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The iconic iconoclast

india Updated: Jun 15, 2007 01:28 IST
Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya Baru
Hindustan Times
The iconic iconoclast

Like millions of Indians, I was brought up to revere Mahatma Gandhi. So I was not prepared for my first encounter with his grandson in a seedy bar in Hyderabad. It was the winter of 1979. I had just joined the faculty of the University of Hyderabad. My colleagues, the historian Gyanendra Pandey and the writer Alok Bhalla, and I walked into the dim-lit Three Castles Bar down the road from the University. Alok found a friend who waved to him. We joined him at the table and ordered our beers.

“Have you met Ramu?” Gyan asked, introducing me to the professor of philosophy. “Bhai, teen beer lao aur Don ka gaana lagao,” shouted Ramu to the bearer. A university don humming Kishore Kumar’s ‘... main hoon Don’? I was amused. Alok whispered into my ear, “He’s Gandhiji’s grandson.” I fell off my chair!

My first conversation with Ramachandra Gandhi, a professor of philosophy, with a doctoral degree from Oxford University, a teacher who had taught in Britain and the United States, at Shantiniketan and in Delhi, author of The Availability of Religious Ideas and Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry, and other books and essays, and, of course, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, on the father’s side and C Rajagopalachari, on the mother’s, was in a bar. So was my last conversation with him, more recently.

In its early days, the Central University of Hyderabad was located in the ancestral home of Sarojini Naidu, the ‘Golden Threshold’, in the middle of Hyderabad’s busy shopping area of Abids. “I am told the Professor of English sits in what was Sarojini Naidu’s bedroom. I sit in her bathroom. That’s where philosophy has been relegated to in our social sciences,” Ramu complained, adding “I wonder which room she wrote her poetry in.”

Three incidents from those university days summed up Ramu Gandhi for me. The first was his response to a curfew imposed in the old city of Hyderabad during university examinations’ time, due to communal violence. The vice-chancellor convened a faculty meeting to decide whether exams should be postponed. Most of us practical-minded fellows agreed, since many of our students could not come to the university. Ramu objected.

“We cannot succumb to the blackmail of communal forces. Let us ask the police to provide escort vehicles so that we can take the question paper to the homes of our students and conduct the examination there.” Only a few dozen students were affected and Ramu felt this was do-able. The University administration vetoed him. He observed a day of silence in protest.

The second anecdote relates to an invitation Ramu received from a Dalit student who wanted him to go to his village, in the Mahboobnagar district of the Telengana region on October 2 and participate in Gandhi Jayanti celebrations. Ramu declined the invitation. He would always play down his lineage. “I am a Gandhi, not a Gandhian,” he would say.

The student complained to me, urging me to persuade Ramu to go. I scolded Ramu, explaining to him that this obviously means a lot to the boy and he must go. “Most of these students go back to their villages to talk about Marx, Mao and Ambedkar. Here is a boy who wants you to talk about Gandhiji. How can you refuse?” I said to him. Ramu relented.

Soon he received several such invitations and he would go and speak. “Most people come to see me, not hear me,” he complained once, “and they try to see if I bear any resemblance to Gandhiji’s statue in their village. I think all these statues must be destroyed as a tribute to Gandhiji. Not just because he opposed the erection of statues, but also because they bear no resemblance to him.”

The third incident was a very Gandhian act that finally resulted in Ramu’s decision to leave the University of Hyderabad. A giant neem tree in the Golden Threshold was marked for chopping to enable the University to build classrooms. Ramu objected. “Why can’t classes be held in the shade of the tree,” he asked an exasperated vice-chancellor. No one in the administration took Ramu’s objection seriously. They regarded him a ‘cranky philosopher’. Ramu opted for satyagraha.

The night before the tree was to be cut, Ramu launched his own chipko movement on campus. Many students joined him and surrounded the tree. As one would expect, the University authorities had Ramu physically removed and then, after a few days, got the tree chopped down during the night when no students were present. Ramu quit the university in protest and moved to Delhi.

I cannot write about Professor Gandhi’s academic work since I am not a student of philosophy. But one book of his that will be read for a long time, and not just by philosophers and Indologists but by all secular-minded Indians, is his slim volume Sita’s Kitchen. It was a philosophical treatise on Hinduism and Buddhism and was a tribute to his gurus, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi, and was dedicated to his students in California. He re-published it with a postscript in response to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri masjid controversy.

Ramu has a telling quote in it from Swami Vivekananda. While praying in a temple in Kashmir, on the very subject of temples being destroyed to build mosques, Vivekananda claimed to have heard the Divine Mother say, “What is it to you, Vivekananda, if the invader breaks my images? Do you protect me, or do I protect you?” The word ‘Ayodhya’, Ramu reminded us, stood for ‘beyond conflict’ and not conflict!

As all the newspaper obituary announcements have mentioned, in recent years Ramu Gandhi had become a permanent fixture at New Delhi’s India International Centre. Some years ago, when I saw my daughter learning about Gandhiji’s life at school, my wife and I drove her to Gandhi Smriti on Tees January Marg, to show her where Gandhiji died. It suddenly occurred to me that she should, in fact, meet Ramu Gandhi. It was around half past six in the evening and I was sure we could catch up with Ramu at the IIC. We drove from Gandhi Smriti to IIC and he was there, seated next to the pillar facing the lawn.

Introducing my daughter, I said to him that if he continues to sit there, some tour operator may well include a visit to the IIC in his itinerary to see the Mahatma’s grandson. He laughed. “I don’t think they’ll believe him,” he said. “On the contrary,” I told him, “you could charge him and get him to pay for your beer.”

My last encounter with Ramu was at the IIC bar several months ago. “How is Manmohan?” he asked. “He is a good man. It is not easy running this country. I am glad you are there for him.”

I never saw him again, except this morning at the crematorium. His family, his two very distinguished brothers, his friends and students and a few regulars at the IIC bar were there to bid him farewell. I spotted the High Commissioner of Pakistan. Not a single political leader from any party was around.

Sanjaya Baru is Media Advisor to the Prime Minister