It's the beginning of October and we are in the middle of an unlikely deluge. The monsoon revealed a hidden bag of tricks and unleashed its fury, while, at the same time, it’s been raining Gandhi pieces as far as the media is concerned. My first impression of Mahatma Gandhi was formed, like for many of my generation, through Gandhi the film.
In 1982, the year of its release, I was seven. My father wasn’t a great one for watching the latest blockbusters in theatres; it was one of the few he made an exception for.
Satyagraha for all
We got tickets in black and watched the Hindi dubbed version from the front row, heads arching back like at a dentist’s. There was a stampede of sorts at the cinema in the old part of Allahabad. Clearly Gandhi, the figure, was a favourite both with the masses and the classes.
Portions of the film had been shot in Allahabad; the family barber had been drafted in by the film unit to give haircuts to some characters. It’s a story he didn’t stop telling till he died. The film had a reel-to-real impact. The first lesson my schoolmate and I learnt was satyagraha or civil disobedience. A couple of years after seeing the film (and having watched the repeat telecast on Doordarshan), we applied it in the classroom against the monitor. He’d call us to the front of the class and rap our palms with a ruler for talking in class.
Gandhi remains an eternal symbol of free speech in a country that never took free speech seriously. (Photo: Reuters)
My friend and I decided to keep the conversation going when we went back to our seats, only to prove the point that we were not scared of violence. He’d call us again and hit us harder. But we were not going to fall. We would take the blows on our heads from the British but not yield. The desired effect was achieved. The monitor was almost in tears; it was he who was saved by the bell. Other Gandhian lessons were learnt from my mother: Doing things with one’s own hands, a stylish simplicity of dressing, the love of handicrafts from used materials, vegetarianism, not hurting a fly. I stole a lemon from a vegetable push cart and promptly announced it to my mother once we were safely back in the house. She didn’t hit me or scold me, but made me return it to the veggie seller with an apology.
The lesson I learnt was that when life gives you lemons, you politely say ‘no thank you’ and put it back in the pile. While doing my BA in Philosophy, I was introduced to Gandhi’s writings. Reading Gandhi, the Indian philosopher, was to read an original intellect finding his way through the dense undergrowth of Eastern and Western thought. Like all ambitious minds he often changed his. And then I reached the village India part of his writings and realised that Gandhi, in contemporary 1990s Delhi, would have strongly opposed the growth of pub culture. That I found alarming, immediately shifting my allegiance to Greek philosophy, where drinking was more acceptable and prevalent.
An original thinker
To an undergraduate who loved ‘hanging out’, Scottish philosopher David Hume seemed like a kindred buddy (Gandhi being more like the prohibitive college dean): “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
After college, as a rookie journalist in Delhi, I once found myself at dinner at a friend’s place in a posh part of the city. Here, I was introduced to an entirely different approach to Gandhi. This person, now a well-known TV news anchor, introduced me to his father, who in turn introduced me to a framed photo hanging above the wellladen dining table.
The picture was the front page of a newspaper, the day Gandhi was assassinated. “That day,” the father told me, “Was the happiest day of my life.” He had tears in his eyes as he spoke. This year, when Godse trended on Twitter, my thoughts were with him.
Gandhi might be the ‘Father of the Nation’ but people are apathetic to him. You can say anything about him and no one will file a case against you claiming ‘sentiments were hurt.’
In that way, he remains an eternal symbol of free speech in a country that never took free speech seriously. In the age of the Amazon sales days, let’s not forget the original ‘great Indian sale’: The discounts that Khadi Bhandars (KB) start offering from October 2.
My folks were KB bhakts and I spent hours walking around its cool interiors that smelt of starched cotton. When my parents walk into the Allahabad KB, they are greeted with the same warmth, affection and respect that I suppose is accorded to the oldest Gymkhana Club member by the bearers. In school, my parents dressed me in khadi shirts, which caused a stir of sorts. Both children and teachers gathered around and felt the coarse fabric. Everyone else was wearing smooth mill terry cotton; khadi was inferior. After much thought a teacher summed it up for the class: “Learn from this boy and his parents: ‘Simple living and high thinking.’”
(Courtesy of Mail Today)