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Reading Gandhi’s Autobiography Changed My Long-Standing Dislike For Him

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By Sinjini Sengupta:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He had some rather legendary stories to go after him, as to how he was pulled out and thrown away at railway stations while he tried to travel first class, or as to how he had picked up a broomstick and cleaned public latrines while not being asked to do so.

It is said that he stood against bloodshed and armed encounters, which – frankly speaking – must have been quite boring in the age where people were fighting for the freedom of their motherland.

To go with it, he looked very ordinary himself, pale and weak, underdressed to the point of embarrassment, and – take that – leaning on a stick to walk.

When India was gorging on martyrs who’d shout slogans and fire guns, this man, on the contrary, was busy seeking appointment dates so that he could try to “talk” stakeholders into a peaceful solution.

While thousands of lives were being handed out in confrontational encounters and fierce rounds of bomb blasts, this old man was spending most of his time trying to weave clothes from spins long lost and excavated from history, and then, he gathered people and walked all the way to the sea to make salt from its saline water to protest against British tax laws.

Examples are aplenty, of course, and worse, they’re no news, and I’d surely risk misinformation if I try to play them much, over here.

But the question is, or was, is how we’ve learned to see him.

Let me get personal here. While you cannot deny that his impact and influence had shaped the freedom movement in this country to a large extent, I had always wondered what was it about him, really.

In fact, claiming to just wonder would be a misleading expression. For any political history oriented teacup storm session – I’m foremost a Bengal born “Long live revolution”– loving, wrongly timed teen who’d swear upon how she’d die only if she were to be born in those times than now.

Like my fellow Bengali family, friends and neighbours, I had grown up with a strong taste for hero worship in which Subhash Chandra Bose remained the black sheep, and Gandhi, therefore, the Amrish Puri as the Father in the story.

I cannot deny that I’ve often nodded and seconded when they commonly remarked about India getting its freedom a tad too early to be able to handle it well, sighing with a “look at now” at the socio-eco-political mess that we’ve landed up in.

I’ve agreed to wonder if we did not need some more growing up before we were ready for the power and the responsibility. But even then, I still could not imagine changing sides between Bose and Gandhi, denouncing the bloodshed and martyr deaths that went behind it and voicing it for doing it the right way, with the right intent, for the right approach.

I had even argued, as a teen, how I saw a point in what Godse did, because – “It’s not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” I agreed with his sense of knowing what is best for Rome.

I had thus grown up to disqualify Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as my hero. Though dismiss I couldn’t, for he was after all the Father of the Nation.

And, I was foolish. Simple!

I had never cared enough to pick up this man’s autobiographical book – though it lay on my book shelf for ages – until a week or so back. And how could I? Had I not been born with my stance about him decided for me? Well, philosophy and “Gandhigiri” are other things, and for another day – you see! I mean, I liked the Munnabhai movie which based itself on the Gandhigiri aka Chaitanya Dev philosophy aka Christ’s original perhaps about lending your other cheek forward, but I did not let that passing impulse take a take on my pre-determined opinion of the man himself.

While the Gandhigiri philosophy sounds okay alright, that time was to throw yourself open and out, to die or to kill. That time was to lose your sanity, and yourself with it – I maintained. I meant frost and fire!

Until, much lately!

And again, let’s get personal. So, here’s a bit of background –

I had been trying to explore and understand the many postulates of alternative religious philosophies for a while now, and after reading some rather mind-blowing comparative studies on Buddhist and Christian beliefs and weighing them up against select chapters from Bhagwad Gita, I decided to take an alternate route to grow a better perspective of ancient Hindu practices.

So I picked up my next book to read about ancient Yogis of India. Now, as it happens (and book-readers may agree with me here) you never know the next book you’ll read until you’ve finished the last page of the one you hold in your hands. I followed the trail and let one book lead to another; and at one point, I found myself deeply stirred by the accounts of interactive exchanges between the Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Paramhansa Yogananda. I refer particularly to the chapter in which it talks about the time the latter imparted upon the former the training of “Kriya Yoga”.

Let’s be honest here. Despite the nudges off and on, I had until recently not quite thought of this “freedom” man from this deeply spiritual angle at all.

His name for me rang the bells of sentiments of India’s independence, and that then always evoked history book and Bollywood movie flashes of turmoil and bloodshed; which is to say, I’ve always had the shroud of political theories to think and emergencies of such times to overbear on my perspective when it came to thinking of Gandhi.

And what did I think of him and that together? Well, I was juvenile you see, and so I thought of his political stances of peaceful non-co-operation and attempts at conciliations as an impractical, impossible route to the question of India’s freedom.

Our purpose was, as countrymen back then, must have been simple, and it should have been to get it back – as they say – by “hook or crook”, was it not? Now, why were we wasting time talking philosophies here, and of spirituality, of Ahimsa and Satyagraha movement? Now, if that didn’t come out as a sign of the weak, what would?

Only now did I – almost for the first time – stop to think how he was so right, all throughout. And how, I was so damn stupid, all throughout!

Now I get – even if just an inkling – how he knew so much better than that! How he intended good for the countrymen more than the impending immediate political freedom.

How his only failure, perhaps, was that he wrongly pinned his hopes on us. How he must have thought that they’d understand when he was trying to tell them what was good for them, or for that matter for anyone.

How the means was not the least less important than the ends, and how we got it wrong. Oh, and how we stopped his voice! And how, even after gagging him to death, he has historically stood so misinterpreted all throughout. Oh, and personally – how deeply flawed my understanding has always been, and how misplaced my sentiments!

Having just celebrated India’s 69th independence day, sighing over how everything always went wrong ever since, I find myself wondering: what if this man ever had his chance to finish his job, to do what he had so super-ambitiously set up to do? Where would we be now, if he could lead us to the end with his means? Can we even imagine the potential of a country so rich and so dynamic, had it only learned what he was trying to teach?

And what was that, you ask?

To stick with Truth, foremost. To remain calm, equanimous and practical. To prefer simple over complex, to prefer destinations over dominances. To take people along as it grows, foremost.

To get ready, roots strong, to handle the responsibility of power. To prepare, not just to win the land back but also to be able to handle the victory. To know the right ways to lead a life, and to lead the country thus.

To know the right ways to stand up against wrongs, than to give way to impulse. To stand on our feet, first, before we run to chase. And how! How he knew how important it was to know renunciation as we looked to fetch the kingdom back. How we never listened to him and stopped those who did. How he didn’t fret and kept at it.

I read the book, cover to cover, in two days flat. All I know is, I’ve a different view of what kind of a person I’d have wanted to be, if only I were to be born in those times. How I could still give up my life for a cause, but the cause could be better placed than how I used to think of placing it before. How I feel proud to have known him better now, after all, for my own good.

And to add, not that it matters much to anyone else but me, but now I see why he is the Father of the Nation after all. And how unworthy we have been, the children!

PS: I stay away from the subject of partition in this review as the book doesn’t talk of that.

This article was first published on the author’s personal blog.

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Image Source: Carl Court, Mail Today/Getty Images
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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