Every year on the 30th of January, I write something on Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi. And every year, just as faithfully, I delete it. What, after all, can I possibly add to that small cottage industry that has sprung up around The Gandhi Biography? I don’t have the numbers with me, but I can easily believe that he is the single most written about Indian, if not person, in the world. Everybody, whether Indian or not, has an opinion on him: good, bad, critical, reverent, adoring. Everybody can find a way to relate to him, negatively or positively.
At times, I imagine him as a watermark superimposed on the Indian landscape. Shoring up this image are the movies from way back in the day, in which they would unfailingly hang his black and white photograph in a dusty grey frame behind every governmental authority. To this day there are songs and the odd advertisement, featuring his gently smiling face floating across the sky, its translucent visage growing larger by the second to fill up the screen. Perhaps Gandhi isn’t so much the father of the nation as he is the ghost that haunts it – a benevolent, familiar spirit with whom we’ve learnt to live.
Think about the whole Samadhi business. This obsession with tombs and cremations grounds is a bit creepy but that’s not the point – its complete and utter irrelevance is. Foreign leaders of state and our homegrown variety solemnly troop out there and garland it with heaps of dead flowers and then bow their heads respectfully. And then they go about their business, which, in all probability, would be in direct contrast to what Gandhi advocated. Consider that Gandhigiri might be the flavor of the season but they still needed a couple of taporis to sell it.
And I think that’s fair. It’s hard to get all enthusiastic about a guy who seems sort of colorless – the image we have of Gandhi today is largely confined to that one picture that every Indian has seen: a bland profile with an inane smile. It’s so carefully devoid of personality, you feel kind of depressed just looking at it. What’s worse is that we are taught about his life with all the fervor of unthinking dogma – just watch a teacher explain his life to her class some day and you’ll be struck by the utter blah-ness of it. It’s like a one-two-three formula that every Indian kid can’t help but know. And it’s only made worse by days such as January 30 (anniversary of death) or October 2 (anniversary of birth) because they’re latched on to by every talking head out there that finds itself without a topic for the day.
So you listen to another long list of boring people blabber platitudes at the speed of light: Gandhi is wonderful, Gandhi is lovely, Gandhi could make the roses bloom. By way of variety a couple of people will show up to offer the counterview: Gandhi is horrible, Gandhi is a monster, Gandhi could make your toes rot off. Then some organization or youth wing of some party will get all upset about the remarks directed against the Father of the Nation and respond by burning effigies or throwing stones. You know, just like Gandhi would have done it. But I would actually prefer that over the endless sermonizing and boo-hoo-hoo-shame-on-you-materialistic-Indians speeches that wash over us the moment someone brings up that dreaded word, ‘relevance’.
Lost in this cacophony somewhere is the man behind that tag of Mahatma. The man that his contemporaries accredited with a sharp wit as well as a difficult mien. The man often described as a little bit odd, which in my mind translates as ‘interesting’. The man whose charisma was such that he could effortlessly handle a crowd even if he looked like a stiff breeze might sweep him off his feet. The man who emerged out of an era wherein Anarchy and violent Revolution were the cry of the day to advocate nonviolence.
It is that man who has always intrigued me.
I never could see anything extraordinary about Mahatmas. India is somewhat over-abundantly stocked with them, after all. They might not all be as famous as Gandhi but they still fill up plenty of nooks and crannies. A mahatma is commonly deemed as someone who is better than you, a person who lives on an elevated plane of existence. His or her ways are not that of an ordinary mortal. They have been marked out by the hand of fate to do greater things than you or I.
Bullshit. Elevating a fellow human being like that is a defense mechanism. It is a way for the rest of us to safely acknowledge that we do not wish to commit ourselves to what that other man just did without feeling like a complete waste of space. We can look at Gandhi and say it must take a great soul to practice nonviolence because a) our instinct gives us the exact opposite message and b) obeying our instinct feels much more satisfying.
Gandhi and other men who do extraordinary things are not Mahatmas because they are better than us or a race of supermen: they are special because they are exactly like you and I. The only difference is that they went all out and did all they could to accomplish the vision dearest to their heart.
It bothers me when people wish to confer divinity on a fellow human being just as much as it worries me when someone wants to demonize another. We each have aspects of our personality that are greater or more influential/inspiring than the sum total of our other parts but that doesn’t mean we are one dimensional creatures. Stalin was a family man when he wasn’t ordering massacres; the Emperor Asoka only found his way to Buddhist peace by wading through oceans of blood; democracy found a staunch defender in Thomas Jefferson but didn’t prevent him from fathering children on a slave.
Gandhi’s faults are many and well known. His admirers dismiss them off handedly, while his critics harp endlessly on them. Each of them operate from one single standpoint – the tag of Mahatma. It seems to blind them to the fact that Gandhi was obviously human born and lived an exceedingly mortal life. His miracles were of the abstract variety such as the fact that he inspired people. He didn’t turn water into wine nor did he contain the universe within himself. He merely offered his fellows hope and comfort when they needed it the most.
59 years ago, we were forced to come to terms with Gandhi’s mortality. Why are we so afraid to do the same by his humanity?
originally published at Desicritics.org, Jan 30 2007