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Gandhi, between hate & cliche

Shiv Visvanathan | 03rd Oct 2013

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 God-se 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

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2
MVM's picture
by MVM (not verified) on
IT WOULD BE BETTER IF HE IS CALLED "MKG" THAN GANDHI FOR THERE ARE A FEW FLOATING AROUND WITH THAT SURNAME AND MISLEAD THE PEOPLE!
PSL's picture
by PSL (not verified) on
Fantastic Article....Kudos To The Writer Who Analysed Mahatma In Such A Pragmatic Manner!

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