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Grouses against Gandhi and why I still admire him

Bapu Gandhi's birth anniversary was celebrated as it always has been since he was murdered, by performance of a charade we have got accustomed to seeing on our TV sets and newspapers: netas going to his samadhi in Rajghat, laying wreaths, sitting on the ground for a short while, listening to the chanting of his favourite hymns — and returning home. Khushwant Singh writes.

columns Updated: Oct 10, 2010 00:21 IST
Khushwant Singh

Bapu Gandhi's birth anniversary was celebrated as it always has been since he was murdered, by performance of a charade we have got accustomed to seeing on our TV sets and newspapers: netas going to his samadhi in Rajghat, laying wreaths, sitting on the ground for a short while, listening to the chanting of his favourite hymns — and returning home.

It has become a ritual that must be performed on his birth and death anniversaries. Few people want to ponder over the question whether or not we have even tried to follow the path he showed us.

I too call myself a Gandhian and feel very self-righteous. I have no doubt that if I had turned up in his ashram and sought permission to stay for a few days, he would have turned down my request and ordered me to get out immediately. He believed in God. I do not. He was a strict vegetarian and spent his spare time in London studying law to become a barrister, propagating vegetarianism. I was, and am, a meat-eater. I believe vegetarianism is against the order of nature because besides herbivores, all animals, birds, reptiles and fish live off eating each other.

He imposed prohibition on us and had it included in our Constitution. It flopped as it has in any country where rulers tried to prevent people from drinking liquor. I believe drinking in moderation is good for you; getting drunk is reprehensible.

I have other grouses against Bapu. He treated his wife Kasturba very shabbily and was indifferent towards his sons.

He had other negative qualities, which are too embarrassing to relate. Then why do I admire him and claim to be a Gandhian? Three reasons: Bapu Gandhi never told a lie. Bapu did his best to avoid hurting anyone. Bapu staked his life to uphold principles he believed in and invariably won.

He was the epitome of the person praised in his favourite hymn: Vaishnav jan toh tainey kaheeye, jo peerh paraayee jaaney ray. (I know him as a man of God, who feels another's pain.)

Witness to the Rise of India

If I was asked to draw up a list of the ablest, upright and the most fearless of Indian journalists I had known, I would put the name of George Verghese amongst the top three. After getting his tripos from Cambridge University, he joined The Times of India and went on to edit The Hindustan Times.

He got the Magsaysay Award for excellence in Journalism. He is now in his 80s but continues to write for many national dailies.

I got to know Verghese through his wife who I met at a UNESCO conference in Florence over 60 years ago. I was with the Indian delegation; she a student learning Italian. We hired her to communicate with locals. She was a very pretty Punjabi girl named Jamila Barkatullah. The Pakistani delegates were envious of our having a Muslim beauty with us. In fact she was not Muslim but Christian. She was the daughter of Padre Barkatullah, a Protestant cleric. I do not know how and when she met George. He was Syrian Christian, she a Protestant. They made a very happy couple.

Once they invited my wife and me to a Christmas Eve party. We accepted eagerly as good liquor was then very pricey. There was no liquor because Jamila had imposed prohibition at home. We swore never to accept the Vergheses' hospitality again; since then they have relaxed their rules and serve wine.

Ask any of their friends what they make of George and most of them will reply: Good man; also a bit of a bore. I am inclined to agree. At one debate I heard him speak. He went on and on in a flat monotone till some of the audience dozed off.

However, none of his tendency to be long-winded is evident in his 578-page autobiography: First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India (Tranquebar). People he writes about, be they presidents, prime ministers, industrialists or common folk came alive, and the reader does as the title maintains: witness to the making of modern India.

My Apology
As I grow older my hands get unsteadier and my vision more flawed. I cannot read my own handwriting. My pen-friends complain that they have to use magnifying glasses to make out what I have written. The principal victim of my unreadable scrawl is my secretary and steno-typist. Even he failed to decipher a word I had written. This happened a couple of weeks ago when I wrote on the menace of spiralling madness of religious fanaticism. A mad Christian Pastor threatened to burn copies of the Koran. Before he could do so, the Muslim world was on fire. A church was burnt in Malerkotla, which is in India's Punjab. In my column instead of Malerkotla it appeared as Makka. Everyone in the world knows that there never was a church in Makka — even non-Muslims are not allowed anywhere near Muslim holy cities like Makka and Madina.
I rang up the Editor to lodge a strong protest. He sent for the text of my article and told me the mistake was made at my end.

Apparently, neither the sub-editor in-charge of overseeing my column nor the proofreader realised that this was erroneous. I tender a humble apology to my readers.

At an earlier occasion I had written a critical piece on Dr Zakir Naik. The proof-reader had changed the spelling of the learned theologian's first name substituting 'H' for 'K' to read Dr Zahir Naik. So one of his devotees wrote a derisive letter about me saying: "What do you expect from the pen of a man who does not even know how to spell his name!"