Gandhi, between hate & cliché
I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people. They suddenly realised that the gym would be closed on 2nd October. The young men were completely mystified at the phenomenon called Gandhi Jayanti. They were genuinely perturbed, wondering what the gym had to do with the man who invented satyagraha. The executive paused and said, “The younger generation has no memory of the national movement”. It’s true. They have heard no stories or fables from their grandparents; the past is a blank filled with dull history books where Gandhi is reduced to a collection of do’s and don’ts.
Listening to the story I realised it’s not Gandhi who is a cliché but that we have mothballed him, reduced him to a dull glossary. I do not think any author has been a match for him. The accounts are too linear, moralistic or written with duller Nehruvian lenses. Read any text of Gandhi and try rewriting it if not reliving it. Gandhi was the greatest experimentalist of his time. His test tube was the body, his site the world. He had the literary power to write the first great confessionals of Indian literature. His autobiography is to Gujarati literature what Rousseau was to French. Few Indians can write candidly about food, sexuality or politics, confessing to the desires.
Gandhi was a scientist and his experiments with truth were literally that. For him every temptation was an attempt to link the ethical with the political. His idea of satyagraha is an extraordinarily kaleidoscopic narrative. The individual as a scientist, as a storyteller, constructs himself out of everyday things — the way you walk, what you eat, your hands and what you make with them, prayer, protest, weaving, even making a pair of shoes, cooking, fasting. It is a grammar of sheer genius and simplicity. He understood the magic of everydayness and the power of the symbolic. Where else would a man pick up a handful of salt and destroy an empire. The confidence behind his tentative words is stunning. Can you see any politician say with confidence, “Western civilisation would be a good idea”. Gandhi had a puckish sense of humour, with the right touch of bite and love. When Mussolini asked him to address his troops, he said, “All of you look healthy to me”. I often dip into the Hind Swaraj, that hurried classic he wrote on board a ship. It was our first great manifesto and needs to be read along with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. Read them not to find fault, but read them for the worlds they are trying to elaborate.
Gandhi turned the freedom movement into a debating club. This man was a host of conversations, quarrels, letters, lectures, silences working out truth along with Tagore, Nehru, Meghnad Saha, J.C. Bose, Jinnah, Madeleine Slade and C.F. Andrews.
Gandhi was no Luddite. When he visited Manchester, machines were lying idle because of the Indian boycott. Looking around at the state of technology, Gandhi observed, “No wonder the Japanese are beating you”.
It is true he constructed impossible hypotheses, but they worked for him. When the Bihar earthquake occurred, he claimed it was a punishment for the sin of untouchability. Nehru called it an unscientific statement, Tagore accused him of confusing the moral and the geological, but Gandhi’s interpretation went further. His was both an ethical and pragmatic universe. He did not want the news of the earthquake to fade with the physical rehabilitation, but to invent a society where moral signs and signals trigger social changes. It is a pity history is reduced to a dry narrative. One needs to revive the storyteller and the philosopher to retell Gandhi, as a life and a craft. In a strange sense Gandhi saw everything as craftsmanship, an act of discipline, an act of prayer. In everything he did, he sought life-giving qualities, so violence was confronted with courage and empathy.
I must admit, this life was not an easy one. He traumatised those close to him, like Kasturba and Harilal. Kasturba rebelled when he asked her to clean the toilets; Harilal found him to be an impossible father and died an alcoholic. Many hated him for the stands he took. When Nathuram Godse assassinated him, many Indians sent money orders to Godse’s family. The extraordinary fact is that Gandhi still thrives between hate and cliché.
Gandhi triggers the experimental in one. I cannot see him as a statue, a monument I salute. I see him as an eccentric neighbour who harasses me and history asking difficult questions. People are attracted to different aspects. Some find fasting impressive, others are intrigued by his idea of the ashram, his sense of the opponent. What fascinates me is his idea of walking, though I admit he had no systematic theory on it.
Walking is more than locomotion. With straight backs we walk. Because of that we are vertebrates. Gandhi wanted us to be ethically vertebrate, not spineless before imperialism and modernity. Walking is ecological. When you walk you greet a universe, you survey it. When you can walk around it, a city becomes livable. It has scale. Walking is a conversation with the neighbourhood, a way of looking at the universe with detachment and tenderness. Satyagraha is a form of walking. You walk up to history and confront it as Gandhi did in the Dandi March. Walking is a form of philosophy, a measure of a man and his competence. Walking is body talk — it is the body relating to the outside, a conversation often pregnant with silences. When you walk, your subconscious often talks to you. It is dream time in a waking life.
The sadness is that Gandhians do not walk the talk. The comment that only two types are left — dentured and indentured — sums up their embalmed status. One needs to relive, experiment like Gandhi, quarrel with him, tell him when you differ, what you like. Only then does he make sense. That’s the only way the young gym enthusiasts preoccupied with their bodies might understand the genius of the non-violent body in pursuit of everyday and eternal truths.
The writer is a social science nomad