I hate to disrupt the cozy comfort of a long weekend. But should Friday really have been a holiday? Why have we reduced the birthday of the country’s most iconic leader — one who continues to emblazon our imagination — to a sarkari farce? Tragically, Gandhi Jayanti is now all about perfunctory rituals, postage-stamp tokenism and the enforced prohibition that has come to be the hallmark of national holidays.
For a man who spun his own khadi, mopped his bathrooms himself and famously declared work to be the best form of worship, it sure is strange to honour his legacy with yet another lazy holiday. And if you really want to enforce something, why not, make it a day for mandatory civic duty? Let people get out and pick up the ice-cream wrappers flung about on the lawns of India Gate. Or let them get hold of a broom and wash down the drains behind their homes. Or, even just plant a tree.
I still remember an image from a few years ago on the Mahatma’s birthday — Rahul Gandhi lugging a mound of mud on his shoulder, walking behind a barefoot woman in a pink ghagra, chipping in with daily wagers at a construction site. I thought that single image captured the essence of what Gandhi stood for better than countless anniversary rituals at Rajghat. Despite his critics saying it was a slick photo opportunity, as messages go, it was in my view, the right one to send.
Our failure to commemorate Gandhi in a meaningful way has much to do with hypocrisy and literalism. We have drowned the Gandhi legacy in bucketfuls of political correctness and scrubbed away its colour, its robustness and its brilliant potential for contemporariness. We also get sidetracked by too many meaningless arguments over who can claim Gandhi and in what fashion. So — when Mont Blanc comes out with pens crafted in white gold to commemorate him — we huff and puff in faux outrage. How can a luxury company peddle Gandhi for profit, we proclaim. We act all shocked because he stood for austerity after all and now there are billboards of him promoting a pen that costs Rs. 11 lakh a pop. But isn’t this anger a whole lot of humbug?
After all when Apple used Gandhi’s image for its ‘Think Different’ campaign, didn’t we feel a sneaking pride at the global resonance of an Indian leader. Or if you logged onto Google in the last 24 hours and saw Gandhi’s face woven into the search engine’s typography, didn’t you feel a sort of quiet pride at being Indian? I’m sure neither Apple nor Google were being altruistic when they used Brand Gandhi. Business agendas would have been woven into their plans as well. But, because their products sound more respectable than, let’s say, an overpriced pen, we work ourselves into a lather over the latter.
Frankly, this is probably our own middle-class guilt at the lives we lead, than anything else. To apply Gandhian values so literally, divorced from the context they once existed in, is to limit our understanding of the man and his essence. I would never bother buying the Mont Blanc pen, but as I see it, if the advertising campaign around the ‘Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition-241’ helps publicise the 241 miles of the Salt March that Gandhi and his followers did on foot, I think, it’s no harm done at all. Yes, it is the dichotomy of India that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and a luxury edition pen both seek to be christened after the Mahatma. But, well, that’s India, and Gandhi is an idea that no one can put an ownership tag on.
You only have to consider the irony that it was a beer baron who brought Gandhi’s belongings back home to underline how complicated it is to straitjacket what can be called ‘Gandhian’ today. It was Vijay Mallya who made the winning bid in New York and spent almost $2 million to claim many of Gandhi’s personal belongings, including his iconic round-rimmed glasses. Interpreted literally, ‘Kingfisher’ may seem incompatible, even antithetical to what goes by the cliché called ‘Gandhian values’. But, if it takes an unabashedly ostentatious business czar to bring back Gandhi’s belongings to India, I’m all for it.
I think too often we forget that Mahatma Gandhi was both himself and a symbol of something larger. And in his case, it’s that symbolism that is dynamic, and, therefore, eternal. So, when Gandhi-baiters wonder whether he would be relevant today, they should instead ask a different question. Would Gandhi in 2009 been the same as he was in 1939? Or would he have created a different syntax for the times? The reason that Gandhi remains a universal inspiration is because he stood for the ‘power of one’. He showed what a solitary individual could do to create mass mobilisation. He was like the Pied Piper of politics leading a country to self-discovery and strength.
As long as we remember and honour that, it doesn’t matter whether auction houses or business barons want one piece of the Gandhi pie. Remember, ‘Munnabhai’ may have done more to make Gandhi trendy than a million earnest tomes. And next time you get all weepy when you see Attenborough’s tear-jerker on him (I cry without exception every time I watch it) tell yourself that on the next Gandhi Jayanti, you will go out and make a small difference to the world we live in. That would be the best possible tribute.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal