A Tribute to Narayan Desai (1924-2015)
As the son of Mahadev Desai, the Secretary of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Narayan Desai was brought up in Gandhi’s ashram and continued his work throughout his long life. In his own ashram, the Institute for Total Revolution, he taught nonviolence; wrote a four-volume biography of Gandhi; and at age 81 began reciting the “Gandhi Katha” (stories from Gandhi’s life) around the world. Narayan Desai died in India in March 2015.
Gandhi draws people for different reasons. The stories of his life bring him alive—and no one told these stories better than Narayan Desai. His “Gandhi Katha,” or “Gandhi Story”—told of important events and episodes from Gandhi’s life, interspersed with songs based on the same stories. This form of story-telling is a famous tradition of Gujarat, Gandhi’s homeland. A few examples should suffice.
During his visit to McMaster University as our Gandhi lecturer in 2008, Narayanbhai told of one of his earlier visits to Canada: He said he had been in the back of a taxi being driven to a meeting in an isolated, northern community. He was conversing with the taxi driver about his younger days at the ashram and how Gandhi used to put his hand on Narayanbhai’s shoulder. Suddenly, said Narayanbhai, the taxi came to a screeching stop. The taxi driver looked up in the rear view mirror and in a surprised tone blurted: “You are telling me I have someone sitting in my car whose shoulders Gandhi put his hands on?”
Narayanbhai delivered the Eleventh Annual Gandhi Lecture at McMaster University on “Understanding Gandhi Comprehensively.” The audience was mesmerized by his day-to-day accounts from the life of Gandhi. When the subject of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler came up, there was a pin-drop silence in the audience when Narayanbhai said that it was he who had typed the letter for Gandhi. (See box, this page. The letter never got delivered; the British saw to it.)
Narayanbhai also delivered his 66th Gandhi Katha over three nights at Hamilton Temple and brought the audience to repeated applause. Many confessed to have wrongly blamed Gandhi for the partition of India. Gandhi was not even in town when the partition papers were signed in New Delhi. Whether deliberate or not, many myths about Gandhi’s life have been allowed to persist until recently because the relevant history has remained hidden. Now the truth is coming out.
Some recent books, like those of Rajmohan Gandhi and Ramchandra Guha, are remarkable in dispelling false stories about Gandhi. Not only does Gandhi Katha remove many false impressions about Gandhi, but the selected real life stories, interspersed with devotional songs based on Gandhi’s life, provide a reflective and moving experience.
Gandhi Katha focuses on important events and episodes from Gandhi’s life. It does not put Gandhi on a pedestal, nor does it engage in value judgment. It’s neither meant to be a propaganda for the Gandhian way of life (there will be few takers!), nor does it offer any justification for his stand on the social and political issues of his time. The audience, despite their own stand on any particular issue, see in Gandhi something remarkable, almost beyond humanely possible. While many in the audience may love Gandhi the person and hate Gandhi the political leader, for Gandhi himself the two were not separate. For him the personal is part of the political and should shadow it.
Gandhi Katha can serve for the modern age, with a difference: It is based on real stories and it speaks to all humanity irrespective of creed, caste, class, and gender. I look forward to the day when the sons and daughters of Mother India will take up the challenge and engage the young through Gandhi Katha.
Gujarat is famous for the Katha tradition and it is very befitting that Narayanbhai, himself a proud son of Gujarat, would give us the ones about Gandhi.
Gandhi Katha may be the best medium for communicating the results of Gandhi’s experiment with truth to the Indian masses—especially the youth. It is a practical introduction to India’s core values of religions and philosophy. This story, if spread far and wide, will provide opportunities for young minds to engage with the world beyond their own life and family.
My first meeting with Narayanbhai was in February 2008 in Pune. He was there to deliver Gandhi Katha, and I had gone there to hand deliver him a letter from McMaster University, inviting him to deliver the Gandhi Lecture on nonviolence.
In Pune I entered the lecture hall in the middle of thunderous applause. Narayanbhai had just finished narrating the story of one estranged Arab, Amir Alam from South Africa, who had once physically hit Gandhi, but who had gone through a change of heart and had become an ardent protector of Gandhi. I knew I had found our Gandhi Lecturer; I could imagine the thunderous applause in Hamilton.
In Canada he was accompanied by his daughter, Dr. Umaben Gadekar, Smt. Bhadraben Savai, and Sri Satish Shastri. Narayanbhai stayed in our home. The most memorable scene in my mind is that at leisure time we would gather around him. Satish would be singing Gujarati folk songs narrating Gandhi’s Satyagraha while Narayanbhai listened, spinning Charkha at the same time.
When the time came for Satish to rhyme the last line, Narayanbhai would momentarily stop spinning and with infective smile and beaming eyes would provide the chorus by hitting his left arm with his hand and would go on spinning again. Times like these make you feel poor. You miss the seeds of love that Gandhi spread in the heart of simple folks all over India. Narayanbhai had the opportunity to pick up many of these seeds. Gandhi had become part of his life and his music, part of the very air he breathed.
Gandhi Katha is based on moral living: a life lived according to Gita. At least Gandhi tried. Both his successes and failures have something to teach us.
Rama Shankar Singh is a professor of biology who also teaches in the Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University.
Transcription of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s 1939 letter to Adolf Hitler. The original, which was typed by Narayan Desai in his role as a secretarial assistant to Gandhi, was never delivered.
As at Wardha
Friends have been urging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request, because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my appeal for whatever it may be worth.
It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.
Your sincere friend
Signed/ M.K. Gandhi