Today is the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. And particularly poignant, as the admirers of his assassin are now out in the open at home, and state and individual violence has reached unprecedented levels across the world.
I remember visiting the Yerawada Jail in Pune to discuss a training programme for the Prison Department, when the Jail Superintendent showed us the register from 1922 when Gandhiji was brought there to serve a 6 year sentence. There in a bold copperplate, fading to sepia, were the details of this simple man who would one day move his nation and eventually the world.
The British jailer had meticulously recorded that he was clad in a dhoti and a shirt, carried a pen and a watch, and had 16 rupees and 8 annas (or some such) in his pocket and the distinguishing mark was a mole on his arm. I found this simple litany so moving that it brought tears to my eyes… and for a minute I could actually see his frail form in that very room, standing at that very table having his life inventoried by a stranger.
The cramped cell where Gandhiji was held has now been turned into a memorial with the surrounding yard lovingly cared for by prisoners who are often serving life sentences themselves. I could imagine how uncomfortable this cell would have been as the hot afternoon sun blazed through its bars. And to think that people like Gandhi and Nehru did most of their writing in places like this! There is now a charkha there, to mark the hours Gandhiji spent spinning cotton, while he thought of a million things, perhaps… his own personal style of meditation.
Nehru mourned the passing of the Mahatma with his characteristic eloquence:
“Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.”
And the years have gone by… And to this generation of aspiring Indians, what is Gandhi other than a face on the currency notes, the name of the main street in every Indian town, and a national holiday to mark his birth? His very philosophy is now reduced to a bunch of quotations on the internet, to be incorporated into the speeches of politicians and visiting dignitaries, and almost expunged from Indian textbooks.
But Bapu himself was ever the realist, humble to the last, with no grand dreams of immortality, who actually said:
“There is no such thing as Gandhism, and I do not want to leave any sect after me. I do not claim to have originated any new principle or doctrine. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily life and problems…The opinions I have formed and the conclusions I have arrived at are not final. I may change them tomorrow. I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.”
And therein lies the man’s true greatness..