explorer of the self and sexuality, seeker of truth. In our arrogance and myopia, we hold erudite and impassioned debates on the relevance of Gandhi in today’s world. It does not occur to us at all whether we ourselves qualify to inherit his legacy.
Bapu’s influence is all-pervasive – from the peaceful masses of Arab Spring to Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-old fast. Asked which historical figure he would like to have dinner with, Barack Obama replied without a moment’s hesitation, ‘Gandhi’. From Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela, he has been the way forward to freedom, dignity and justice. In India, political parties, appropriate him as their own, even when they act in ways Bapu would never condone.
But these are things we all know, things that will be repeated by every television channel, magazine, newspaper on his birth anniversary. My desire is to explore Bapu’s influence on my own ordinary life in subtle yet discernible ways. My bedroom window offers a panoramic view of the Sarania Hill on the peak of which Gandhi Mandap reposes in quiet isolation. The legendary Amal Prabha Das and her illustrious family set up the Kasturba Ashram close by. In 1946, Gandhi came to Guwahati and stayed here for three days. A small Assam type house was specially made for his stay. Nearly every evening, I walk the steep and serpentine road that wends its way to the top. At certain bends, visible beyond the canopy of trees and foliage, there are breathtaking views of the city, lights twinkling. Frail old men with walking sticks and thick glasses totter out on walks. Women in white step out of the namghar hugging the hill. Boys in cycles race past, whooping with glee. The higher you climb, the quieter it gets. On the last stretch, near the Mandap live the very poor, in huts cobbled together out of tin-sheets, tarpaulin and straw. These are the poor and dispossesed of India and it is somehow fitting that they live so close to this memorial to him.
As a child growing up in the fag end of the Sixties and the early Seventies, Bapu was a magical presence in mandatory news reels before the start of a movie. The grainy images showed his lean, pared down frame in a dhoti hoisted up to his knees, striding with a sense of purpose and indefatigable energy towards goals that we were both too young and ignorant to comprehend. Then we read about how, when the school inspector visited, he refused the teachers prompting him to spell the word ‘kettle’, and how he, a mere child, refused to take recourse to unfair means. This anecdote had such an impact on me that not only have I had a lifetime abhorrence of unfair means, but I also cannot set a kettle to boil without remembering him.
There is, or rather was, a member of our family who resembled Bapu in ways that were uncanny. My maternal Grandpa was always in a dhoti, with an eri shawl in winter. We could hear him coming from the sound of his wooden clogs. He was lean, spare, refusing all comforts, sleeping on an iron cot in his small room next to the back verandah. He always slept with his door wide open all night, giving the rest of his family much cause for worry.
I think I understood very early on why he did that. It was his way of saying that he believed in the essential goodness of man and this set him free from fear. Grandpa was austere and minimalist to the core and ate frugal meals, even as the rest of the family feasted on fish and fowl. He also spent long hours in silence, as if words too are not to be wasted, or spent in excess. And yes, like Bapu, behind the apparent simplicity of the man, he was also an enigma. He left us as quietly as he lived his life and I know that all of you who had grandparents of that age and time, perhaps found those traits in them. Whenever I heard Vaishnava Janato or Raghupati Raghava, there was the image of two men, one the Mahatma, and the other the beloved grandfather who taught us the profound language of silence, fused in some strange way in my childish perception.
What if Gandhiji were to be resurrected today? I get this feeling that in some ways he would be totally at ease. A skilled communicator, he would appreciate social media in its ability to galvanise people into affirmative action. He would approve of our concerns about eating right, staying fit and the wellness fad. He, who wrote to people across nations, from Einstein, Tolstoy and even Hitler, would chuckle at how globalisation is a buzzword today, as if we had invented it.
In the end it is important to remember that Bapu is not always about truth and self-abnegation. I wish as a child, I was told what a mischievous sense of humour he had, his many wisecracks and how he even enjoyed being called Mickey Mouse by Sarojini Naidu. My favourite is when Bapu was going to attend the Round Table Conference in England, a reporter asked, “Mr. Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the king?”
Pat came the reply. “Don’t worry about my clothes. The King has enough for both of us.”
Even as his followers are fuming, Bapu, would have been amused by Hillary Clinton using one of his quotes and making a lame stab at humour by describing him as someone who ran a gas station down in St. Louis. Bapu himself did not spare the mighty with this razor-sharp wit.
In the end, we wonder what Bapu would have thought of our way to remember him – with statues, naming of universities, institutions, roads, bridges, the penning of countless books, filming of documentaries, movies. We can be certain that he would wish he were alive in our actions instead, and in the contentment of wanting little, and contemplating the vast universe.