Imagine a Friday in Juhu, Bombay, in 1945. Mahatma Gandhi is convalescing there in the build-up to Independence. Bapu’s secretary, Sushila Nayar, allowed him merely 40 minutes for an act of mild dissipation: watching a movie. Except, the movie was Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya, based on the epic, starring Shobhana Samarth (actress Kajol’s Nani) as Sita and Prem Adib as Rama. Bapu found it so engrossing that he sat for all of 90 minutes. Since he was on maun vrat that day, he did not speak when he left but merely patted Vijay Bhatt approvingly on the back. They went back some years, these two, for when Bhatt had first gone and introduced himself to Bapu as a film maker, Bapu came up with the idea that he should make a bi-lingual film on the Gujarati saint-poet Narsi Mehta. Unsurprising, since Bapu’s favourite bhajan, ‘Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye jo peeda paraye jaane re’ was by Narsi Mehta. Its opening line roughly translates as, “They are the Lord’s people who understand another’s grief.”
Bhatt had done as Bapu suggested, signing none other than Vishnupant Pagnis (the Tukaram star of Prabhat Pictures) to play the saint and Durga Khote to play the saint’s wife. Besides the pat on the back, Bhatt was exalted for another reason that Friday night: Ram Rajya was the first (and only) movie ever seen by Bapu.
The next morning it was all over the Saturday papers and the nation was charmed to read of it. It became one more tid-bit to enter Indian folklore and eventually got formalised into a quizzard’s staple, just as ‘Mysore’ was the answer to “Which former Indian princely state did Mahatma Gandhi commend as an ideally ruled kingdom with the phrase ‘Ram Rajya’?”
In the course of his deeply expressive life, Bapu frequently alluded to the Ramayana: “My memory revives the scenes of my childhood, when I used daily to visit the Ramji Mandir adjacent to my ancestral home. My Rama then resided there. He saved me from many fears and sins. It was no superstition for me. The custodian of the idol may have been a bad man. I know nothing against him. Misdeeds might have gone on in the temple. Again, I know nothing of them.”
Of course, Bapu fought a long, stubborn fight against social malpractices. But he also taught that the misuse of religion is man’s crime, not God’s. He figured out how to keep the faith while rejecting the unfair and cruel things done its name: “My Rama, the Rama of our prayers, is not the historical Rama, the son of Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn, the one without a second. Him alone I worship. His aid alone I seek and so should you. He belongs equally to all.”
Practical as ever, Bapu explained the benefit of his faith: “Ram Naam cannot perform the miracle of restoring to you a lost limb. But it can perform the still greater miracle of helping you to enjoy an ineffable peace in spite of the loss while you live, and so rob death of its sting and the grave of its victory at journey's end.”
As for the debate between Nirgun (Formless God) and Sagun (God personalised as a deity), he resolved that too with this simple but profound logic: “Though my reason and heart long ago realised the highest attribute and name of God as Truth, I recognise Truth by the name of Rama. In the darkest hour of my trial, that one name has saved me and is still saving me. It may be the association of childhood, it may be the fascination that Tulsidas has wrought on me.”
And so we answer the civilisational puzzle: how did we, the people who invented the greatest abstraction of all, the zero (called sifar by the Arabs and so, cipher by the West), how did we of all people, retain our attachment to deities, knowing what we know? As Bapu said, it was the fascination wrought on us by our saint-poets, their precious, beautiful words that went straight to the Indian heart, mingled with its deepest core and refused over thousands and thousands of years to be dislodged.
An ancient Indian wrote a poem translated from the Tamil by the late AK Ramanujan as What He Said: What could my mother be to yours? What kin is my father to yours anyway? And how did you and I meet ever? But in love our hearts are as red earth and pouring rain: mingled beyond parting. (Cembulappeyaniraar, Kuruntokai 40). That is our relationship with the Ramayana.