Bapu is a superman, frankly a superman, however human he is.
Gandhi's personal secretary Mahadev Desai, to his friend Hermann Kallenbach, in a 1942 letter.
It is a balmy afternoon in Mumbai. Medha Patkar, in a red cotton sari, is sitting on a dharna. Her hair has been smoothened with jasmine oil, the whiff is unmistakable each time she moves. On the backdrop of the stage are two pictures—B.R. Ambedkar staring and Mahatma Gandhi smiling.
The crowd, mostly women, is demanding right to own land. Some are on a fast. Others raise slogans and sing songs. The Gandhi stamp is palpable all over, even without his face being on the campaign poster.
For Patkar, one of the most prominent faces of the nonviolent struggle in independent India, there is no question about it. “Gandhi is more relevant today,'' she smiles. “The state itself is violent, society is violent. There is growing corporatisation. The people's power needs to be asserted.”
Sitting next to her is Nirmala. Dressed in a bright yellow sari, she is raising slogans. The smiling woman has been on a fast for two days. Her children, too, are at the venue; she does not have a place to leave them.
Nirmala is the sort of protester whose face would not get flashed on news channels. She lives in a slum, is uneducated, and is seeking her right to own a home. For the maximum city—with its beautiful forevers—this right is an aspect that has only literary merit.
Ask her if Gandhi matters today, and, slightly startled, but as if stating the obvious, she asks: “He was for equality, right?”
Superman is alive and kicking. Seventy-one years after the Quit India movement which began at this same Azad Maidan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's legacy still exists. For the poorest of the poor, Gandhi is far from forgotten. He is real.
But beyond the brown maidan, across the street, Gandhi is like Nirmala. An important cause without many takers. It requires far too much sacrifice. And like the urban poor, he is visible, but no one really sees him.
Gandhi remains largely just that—a cardboard figure of the man he once was. Anna Hazare illustrated this fact best. A man in a white kurta, talking about satyagraha and spinning a charka, can suddenly be embraced as the new Gandhi.
“It is because of the way history is taught,'' says historian Mushirul Hasan. “It is the way he has been interpreted by his admirers and detractors. They have created these impressions about him. If you look at Nehru, you can say he was secular, he was socialist, he believed in democracy. Gandhi cannot be slotted. It is a reflection of our laziness that prevents us from engaging with him.”
Gandhi was no saint. Far from it. He spent his life conquering his desires. Whether it was taste for food or flesh. He could, however, have been a superman. He even had a costume. He also had a super-ability moral force of truth—which was much more powerful than the caped crusader's flying powers. And Gandhi did what even Superman could not. Be the change he wanted to see.
That is perhaps, the biggest problem with Gandhi. The four-letter G-word associated with him. The title of Gurcharan Das's book perhaps sums it up: The Difficulty of Being Good. As Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes in A Certain Age: “...Gandhi came for free, yet at a price. A high one at that, in terms of the altered behaviour he demanded from individuals, organisations and society....”
Gandhi, with his exacting standards of self, is a misfit today. Things that he stood for have been diluted. Khadi has become corporate and designer. FDI is in. And minimalism is now a home décor choice. Market is the ideal, as Patkar puts it.
Gandhi is then, at best, “inconvenient'' and “we have wanted him immobile'', writes Gopalkrishna. “Not striding, not talking, not questioning, not challenging.... Whereas what we need is not, perhaps, the Mahatma at all but the real-life Gandhi who could be galvanic, angry in his love, loving in his anger, hustling and jostling us... doing something where so much needs to be done.''
Gandhi remains locked up on currency and postage stamps. He has been preserved. Gandhi is sacred, fragile and the dreaded D-word around him doesn't exist—debate. Even on the internet. “I had put up a link to an article, which said Gandhi ate during fasts, on Facebook,'' says Mannan Batra, a Class XII student. “I did not know whether the source was credible. But I remember writing that Bhagat Singh's fast for over 52 days was well-documented.”
This made Batra's history teacher upset. “It is not that I think Bhagat Singh was greater, or that I don't think Gandhi was great,” clarifies Batra. “But we should at least be allowed to debate about him.”
If at all there is a debate, Gandhi is either god, or the man responsible for Partition. For a man who was part of an argument for half a century and was calm while facing dissent, this lack of conversation has done what Nathuram Godse intended—silencing him forever. That to a man who experimented with truth quite openly.
In essays written by his grandsons, one can get a glimpse of real Gandhi. For instance, Gandhi did resort to violence a few times. He himself wrote about an incident in 1903: “Miss Schlesin in her folly started smoking a cigarette in my presence. I slapped her and threw away the cigarette. For the first time she cried before me....”
Similarly, the all-encompassing lover had his share of hatreds. Gandhi called cars the devil's creation and often urged his friend Hermann Kallenbach to give them up. Planes and trains, too, drew his derision.
His letters to Kallenbach—on yellowing paper, scrawled with pencil sometimes—throw light on his marital life, his fears, his hopes and his vulnerability. The human side.
Close to the heart of Nagpur in Wardha town is the Sevagram Ashram where Gandhi spent 10 years. Anyone on a seeking-the-Mahatma trip will usually wind up here. It still upholds Gandhian ways.
M.M. Gadkari, president of the ashram, recalls his only “darshan'' of Gandhi when he 12. “He was the same as us. But he went from the ordinary to the extraordinary. I am still trying hard.”
Gandhi is a superman here because he was human. It is a difficult lesson to remember, forget practise. Not even within a place like the ashram. The youngest lot here are around 40. “Gandhi often spoke about the poorest of poor,” says Gadkari. “You have to work for people below you to move ahead. You have to curb your wants. We can all survive with three pairs of clothes. Any more will be like stealing. But it is difficult to live like that. I can manage, but my son cannot.”
It is not just a case of loss of public memory. Neither is it because of the way history is taught. It boils down to something deeper. “I used to teach in an upper middle-class school in Delhi,” says Nidhi Gaur, a young Ph.D student from Delhi University, who is studying girl children in rural India. “I was teaching the kids drawing, and there was this boy who made a picture. He wasn't happy with it, so he tore it. I was shocked.”
Nidhi says she could understand if he had torn up someone else's work. “How can you not value your own creation? You can improve it, build on it. But to throw it away? It speaks volumes.”
In a use-and-throw culture, this seems normal. And what Gaur points out is so ephemeral that it is difficult to grasp. Superman today is just fiction.
Dressed for the occasion
King George V invited Gandhi to the Buckingham Palace for a tea party. While the other guests turned up in their best attire, Gandhi was in his usual wear—dhoti, shawl and sandals. When asked whether he was dressed enough for the royal meeting, he replied with a smile, “The King has on him enough clothes for both of us.”