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Gandhi, my teacher

Narayanbhai Desai, the son of the Mahatma's secretary, has spent one-third of his life with the great man - and the rest, with his teachings. Ruchira Hoon writes.

india Updated: Dec 12, 2010 00:24 IST
Ruchira Hoon

At 86, freedom fighter Narayanbhai Desai has found a new zest for life. As a Gandhian and a teacher who spent over three years writing Maru Jeevan Ej Mari Vani, a four-volume book that is considered a landmark biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Desai is now spreading Bapu's teaching through the medium of storytelling, or Gandhi-katha - a five-day recitation of Bapu's life through music and anecdotes.

"I spent one third of my life with Bapu and the rest of my life, living according to his teachings," says Desai, who was brought up at Gandhiji's Ashram at Sabarmati and Sevagram.

As the son of Bapu's secretary, Mahadev Desai, he began communicating with Gandhiji even before he could read and write.

"My teacher at the Ashram encouraged us to ask questions to Gandhiji while he was in jail. We'd dictate our questions to him and then wait for the answers."

By the time he was 11, Desai knew that he could not go through a formal education system. He spoke to his father who advised him to write to Bapu about his decision to quit school.

"And the reply was perhaps the shortest letter that Bapu had ever written in his entire life. All it said was 'shabash' (well done). I knew I was doing the right thing." Bapu then took it upon himself to teach the young Desai further.

"It was then that I became the personal assistant to the personal secretary to Gandhiji," he says with a toothy smile.

"I learnt to type, would post dispatches to publications, make pins with babool ke kante and listen to the debates between all the people who came to meet Bapu. Only, I was most stubborn about the material that was being sent out or received by my father, and demanded it be explained to me. That was my education."

In fact in 1942, seven years after Desai's informal education had begun, his father asked Desai to write a speech for Gandhiji.

"Nearly 70 per cent of the original speech had been retained."

And it was the same year that Desai doubled his commitment to the cause of freedom.

"My father passed away on August 15, 1942, a week after he was imprisoned along with Gandhiji in the Quit India Movement. He was my friend and mentor and I felt that I needed to be completely involved in the cause that cost him his life."

And then he found his father's diaries.

"It's these diaries that are my prime source of material for both the biography and the katha."

According to Desai, the diaries contain almost a minute-to-minute detail about Gandhi's days during the freedom struggle. "And everytime I go back to it I find something new in it."

Gandhi for the aam aadmi
Apart from working with Gandhiji till 1946, Desai has worked as a teacher in a Gandhian School and even taught in a tribal village in Gujarat. He had also been an active part of the Shanti Sena and Bhoodan Movement in 1952.

"I was a part of the World Peace brigade and have been trying to spread the message of peace and non-violence."

So how did the Gandhi-katha come into being? In 2002, after the riots in Gujarat, Desai felt he needed to do something to show the reparative acts of creative non-violence after the violence. Earlier that year, Desai had just finished writing the four-volume biography on Bapu and then realised its enormity.

"I want the common man to know Gandhi's story and felt that the book may not be accessible to all."

Which is when he remembered Ram-katha, a traditional form of story-telling that tell the tales from the Ramayana in local dialects, and felt he could do the same with Gandhiji's story.

"Sometimes people can't relate to books but a good story is always heard with interest," he says.

"And if a story is 'real', it is also a lot more intriguing."

He turned this ancient art of story-telling by making it contemporary, peppering it with anecdotes from his childhood.

"It was as if the teacher in me had woken up when I decided on the Gandhi-katha in 2004."

Desai even wrote the lyrics to most of the songs, which give the katha a present-day feel.

Currently the vice chancellor at the Gandhi Vidyapeeth in Vedacchi, Gujarat, Desai has been busy travelling with the Gandhi-katha all over the world. Apart from visits to the US, UK and Thailand, in the last six years, he has taken the Gandhi-katha all over India, especially the villages.

Now, Desai's aim is to tell Gandhi's story at least a 108 times. So far, the count is 88. "And now it's only a matter of time that I will be able to complete my life's mission."