The irony could not have been stronger.
Ramachandra Guha’s new book Gandhi Before India was being launched at New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. ‘He is a rock-star’, a discriminating person entering the fast-filling hall said to me.
Those who had come pre-punctually were depositing handkerchiefs and bags on seats adjacent to theirs to block them for yet-to-show-up kith. As we settled down, thanking the God of Great Souls and Good Seats, a loud ‘No’, from the row behind rattled everyone.
Turning round I saw a gentleman sitting down with the firmest of firm bottoms on the seat directly behind me. He said the ‘No’ loud enough to be heard across the hall.
Another gentleman, several years his senior, was standing next to him, scandalised. ‘Look,’ he remonstrated, ‘you cannot do this …I am expecting someone…’ The seat-grabber was unmoved, the seat-loser unnerved. ‘You cannot reserve any seat’, the en-seated man declared, his arms now crossed magisterially over his middle. ‘….There are no reserved seats here….I am not moving….’ Young hauteur had scalped old presumption.
Guha’s book describes Gandhi’s self-annihilating interventions for justice in South Africa, and about the fashioning there of the tool of Satyagraha.
He was to speak on the book and actor Naseeruddin Shah was to read from it. And here we had just witnessed the enacting in flesh and blood of what, at first glance, could be called any or all of the following: passive resistance, civil disobedience, non-cooperation, satyagraha or soul-force.
With just this difference that what the seat-grabber had done was neither non-violent, nor passive. It was certainly not civil. It had agraha, certainly, but satya and soul stuff were rather far removed from the proceedings.
And there was ego, bucket-fulls of it. To be sure, the older gentleman had also done something that was bad practice if also standard practice, namely, keeping Guha-fans who are punctual from occupying seats for Guha-fans who are unpunctual.
Much as I tried to whisk off the memory of this rude exchange from my mind, it dominated my thoughts for the rest of the evening. Whose was the greater thoughtlessness, the bigger discourtesy? Who was the wrong-doer, who the wronged? He, who had just appropriated the seat as if by divine right?
Or the one who had upturned that appropriation by exercising, literally, a squatter’s right? Were we seeing here, one right and one wrong, or two rights, or perhaps, two wrongs?
What, I asked myself, would the Mahatma have done in either role? If in the position of the punctual younger man, before plonking himself so self-righteously, Gandhi might have said to the older ‘I am sorry, sir, but it is not fair to block good seats like this…I should not be penalised for being punctual…Your companions should take the seats at the time-of-entry, not you, have earmarked for them’. If in the position of the older man Gandhi might have said to the younger seat-taker ‘I am sorry, sir…I know this is a bit presumptuous on my part…but…I am expecting someone…May I help you to get an equally good seat elsewhere’?
Would either courtesy have worked? And even if it had, would it not have made the polite protagonist seem very weak and lily-livered? In any event, neither the older man who was told he had been greedy, nor the younger one who was told he had been grabby, could have been comfortable through the evening.
Guha is not one to say the obvious or repeat the familiar. And so he did not dwell on the over-narrated ejection of barrister MK Gandhi from his first class seat on the Pietermaritzburg-bound train.
He spoke of his book’s description of Gandhi’s colleagueship with men and women from different strata, varying faith traditions, language backgrounds and distinct political temperaments. He spoke of how Gandhi, before he came back to the India of huge diversities, had learnt in England and then in South Africa to work within the conflicting interests of those diversities, to try to make Indians look beyond themselves, beyond their sectional interests.
We live in times when opportunism, of both the pre-emptive and presumptive kind, reigns. We live in times when the appropriating, misappropriating and re-appropriating of rights and privileges has become a self-destructive cycle of attrition.
Above all, we live in times when adab, that old-world culture of self-restraint and courtesy, even in dealing with a violent adversary, has been flung out of the window.
Guha spoke of some dire dangers faced by Gandhi in South Africa. To many in the audience they were eye-openers. But these pale before the carnage, that took place 50 years later, in Punjab, Delhi and Bengal during the partitioning of India. A couple of days before the launch of Guha’s book, I was at a Sunil Sethi interview of Rajmohan Gandhi on his powerful new book Punjab: From Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Aleph, 2013). Seats outnumbered their real and putative occupants.
There was no real-life echo, thank God, of the partitioning of turf-rights at this Bangalore LitFest venue. And I felt a glimmer of hope for adab on the subcontinent when the audience warmly applauded the author’s statement that more Hindus saved Muslims and more Muslims saved Hindus from certain death in the Punjab in 1947 than murderers from both communities dipped their hands in blood.
We have become, I do not hesitate saying this, a grasping, grabbing people greedy for physical, professional, egoistic space. Politicians head the scramble, of course.
They do so now without even an attempt at disguise. ‘Corruption ? Oh that…’ seems to be the attitude. The attempt to legislate by an ordinance a cover for corrupt politicians in legislative seats was shameless and needed to be stopped.
I do not know if political adab was violated in Rahul Gandhi’s public criticism of ‘his own’ government’s move. But he has served a bigger adab, towards the people of India.
Could Gandhi have said that?
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)
The views expressed by the author are personal