Growing Up With Gandhi

By Narayan Desai | 1987-06-01 12:00:00

It was bliss to be alive, bliss to be young with Gandhi. We should keep two things in mind about Gandhi. First, he was an ever-growing person and so he changed. Consistency was not his virtue. He wrote that "if you find a difference in two of my writings, and if you are sure that I was not mad, believe the later one." For example, when I was a child, he would attend weddings only when the marriage was within the same caste. But by the time of my marriage, he had decided to attend no wedding in which one of the two parties was not a harijan, one of the so-called "untouchables."

Another thing: There is the essential Gandhi, and then there are things that are not so essential-the forms of Gandhi. Often the forms are taken to be essential -- a crucial error. The essentials are those that do not change according to time and space. For example (and this would be a controversial example in India) there is the matter of khadi -- handspun and handwoven cloth. It is one of Gandhi's programs. It was important for India then and it is important now, but still I think it is part of the "nonessentials" of Gandhi. The clothes that I am wearing are khadi. I believe that khadi is needed for my country today, but it may not be needed for every country always.

My mother brought me from her mother's home to Gandhi's ashram of Sabarmati when I was one month old. I can't remember when I first saw Gandhi because I'd always seen him. So I was brought up in the ashram traditions.

The Sanskrit word ashram means "a hermitage," a place where hermits stay. But for Gandhi, it was a place for community life, where people lived together. To me, community life is working together, enjoying together, suffering together, and praying together. We worked together -young and old, men and women-in different kinds of work. Responsibilities rotated, and Gandhi would have liked to have the' whole work considered worship. I don't remember talking of work as worship, but it was very, very enjoyable. People think of Gandhi as a serious person, but to us he was joyful. As a child, I knew he was a leader, I knew he was called Mahatma or a "great soul." My father called him Bapu, so he was my grandfather. But none of these things would describe the feeling I had about Gandhi.

First and foremost, he was a friend. He would take us to the Sabarmati River and swim with us. He would time us while we raced on bicycles. He would make fun of us; sometimes we would make fun of him. He would participate in the plays that were enacted in the ashram on his birthdays, which he considered to be the birthday of his spinning wheel and not his own. He would enjoy his birthday as everybody else did. For us he was a friend whom we could trust, a friend who would take sides.

When I was twelve, I decided not to go to school. I think that many children of that age would have liked to do that. But my decision has continued right up to now. I did go to school for one day, and I decided not to go again. So I went back home and told my father that I was not going to such a school, and father said "Let us consult Bapu." So I wrote a long letter, telling him that this was what I had seen in that school and that I had decided not to go back to such a school and asking his advice -- after making the decision myself, of course.

He said, "Well, that's a good decision. if people come to argue with you, tell them that I am your pleader." After that, many people did come to argue. My reply was quite simple: "Please go and discuss it with my pleader." So he was a friend who took sides-in whom we could confide.

Suffering Together

The third element of community life was that of suffering together. Both my parents went to jail [for the independence movement] when I was seven or eight years old. My father had been going to jail before that. Most of the time he was either in jail or on the rails. He was hardly ever at home; he was almost a guest in the house. But Mother had been there with me; now she also was in jail. But I was the only person who was suffering. I was not thinking of my Mother; she was not suffering. I was not thinking about Father; he was not suffering. I was the sufferer, because both my parents were in jail. But all the children of the ashram, playing on the banks of the Sabarmati River, playing together on the playground, were also sufferers.

There were complaints about us, because sometimes I used to tie the hair of two women sitting in front of me during prayers because they had their eyes closed and I had my hands active. So the complaints went immediately to the Supreme Court, which was Bapu. So he said; "Yes, now I understand, the prayers do not fit children. Let us change the form of prayers for the children." Before that, he used to bring me near him and I used to sit on his lap, and that gave me a position of pride. But later on, younger children came and they had their position of pride, so I had to sit on the women's side and I had to tie hair.

So there was a new form of prayers, especially for the children. This was the thing about Gandhi: he made each person feel important, with the dignity of being a human being. Every person whom he met, he met with his full heart, and he also made the children feel important.

There was a time later on, when I was fourteen or fifteen, when I used to debate with him on some of the political decisions that he had taken, and I particularly remember an incident when I was angry with him. I said,

"Bapu, you have betrayed the country. That decision we cannot accept, and I want to have a fight with you." So he smiled and said, "Yes, all right, you will have your time." Just then, the leader who later became the president of the All-Indian National Congress came, entered the room, and said in his very sophisticated words; "Bapu, we're sorry, we do not understand this decision you have taken, and I would like to understand more about it." What he wanted to say was exactly what I wanted to say, so Bapu said, "Well, I am giving time to Narayan. I am going to walk with him. That is the time for us. if you want, you can join us. Later on I shall give you more time."

So I had a debate on that issue. He did convince me, which was a pretty tough job for him -- not because the problem was difficult; the person who understood the problem was difficult. That was me. Later, when we came back to the room, Bapu told the leader that now he would give time to him. He was already convinced, because he had heard the discussion. Bapu said, "Well, if I can explain it to a child, I will be able to explain it to the country."

The Place of Women in the Ashram.

I confess that I started thinking about the place of women only recently. But I think more or less it was equality. My father was a very learned person. My mother was almost illiterate. She was made the manager of the ashram; my father was never given that responsibility. For some time (I think it was some kind of experiment) every job in the ashram was entrusted to women. And I remember Bapu announcing later on that it had proved better than when things were managed by both men and women.

All individuals and all kinds of work had equal dignity. This was very important for Indian society, where some activities (such as cleaning the toilet) are supposed to be low, or mean, and others (such as teaching) are glorified.

So, while every job had importance, some that were considered below dignity had more importance.

One of my jobs, which continued at the second ashram where I lived for many years, was to clean the toilets with a partner. Every newcomer in the ashram was given that job because it was work that people hated. When a Brahmin would tell Gandhi that he wanted to stay there, he would say; "All right. Our initiation process is to join the toilet cleaning team." So there would be an adult as my junior partner, and I would be the senior partner, trying to help him. This person had to pass through an inner struggle, because for thousands of years his community would never have done such a thing. He would never have even considered eating with anyone who would clean a toilet. But he would have to do it to stay in the ashram; that was a test, the beginning of his preparation.

Gandhi's ashrams were preparation centres. He called them satyagraha ashrams, preparing the volunteers for the movement and for the future society that he envisioned. A job there had significance as sacrificial work, a kind of holy activity. It was done in the spirit of an offering to the community as a whole. Cleaning the ashram together was called the "sacrificial activity of cleaning the ashram."

Another aspect of ashram life was our relationship with nature. In a rainy season of three or four months, we have all the rain of the year. The rest of the time there is no rain. Even in that season, Gandhi would insist on sleeping under the rainy sky. He would go to his room when it showered, and then go back outside. Not all the inmates of the ashram did that; my family didn't. But the ashram itself was a part of nature, and each one felt that we were not the conquerors of nature, but part of its cycle.

There were the eleven conditions, which he called vows, for those who wanted to join his ashram. Truth, nonviolence, fearlessness, nonpossession, nonstealing -- all these were vows of the ashram. That was part of the syllabus for the training of nonviolent soldiers.

Gandhi's personality blended personal qualities with the qualities needed for social transformation. We in India have a long tradition of trying to attain personal salvation by meditation, yoga and going within. There are other traditions of social transformation -- changing society and hoping that the individual will change as society changes. Gandhi found that both of these isolated efforts were not good enough, and that they should be combined. Personal preparation should ultimately lead to social transformation, and social transformation should be based on personal preparation. Other people had tried to have; Gandhi tried to be. That was one of the lessons. The ashram life (including the eleven ashram observances),Constructive Program and satyagraha are the three main contributions of Gandhi.

The Constructive Program

Nonviolence has both positive and negative aspects: You have to fight evil and construct something good. The Constructive Program was the building aspect of nonviolence. For us, the immediate goal was swaraj, self-rule. Gandhi defined it by saying that self-rule is also rule-of-self, and he had said that the Constructive Program could be called "construction of complete independence by nonviolent means." To him, independence was for every individual, and then every village. It was an effort to build upward from below. He considered nonviolence to be a force, and the people to be the reservoir of that force.

He had addressed Congressmen in a very important book called The Constructive Program. In it, he said: "A supeficial study of British history has made us think that all power percolates to the people from parliaments. The truth is that power resides in the people, and is entrusted for the time being in those they have chosen to be their representatives. Parliaments have no power independently of the people." So the Constructive Program was one of going to the people and of conscientization.

Instead of Mass Production

The Constructive Program had an economic side, a social side, a cultural side, and the total result was political. In economics, we had the program of handwoven, handspun clothes, village industries, economic equality, and so industries, economic equality, and so on, but Gandhi described it in one graphic sentence: "Instead of mass production, we want production by the masses." That was economic decentralization. He wanted everyone to have control over his own means of production, instead of somebody else's having power or control over him or her.

Gandhi's roots were in Indian culture and his tools of publicity and public witness were rooted in our culture, not imported from outside. We have, for example, pilgrimages. Millions of people march on foot every year for their religious worship. He turned that into a revolutionary force when he walked from Sabarmati to Dandi to break the Salt Law. rims act of civil disobedience showed Indians that the British could not collect taxes-in this case a tax on salt- if they refused to pay.

Fasting was another way. The first program he gave to the country, against the Rowatt Act, was that of fasting for twenty-four hours. It was simple; it was part of the culture and used for society's needs, and so people responded.

The way Gandhi employed publicity, every action was dramatic -- particularly the Salt Law March. Pandit Motilal Nehru, the father of the well-known Nehru, who was the leader of the Congress at that time, wrote in a letter: "I don't know what (The Salt Law) has to do with the shaking of the British Empire." Gandhi was an excellent writer. If you compare the collected works of Gandhi and the great novelist, Tagore, Gandhi wrote more than Tagore. The bulk of it is in letters, many in postcards scribbled by himself on trains. (I used to call it "violence to the typist." I was his typist, and he wrote with a pencil late at night, sometimes with a dim light.) So he wrote a postcard to Motilal Nehru: "Try and see." That's all that he replied. So Motilal Nehru said that he was going to prepare salt on a certain date. There was no salt water, so he was to mix salt with water and then get the salt out of it, symbolically. He was going to prepare it in public. The day before this was to happen, he was arrested.

Of course, Gandhi used conventional methods also. Wherever he went, he started a newspaper. He could not have lived without those papers. None of them had any ads, but otherwise they were conventional; they became unconventional because they were religious.

The Constructive Program also touched the problem of languages. Paolo Freire has been talking about the culture of silence. Gandhi wanted to make the silent millions speak, so he had the activities of the Indian National Congress spoken in the Indian languages. It may amuse you that this was considered a big act. It ought to have been natural, but everything was conducted in English and only English-speaking people were in the leadership. But he said, "No, every activity on every one of the resolutions will be passed in Hindi." And, if you went to Andhra, it was to be in their language, and so on. That worked against the culture of silence.

I think satyagraha was his great contribution to the world. Einstein said of it: "Gandhi is unique in political history. He has invented an entirely new and humane technique for the liberation struggle of an oppressed people, and carried it out. The moral influence which he has exercised on thinking people through the civilized world may be far more durable than would appear likely in our present age with its exaggeration of brute force. For the work of statesmen is permanent only insofar as they arouse and consolidate the moral forces of their peoples through their personal example and educating influence."

The Relations Of Oppressed and Oppressor

Gandhi's satyagraha changes the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor, because the oppressed refuse to accept the oppression-but refuse in a dignified way. One cannot have dignity if one cannot respect the dignity of others. You cannot increase your dignity by belittling the dignity of others. So nonviolence has something to do with truth, justice and the dignity of man. Gandhi's nonviolence accepted active love as an instrument to overcome evil and injustice, and transform oneself and society.

His nonviolence excluded retaliation. This is a story that I heard from my father: I was not born at that time. When Gandhi was campaigning in Champaran in north Bihar, a rumor commenced that one of the British indigo planters had said, perhaps in a moment of anger, "This fellow Gandhi always moves about in crowds, he is always surrounded, but if I find him alone, one day I am going to kill him." Gandhi heard that. Next day, early in the morning-- really early, because Gandhi said his prayers at 4 a.m. and this was before his prayers -- he went out, and my father followed at a distance; he did not want Gandhi to know that he was following. Gandhi moved to the indigo planter's village and knocked on his door. The British planter was furious: Who was knocking at his door in the middle of the night? When he opened it he found Gandhi, who said: "I have heard that you have taken a vow to kill me if you find me alone, so I have come to make you fulfill your vow." That was confidence in the adversary.

Can You and I Play With These Toys?

The satyagraha had three aspects: the mass education aspect, the non-cooperation aspect, and the disobedience or law-breaking aspect. I will tell you about my first experience of satyagraha. I had heard that a friend of my father's had sent some foreign-made toys to me. Gandhi was leading the movement for swadeshi, non-foreign goods, and these toys arrived at his ashram for his secretary's son to play with, so he put them aside. In the ashram there was a big intelligence service, which brought the news to me that Gandhi had been hiding things from me. So we took out a deputation of children, and went there. He was spinning, and so engrossed that he would not even look up, so we had to cough and draw his attention.

He smiled, so I thought it was good to fire the first shot. I said, "First of all, is it true that some toys have arrived from Bombay for me?"

He said, "Yes," because he could not deny that. So the case was on my side. "Is it true that you are hiding them, not giving them to me?"

He said, "Yes, they are with me, but I am not hiding them; there they are on my shelf."

I could see them. "So why are they not given to me?" Then came his argument: "Do you know that these are foreign-made?"

I was not prepared for that. I said, "Well, that does not matter to me. I do not mind if they are foreign goods. Give them to me."

Then he asked me a question in Gujarati, our common language. Gujarati has two different words for "We": If it is just the plural of I, it is one word, and if it is a plural meaning "you and 1," it is a different word. So he said, "Can you and I play with it?"

If he had said, "Can you play with it?" I would have said, "Yes." But he said, "Can you and I play with these toys?" I knew he could not play, so I scratched my head, and the members of my deputation started off. That was my first experience with satyagraha, Gandhi turning the "you" into "we," turning the enemy into a friend.

Stitching Sandals for General Smuts

While in jail in South Africa, Gandhi made sandals and sent them to his chief adversary, General Smuts. When Gandhi died, General Smuts sent these sandals to the Gandhi Museum, saying that "He had given me these sandals made by himself while he was fighting against me. I wore them for some time and then I felt that I could not wear them. I kept them, preserved them throughout my life, and I am returning them to the Gandhi Museum."

Whether Gandhi was a success or not is debatable, but whatever success he had, what was behind it? The chief reason is that there was little gap between his preaching and practice. Even his adversaries knew that when Gandhi said something, it was so. The masses thought more about his honesty than about success. His faith in human goodness created faith within us. The third quality was continuity. For fifty years he continued. He continued when everybody thought he was completely broken, when himself was saying "I am groping in the dark."

He understood what was going on. For example, when Sir Stafford Cripps came to India with his proposal, Gandhi was one of the first to reject it because the proposal was to consider giving independence to India after the war ended successfully. He said: "This is a postdated cheque; I am not interested." He left the very next day. Congress continued talking for many days. Ultimately there was no result; the mission failed. At that time the country was so full of frustration! Everybody thought that independence had been delayed at least another fifty years.

And suddenly, this old man comes up with two slogans: "Quit India," and "Do and die." That worked like electricity. That was the time to say, "Quit India," to the British.

When people were thinking that there would be no independence for many years to come, he said, "No, this is the time for you to leave. Otherwise, it will be harmful to you." Not to the country, but to the British. Even "Quit India" he was saying with love.

Another quality, which I think came out of his study of the Gita, was his detachment from the organizations that he himself had created. It is easy to sometimes leave home and work for the cause, but it is much more difficult to leave the organization you have built with your blood and sweat. He was detached enough to do it, and that is why he could still influence the Congress without being a member of the Congress. He disbanded the Gandhi Sera Son. On the penultimate day of his life, he said; "Disband the Indian National Congress and form it into an organization for the service of people." That was not accepted. That was not even properly conveyed to the Congress, because the person who conveyed it thought that the Congress Working Committee was not in the mood to listen to it.

Detachment is a quality of leadership, not only the personal quality of a sadhu, a saintly hermit, but a political leadership which made Gandhi the great combination of personal virtues and social values. There have been efforts towards personal development and social revolution. In Gandhi, both these efforts combined.

One of our famous Sanskrit poets, Kalidas, has described the Himalayas by saying, "God wanted to create a measure stick to measure the earth, and in order to measure the earth he created the Himalayas." That was the yardstick. Perhaps God wanted to create a yardstick to measure how high humanity could go, and he created Gandhi.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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