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It’s up to us to go beyond the literal Gandhi and embrace the symbolic one; one whose symbolism can keep changing with time and context, while remaining true to some core characteristics, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2009 21:43 IST

Do you feel that strange mix of pride and sadness every time you watch those hazy, sepia-tinted images of Gandhi leading the Dandi March, in small, hurried steps? For all its triteness, did Richard Attenborough’s movie make you cry with a sorrow you didn’t know you felt? When the photograph of a thin man wearing nothing but a loin-cloth — and sitting in quiet equanimity by his spinning wheel — became the centrepiece of an advertising campaign by Apple, did you feel a thrill at how “cool” Gandhi was for the rest of the world? And what about when Barack Obama invoked Gandhi and asked millions of Americans to “be the change”? Did you bask in the great man’s reflected glory and feel the confidence that comes from being shaped by a powerful political history?

We may no longer wear khadi as a badge of honour and we may believe that several Gandhian principles are now officially archaic, but there isn’t an Indian I know who doesn’t instinctively, and perhaps unthinkingly, embrace Gandhi as our greatest national icon.

How then, did we reach the pathetic point where saving his personal belongings from going under the hammer in New York acquired the suspense and intrigue of a racy, but lowbrow airport thriller? Isn’t it ironic that a legend of austerity (notwithstanding Sarojini Naidu’s quip on how it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty) was eventually saved by the muscle of new money?

No doubt, the purists will point out the more humourous contradiction: the legacy of a man who foreswore sexual relations early on in his life has been salvaged by someone who, among other things, created the hyper-sexual Kingfisher calendar of pin-up girls in little clothes. But frankly, the rest of us are actually grateful that Vijay Mallya saved the day. Especially since the government refused to be a direct bidder and prudishly warned against “commercialisation” being an insult to Gandhi’s memory. It’s quite apparent that Mallya’s bid had sarkari sanction. And no one will be surprised if he soon donates all the belongings to the Indian State. If ever there was a perfect marriage of New and Old India, here is one. But now that we finally have the happy ending, can we stop to consider how the story went so wrong?

I would argue that we only have ourselves to blame. As Indians, we have a fatal flaw. We are high on sentiment and low on substance. So, we love Gandhi in the same way we admire the Indian soldier. We are loyalists as long as we have to commit nothing of ourselves. We like the idea in abstraction, but couldn’t be bothered with its intricacies in our everyday lives. Then, of course, we suffer from that other congenitally desi trait of only valuing something when the rest of the world wants it. We needed California, for example, to make yoga cool for the rest of us. And pathetic though it is, international validation of Gandhi makes us feel prouder of him than we would have felt otherwise. So when Time magazine nominates him as the person of the century we boastfully celebrate him. When we discover that his cult wire-frame glasses may be sold off to a moneybag who may not be Indian, we suddenly rediscover our nationalism. But for the rest of the year, we couldn’t be bothered to even pause and think about him.

Part of the problem is also how boring we’ve managed to make our history, by reducing remembrance to national holidays, dry days and postage stamps. We teach Gandhi to our children in literal and dull textbook homilies. We have failed to contemporarise his politics. It took a Munnabhai to make Gandhi briefly fashionable again. But for the most part, we keep Gandhi confined to museums and tomes, and we forbid modern, dynamic interpretations of what he could stand for today.

So, if you pitch the literal philosophy of Gandhi, the ascetic, and wrap him up in clichés of simple living and high thinking, chances are you will find few modern followers. But if you grab the essential core of what he represented — the power of one — he would still count as this century’s greatest revolutionary. When Steve Jobs used Gandhi as a model for the Mac, he didn’t worry that at a point in history, Gandhi was probably regarded as anti-technology. The guys at Apple understood that history is not static, and over time, what Gandhi stood for, above all else, was the ability to think out of the box. Hence their tag line for the advertisement campaign — ‘Think Different’.

It’s we who are trapped in a culture of puritanical tributes. We have missed the inspirational force of the symbolic Gandhi. We have failed to build even on those ideas that have survived time. For instance, Gandhi’s view of India was essentially religious, and yet secular. He tried to write a single narrative from multiple faiths, but never believed in the surrender of religion. After the relative failure of a preachy and sanitised school of secularism, many today are returning to the same worldview for contemporary India. His politics of non-violence continue to find resonance even in a world plagued by terrorism and strife.

It’s up to us to go beyond the literal Gandhi and embrace the symbolic one; one whose symbolism can keep changing with time and context, while remaining true to some core characteristics. And can we stop being so darned politically correct? I have no problem if it takes a beer baron to save the legacy of Gandhi, as long as it keeps him alive as a pin-up man of sorts. Because-if Gandhi fades into oblivion, it will be the failure of our collective imagination.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV