Counting the Gandhi blessings, six decades on

April 1st, 2008 - 10:30 am ICT by admin  

By Minu Jain
Sixty years after he died, Mahatma Gandhi lives on in India. Not just in the many roads and institutions named after him, not just in the many speeches deifying him but in spirit and thought - ever so often forcing introspection as the country of a billion plus people races towards a more prosperous tomorrow. On Jan 31 this year, India marked 60 years since the world’s greatest apostle of peace was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Martyrdom Day, as the day is known, was an occasion to think back and pause before moving on to what lies ahead.

At the sprawling white bungalow in the Indian capital New Delhi where Gandhi walked his last steps before collapsing with a peaceful “Hey Ram” on his lips, forgiving even in death his assassin and remembering god, the mood is sombre and reflective.

And even children at Gandhi Smriti, or Gandhi Memorial, stop in their tracks to look inwards.

“Do I follow Gandhi’s thoughts? Yes and no! I don’t use abusive words against anybody,” says Sheetal Panwar, a Class 8 student. “But, I do lie,” admits her classmate Sajal Jain, shamefacedly, “and I do fight, but not with punches.”

For others, this is where Gandhi, who spearheaded India’s bloodless independence from Britain in 1947, moves out of textbooks to become a real figure who lived - and made a difference.

Inside the two-storey whitewashed building, 54-year-old Hannah Thomsen, a Danish tourist, moves from one wall panel to another, reading quotes from Gandhi.

“I first thought: is this a school?” laughs Thomsen. She and her husband have come to take a look at the place because “like Hans Christian Andersen is identified with Denmark, for us India means Gandhi”.

On the covered walkway beside the extensive lawns, Tia Shuyler and her family read the story of the 1942 Quit India movement.

“I had studied about Gandhi in my school, but it was really in the context of his spirituality, where he is grouped along with Martin Luther King Junior and Mother Teresa,” says Tia, 23, a student of political science from the United States. “I was more interested in learning about his political views.”

During her first visit to this country, Tia has often been asking herself what the Mahatma would think of modern India. “In fact, when I saw the traffic here, I asked my mother what Gandhi would think about it.”

She feels it is time for another Gandhi. “I am very glad that he was in India, but we need somebody like him right now in America.”

As news came in that terrible day, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said over All India Radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere…”

He then went on to say in an unforgettable, moving speech: “The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years later, that light will still be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”

The warmth of that light continues to shine.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still buying his autobiography to get an understanding of the man who went from becoming Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to simply the Mahatma - or the great soul.

“The Story of My Experiments with Truth” continues to sell an incredible 200,000 copies a year.

“Love for Gandhi and his ideology has not faded even 60 years after his death. Every year we sell about 200,000 copies of his autobiography,” says Jitendra Desai, managing trustee of Navajivan Trust, copyright owner of all his works.

“His autobiography was a bestseller, is a bestseller and will be a bestseller in the coming years.”

Given the popularity of the autobiography, it is evident that youth are following Gandhism more than perhaps their elders did.

“Youth are finding Gandhi’s principles more relevant today to combat modern day problems like violence. For instance, thousands of young boys and girls are working with me in spreading the message of peace,” says Nirmala Deshpande, a noted Gandhian and a social activist.

“Terrorism, violence, poverty, epidemics, calamities, environmental issues, consumerism… the list of problems is too long. And the world is craving for a change. We need to change. Gandhiji used to say ‘be the change yourself.’ Let’s listen. Let’s do it,” adds the veteran Gandhian who first met the man when she was only six and has spent the rest of her life propagating Gandhism in India and the world.

“The truth is that we hesitate in utilising Bapu’s ideologies practically, but youth do not,” adds Anil Dutta Mishra, director of the National Gandhi Museum.

He says that India’s film industry had contributed in a big way to revitalising people’s interest in Gandhi.

India keeps memories of Bapu, as he was affectionately referred to, in other ways too.

In the north Indian city of Allahabad, 150 rare black and white photographs are on display chronicling the life of the father of the nation on his 60th death anniversary.

The photographs sourced from archives all over the country are blow-ups. The series begins with the Gandhi as a smiling seven-year-old and ends with Nehru announcing his death atop a public vehicle.

It’s a legacy that endures not just in tangible photographs but in the memories of those who met him.

Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi shares a story. A former state governor, Shriman Narayanji, went to Gandhi in the early 1930s to share his excitement and get his blessings after a doctorate from the London School of Economics. When he reached Gandhi’s ashram, he was told that he would have to first clean the toilets.

“These were not the modern water closets. The ashram toilets were primitive with buckets to collect urine and faeces. The buckets had to be carried into the fields and emptied into holes, washed and replaced for use. It was the meanest kind of work that is responsible for untouchability in India. Gandhiji wanted to teach us the dignity of labour,” Arun Gandhi explains.

When Shrimanji went back the next day, Gandhi said: “You will get my blessings only when you satisfy me that you are capable of cleaning toilets with the same enthusiasm as changing the economy of the country.”

“It is the feeling that those of us who are rich and educated are superior and those who are poor and uneducated are inferior that breeds arrogance in us, instead of the humility that Gandhiji sought to instil,” says Arun Gandhi.

“I am often asked in India and in the United States if Gandhiji’s philosophy can be relevant today. My answer is that a philosophy that is based on respect, understanding, appreciation and compassion has to be relevant at all times,” he adds.

It is a message that Gandhi gave many decades ago. And that is the lodestone the world - and India - still lives by.

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