Aldous Huxley has described the last journey of Mahatma Gandhi in a gun carriage as the irony of the twists and turns that the country had taken and what his role had played in this journey. For the apostle of non-violence to get this kind of ceremonial send-off that is redolent of rituals associated with generals and viceroys with all the trappings of an imperial power was something that could not have escaped the cynical eye of this many faceted fiction writer.
Those ceremonial trappings still persist, and on the anniversary of his birthday there would be the lineup of dignitaries with grim faces at his Samadhi at Raj Ghat, the ritual spinning of the charka by a generation that does know what the wheel looks like and who are decked in polyester yarn. And in the evening the Ram Dhun would be chanted in chorus. For this brief day there would be some time for at least a few people to ponder about this personality who still draws attraction when all the other leaders of that eventful half century have faded away even in their own countries. Stalin’s statues are being removed from the pedestal and even the historic city named after him has reverted to its old name.
Modern China has no place for its ‘great helmsman’ and he is invoked only in pockets of tribal belts in central India and by the bleeding hearts in the high rises of the suburbs. Joseph Brodksy had described Mao as a poet whose ‘reading list was slightly shorter than his hit list.’ Quite in contrast Gandhiji’s reading list was even shorter than his almost non-existent hit list. Like his earthly possessions, the three monkey idols, a pair of spectacles, walking stick and his stopwatch which dangled from his waist, he left little else.
With these meagre possessions and limited vocabulary, how could he hold the attention of the world, and a crafty British empire, at a time when communications were limited and the country had almost turned pauper and the world was passing through world wars, revolutions and famines. The first half of the last century was one of the most traumatic eras of modern history and how did he cope with this as well as one of the most sophisticated and at the same time ruthless empires and finally wear it down?
The paradox of Gandhiji has still not been unraveled despite his own words, letters, and the collected works that had been compiled that run into 98 volumes at the last count. He was also a compulsory letter writer, diarist and journalist as well, and all these are in the public domain. In spite of these if he still is an enigma and a somewhat contentious figure, there must be some mysterious component. He seemed constantly to be shifting his position and keeping everybody, most of all his supporters, on tenterhooks. When he wrote his seminal book, Hind Swaraj, in a furious burst of energy on his ship sailing from England to South Africa, in 1909 many thought of it as his credo, but soon enough, in 1920, he shifted his position and brought in women into the freedom struggle and expanded the scope of the Civil Disobedience Movement.
During the Khilafat movement in the early twenties, he supported the orthodoxy though Kemal Ataturk had brought in a revolution and totally westernised Turkey. He was caught on the wrong foot and it had its repercussions in India. So also soon after that when the Champaran agitation in Bihar turned violent, he suddenly withdrew it leaving the indigo farmers at the mercy of the landlords and the enforcement agencies. He gave a call for temple entry agitation in a southern princely state, though he never visited temples. All these happened in the second decade of the last century. At every step he acted the dissident and he carried civil disobedience credo in letter and spirit.
At the inauguration of Benares Hindu University in 1920 he made a speech, with Madan Mohan Malaviya sitting by his side that was so disapproving of the main backers, most of them rulers of princely states, that one by one they left their jeweled turbans behind and walked out. At the Harihara Congress when the celebrated painter Nandalal Bose of Shanti Niketan volunteered to paint a mural for the dais, he was dismissive of it and said he had no time for such dilettantism. Ten years later he had the same painter’s mural adorning the Congress session.
Even his statements sometimes seem so blasphemous that he would hardly have been spared at any other time or any other place. He attributed the devastating earthquake in Bihar of 1936 as divine retribution for the people there for practising untouchability that too did not evoke any shocked reaction.
Even his disdain for beauty or the aesthetic aspects of human life has something of the harshness of the arid Gujarat region where he came from. At a time when everyone was writing letters, Gandhiji’s trademark scrawls on postcards were no visual delight.
He could be stubborn and his treatment of women in particular was harsh, as
Kasturba’s experiences in South Africa and elsewhere would show. He could equally be severe on his children but that is the case with many other leaders like Tolstoy or Lincoln. He remained silent when the revolutionary Bhagat Singh was condemned to death and hanged which shocked the entire nation. He supported the British war efforts and even encouraged the princely states to send in their soldiers to fight in Al Amien and Verdun.
He scoffed at the British for the developments they had brought about in India like the railways and telegraph and the land surveys they did across the country and the restoration of ancient monuments. He asked them to take away the railways and the land records, but he traveled extensively on these railways and got to know the people even better that way. If his ideal state of the Ram Rajya has been established that would have been a primitive society with none of the trappings of modernity. It would have been a country of primitive villages and pastoral settings and milk maids, though his knowledge of farming was quite rudimentary. So also he was practically innocent of any craftsmanship or weaving, for which his own Gujarat was so famous. In their abject poverty and destitution these people had made their lives and surroundings so artistic, but he was totally blind to all these faceless magic workers.
As far as his spirituality is concerned that too was imbibed from the Sermon on the Mount and his reading of the Bhagavat Gita in an English version that led him to sum up its message as Anasakti Yoga, the discipline of non-possession. This seems a strange interpretation for a discourse that had taken place in the middle of a battle field. Of the diverse interpretations of that text Gandhiji’s was perhaps the most unique.
Despite such glaring contradictions, despite his reactionary and antiquated views how is it that he could catch the imagination of his people for nearly half a century that seems unparalleled. And this at a time when the country had no dearth of spiritual savants, giants like Sri Aurobindo or Ramana Maharishi and every region had its own great spiritual beings. It is equally surprising that Gandhiji never paid a visit to any one of them, though he had the tacit blessings of all of them even when they shunned temporal affairs and were never interested in political matters.
Gandhiji’s mysticism could be explained only tangentially as a crystallizing point when a whole people were lured to this message or a march like that of some magical pied piper. It is as much a tribute to the people as to the bandmaster. When Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, with the muscular Ben Kingsley playing the main role, ran to packed houses in diverse places like Moscow and Rio, it is said people used to come out of the hall almost in tears. When his method of civil disobedience was applied in conflict zones like the Gaza strip and Johannesburg they seemed to work the same kind of magic. There is possibly some chord that he had touched somewhere, that basic human strain that cuts across classes and regions and all other denominations, and that was the web he had woven around.
It would be presumptuous to assume that his relevance would fade away in this digital age or the age of un-reason or of any other modern shibboleths. In some way this alchemist had struck a chord and that is not something that can be explained or rationalized. It is singularly fortunate that he came to play that role in our times and we had all been witness to it in howsoever tangential a way as possible. In these cynical and negative times, he showed us that man need not live by bread alone.