On the occasion of the 138th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi today, do take a look at any Indian currency note. The first thing you will notice is the picture of Gandhi smiling. Attuned as we are to perceiving this smile as the ‘familiar’ benevolent smile suitable for the Father of our Nation, we tend to miss out on another very important aspect of it: that it is delightfully wicked. In the decades since Gandhi’s identity was solidified as an icon, we may have forgotten the human aspect to the great man. And by human, one doesn’t mean only pointing to his frailties, but also to the inimitable strengths of MK Gandhi who lies beyond the automatic, dutiful prayers we provide him every Gandhi Jayanti or Independence Day. High up on this list of qualities that make Gandhi not an icon, but an Indian idol, is his immense sense of humour and rapier wit. While his soul-bending battles with injustice can never be underplayed, the manner in which he defused critics and churlish adversaries should be a lesson for many of us today who start foaming at our mouths or worse each time we feel slighted.
Imagine how Indians would have reacted to Winston Churchill’s 1931 jibe of Gandhi being a “half-naked fakir” today. Apart from various demands from various corners, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that things could have turned ugly. But replying to a journalist whether he didn’t feel under-dressed to meet the King in his dhoti, Gandhi’s response “The King has enough on for both of us” was the perfect riposte. By keeping his wits as well as his wit about him, Gandhi showed the world what is to be taken seriously and what is to be brushed off with a quick line. One can even say that many of his ‘methods’ whether it was satyagraha, the hunger strike, or spinning the charkha were infused with what would later be called ‘performance art’: Gandhi channelising his actions into the political rather than the aesthetic realms.
In all his iconhood, it would be utterly wasteful not to remember the Mahatma’s greatness as a man. Gandhi was the first Gandhian and, perhaps, the only one. It is time to recover him from the canvas, the stone and the slogan, and see him again as a man who could use the smile as a terrific weapon.