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In Memoriam: Gandhi and I

Tracing the relationship from blind admiration to a deeper understanding

brunch Updated: Sep 29, 2018 23:57 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
Gandhi Smriti museum,Gandhi,the Father of the Nation
This is what Gandhi means to me now. A man who showed how simplicity is strength; the personification of compassion and humility(Shutterstock)

Relationships with fathers are difficult. The figures tend to be overpowering or absent; too accomplished or too little. Then there are the fathers that preside not just over a household but large groups of people, or areas of study. Freud is the Father of Psychology. Darwin, the Father of Evolutionary Biology. Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. The larger than life Gandhi, to my young mind, was above censure or criticism. But like my relationship with my own father, I find I keep questioning this one too, with the passage of time and deepening of my understanding of the world around me.

An “unambitious” man

Growing up, Gandhi was a kindly yet distant personage. In my teens, I began to think about what I had studied in textbooks and seen in popular iconography. History was hagiography when it came to figures like Gandhi. It still is, in large part. It was only when I was asked by a friend, working on a project at the Gandhi Smriti museum in Delhi in the mid ‘90s, “What does Gandhi mean to you?” that I gave the subject any real thought. “Here was a country where the trampled masses had every reason to revolt against the colonial powers. Gandhi spoke to their moral centre, appealing to the humanity of those who were treated inhumanly. That is power and moral authority. That is Gandhi, to me.”

Gandhi was of the view that the varna system – which divided Hindus on the basis of ancestral occupations – was sound in itself; caste was its corruption

Twenty years on, I still hold that opinion. In our age of gurus and babas with political aspirations and corporate patronage, there is the pretence of spiritual and social commitment. On the other hand, in Richard Attenborough’s biopic, Gandhi says to the American journalist who calls him an ambitious man, “I hope not.” That captures the difference between the posturing of the holy robes-and-beards of all eras with the frail man spinning his own cloth. Simplicity and self-sufficiency are still the answer. But we seem to have lost sight of the essential questions.

The doctor and the saint

In his Annihilation of Caste, the pragmatic and progressive drafter of the constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, propounds the idea of an equitable society free of the varna system. Gandhi, on the other hand, was of the view that the varna system – which divided Hindus on the basis of ancestral occupations – was sound in itself; caste was its corruption. To many, this is a point of irreconcilable difference with the Mahatma. Arundhati Roy calls her introduction to a 2014 edition of The Annihilation of Caste, ‘The Doctor and the Saint’. (Dalit historians and activists have criticised the upper-caste Roy’s introduction on several grounds, accusing it of lacking contextual nuance.) On caste, I stand with the doctor.

Then there are the problematic experiments with sexual abstinence, which involved the participation of much younger and less powerful women. In our #MeToo moment, these stories are incriminating and indefensible. To this one can add a patronising attitude towards women that often falls into misogyny. On this I am of the firm opinion that even Mahatmas need feminism.

The (un)common touch

It’s not an easy journey from worship to understanding. Along the way, you lose the tinted glasses and pick up critical tools. There are the unread tomes by Ramchandra Guha – India Before Gandhi, Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The years that changed the world (1914-1948) – that promise a deeper knowledge. I was surprisingly touched by the movie Lagey Raho Munnabhai, for all its pandering to a popular and comforting notion of the man. Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of the leader still gives me goosebumps. And every time I read a criticism, it freshlydisturbs me. Through all of this, a deep admiration remains. I do not see him as a saint; he’s Bapu to me rather than Mahatma. A father with historic qualities. A father with human failings. I cannot reject the fact that I owe my identity as an independent Indian in large part to him.

It’s not an easy journey from worship to understanding. Along the way, you lose the tinted glasses and pick up critical tools

A gigantic mural brightens the Churchgate station building in Mumbai. An adaptation of an iconic photograph from the 1940s, it features the elderly Gandhi stepping out of a third-class train compartment, eyes lowered, stick in hand. This is what Gandhi means to me now. A man who showed how simplicity is strength; the personification of compassion and humility. Though I cannot accept all of who Gandhi was, and struggle with his failings, he still embodies some of the ideals that I hold most dear. And I continue to journey with him.

From HT Brunch, September 30, 2018

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First Published: Sep 29, 2018 21:40 IST