By Arundhati Bhanot
Mahatma Gandhi has come a long way. Amitava Kumar, author, writes in his new book, York: ‘In America, Gandhi’s image appears on huge the words, ‘Think Different’, next to a small rainbow coloured logo of the Apple.’
Salman Rushdie has commented on this phenomenon: ‘Once a half-century ago, this bony man shaped a nation’s struggle for freedom. But that, as they say, is history. Now Gandhi is modelling for Apple.’
We all grew up with distant images of Gandhi flashed at us from our childhood days-photographs of him grinning at us from our text books, the faded portraits in official buildings, the politicization of Gandhi Jayanti, to identifying ourselves with a nation committed to nonviolence. Gandhi has come to personify a ritual that we, as Indians, do not want to dissociate ourselves from.
So, we are not carrying the views of intellectuals and politicians here. We are making an attempt to clarify our own perception of Gandhi, in the voices of people from various sections of the society, trying to understand what he means to us today.
Who is Gandhi?’ I ask Raju at the Gandhi Museum, Delhi. He points to the enlarged photograph of Gandhi in front of him. ‘Who was he, what did he do?’ I persist. He just shakes his head: ‘I don’t know.’
Raju is from Gonda in UP and has come to Delhi in search of work. ‘What made you come to the museum?’ I ask again. ‘We just came by to explore,’ he says.
Pappu is a coolie from Rajasthan. I encounter him at the Nizamuddin railway station pulling a pile of luggage. He has no idea who Gandhi is. He has never heard the name.
Babu Lal is an engine driver with the Indian Railways since 1979. He acknowledges the relevance of Gandhi, but confirms that he has no definite idea about Gandhi’s contribution.’I never thought about it, it never occurred to me.’
Roop Lal is a construction worker from UP, who has just arrived in Delhi for work. Husband, wife, innumerable children, all huddle together at the platform. They have never heard of Mahatma Gandhi, or even Indira or Rajiv Gandhi.
Mohammad Jujun is a rickshaw-puller. He has been in Delhi for the past four years. He says that he can recognize Gandhi from a picture, but does not know what he did for the nation.
There are others like them, people from remote corners of India, so evidently distanced from a sense of belonging to the past, so engulfed by the reality of their present.
Then there is our young generation. Gandhi to them is more of a grandfather than a ‘Father of the Nation’, a figure they associate with history books, to be put aside as soon as the exams are over. Most of them feel that Gandhi needs to walk at a faster pace to keep up with the times and ‘nonviolence’ is now quite redundant.
Kaushik Barua, a student heading for London School of Economics, is more fiery in his views when he says: ‘The last dregs of swadeshi have been removed from our economy post-liberalization. Godhra and its fall-out have ensured that ahimsa lies in tatters. At the global front, our nuclear policy has had a similar impact.’
Another student at the Asian School of Journalism, Chennai, Lada Guruden Singh, questions: ‘Who has the time today when I know Gandhi won’t get a common man his bread?’
Gautam Raj Singh and Amit Ahuja are both students at CITM college in Faridabad.
On being asked to comment on the relevance of Gandhi, Amit replies: ‘In the context of the violence in Godhra and the continuous Indo-Pak dispute, I think the concept of nonviolence is insignificant.’
‘What do you know about Satyagraha?’ I throw another question. ‘We don’t know. It was part of our syllabus in class tenth.’
Gautam pitches in: ‘I think Gandhi is like a lost soul.’
Kanupriya Aggarwal and Indrani Chatterjee are Economics students at JMC in Delhi. I decide to test their knowledge about Gandhi. ‘When did the Quit India movement take place?’
Kanupriya seems lost. Then she looks at her friend for assistance: ’19….1947.’
Indrani retorts: ‘That’s the year we got independence, silly.’ Shahid Anwar, a six-year-old boy, stands next to his father, who sells beautifully embroidered caps in the Nizamuddin area. ‘Has your teacher taught you about Gandhi?’ I ask.
He nods. ‘Do you recognise his face?’ I ask again. He points to the picture of Gandhi in the currency note that I am paying to his father.
Shaarang Bhanot, a student of class three from Delhi Public School, has this to say: ‘He was a bad boy to begin with. Then he became a good boy. He brought back all the money that the foreigners had taken away from us. But he must have been a poor man himself to wear so little clothes, and to look so very thin.’
Yet, for many others, it is a sentimental association, a part of having lived at the heart of the nation, where Gandhi died and attempts to stay alive-in his samadhi, at the Rajghat. For them, remembering Gandhi is their attempt to stand by honesty and goodwill.
Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, reflects: ‘If I have to list the 10 top people, Gandhi would certainly belong there along with Gautama the Buddha. His views are extremely relevant in today’s violent times.’
Ravi B., a consultant with Punj Lloyd, feels: ‘In a world full of conspiracies, ambiguity, falsehood, distrust and religious fanaticism, Gandhi still stands as a lone torchbearer for the values of truth, honesty and integrity.’
Sister Lily is a student at JMC. She stands by and reflects in the backdrop of the Sacred Heart Cathedral: ‘Gandhi wanted peace in the world. He chose the path of satyagraha. Being a Hindu himself, he did not insist on following just Hinduism .’
Bhagat Govardhan Das, an auto-rickshaw driver, has visited Gandhi’s samadhi in Delhi a few times: ‘Mahatama Gandhi was a true lover of the nation. We want to pay tribute to him for his good deeds. Things have changed… money rules. He would not have survived today’s politics.’
Mohammad Sansari is a middle-aged vendor who squats on the pavement to sell cigarettes in the Nizamuddin area. He laughs at the absurdity of questioning Gandhi’s relevance. ‘I know about him from my childhood days. I have great regards for him, who wouldn’t? He got us our freedom.’
Mohammad Shakir, a young enthusiastic dhabha (roadside foodstall) owner, resides in the narrow bylanes that lead to the Nizamuddin dargah. He tries to recall Gandhi: ‘I learnt about him in school. He was a good man, who got us our freedom. He cared for the poor,’ he concludes with a smile.
So we have Gandhi resurfacing again and again, sometimes as a celebrity adorning the walls of government buildings, sometimes as a little-known grandfatherly-figure in school books. Forgotten, revered, admired. While we, the citizens of India, grapple with the myth and reality of the Mahatma.
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