01 Oct 2017 19:35 IST

Be the change

Painting at Gandhi Ashram, Sabarmati, Ahmedabad

This Gandhi Jayanti, let’s ponder whether we're born great or if greatness is only thrust upon us

Growing up, my mother says, in their home they didn’t have pictures of gods and goddesses on their walls. They had pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Frontier Gandhi. While the parents spent time every day sitting at the charkha, spinning, the children’s favourite pastime was whirling cotton around the takli, a small, portable spinning device that could be carried in the pocket. India was in the thick of the freedom struggle and every little contribution counted.


What was it about Mahatma Gandhi that so spun obedience and loyalty and love around the minds and hearts of people across the country at a time when the only means of communication, apart from word of mouth and letters and, of course, the newspaper, was the radio? More fundamentally, what was it about this ‘Mickey Mouse’ as the poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu called him, that galvanised an entire population (save the likes of Nathuram Godse, of course) to work together to throw off the shackles of British rule?

Incidentally, we all know Godse as the man who killed Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Godse and his co-conspirators believed Gandhi had ‘sold out’ India in the course of the Partition. He was sentenced to death after an year-long trial. Gandhi’s sons, Ramdas and Manilal, pleaded for a commutation of the sentence, but this request was rejected by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel and Governor-General Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. According to an article in Scroll.in, Godse was once a member of the RSS but left it to join the Hindu Mahasabha because he felt it was not militant enough.

Well, then, back to the question: What made Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ordinary son of somewhat privileged parents, and a mama’s boy if accounts of his childhood are to be believed, a Mahatma, the honorific conferred on him by poet Rabindranath Tagore? What grew plain Mr Gandhi, attorney-at-law practising in South Africa, into the Father of the Nation? Was he born great or was greatness thrust upon him?

This is a question I have been asking myself for years. As far as I can tell from reading many books about him, Mohandas was a pretty ordinary sort of child, pampered, mama’s boy, scared of the dark, poor student, married at 13, a bit of a bullying husband, at least in his teenage years, and hardly a shining star on the professional front. Although his brother packed him off to London to study law and there he learnt many ‘fine’ arts such as French and dancing and how to wield a knife and fork, he also embarked on a journey of reading and researching that lasted life-long.

That’s when he slowly matured into a man but was still not man enough, when he returned to practise in Bombay, to stand up in court and speak on behalf of his client. It appears he was so nervous at his first court appearance as a lawyer that he returned the money his client had given him and literally ran from the courthouse all the way back to Rajkot, to his family. So there’s not much to recommend him at this stage for Mahatma status, that’s for sure.

But it has to be said that for the scaredy cat he appears to have been, it was pretty bold to get on board a ship to South Africa in pursuit of a lawyerly profession. Long sea voyage, strange country, far from home, and then to be kicked out of a comfortable first-class compartment on to a cold, dark, station platform in Pietermaritzburg, his sense of entitlement smashed to smithereens…

There are literally hundreds of books written about Mahatma Gandhi, all over the world by all kinds of people. There is a huge body of writing that he himself did. He read and he thought and he wrote continuously, sometimes changing his mind if, upon reflection, he felt compelled to. DG Tendulkar writes about how this would sometimes frustrate Jawaharlal Nehru. The conversation would go something like, “Bapu, but last time you said this-this-this.” “Yes, Jawahar, I changed my mind.” “Grrrr.”

The other thing that apparently drove Nehru crazy was the maun vrat, silence, he observed on Mondays. “Oh god!” was sort of how our first prime minister felt when he went to Bapu to discuss something and realised it was that day of the week!


Even as some find it politically expedient to claim Mahatma Gandhi as their own, and others prefer to ‘disown’ or ‘disinherit’ his legacy, his actions and ideas and ideals continue to be hotly debated. They refuse to be confined to archival tombs, they refuse to die down. We don’t know if it’s a clever wordsmith’s efforts on a bumper sticker or if indeed it is a Gandhi quote, but ‘Be the change you want to see’ could well summarise the story of his life, sun, shadow and all.

A couple of months ago, I had the fun-fortune of walking with a bunch of eager-beaver kids on the Marina one drizzly Sunday morning, all the way on the giving sand right up to the water. We tried to recreate the experience of the Dandi March: a nearly 400-km long journey from Ahmedabad to Dandi on the Arabian Sea that took a group of foot soldiers led by Mahatma Gandhi some 24 days to complete, to defy the salt tax levied on Indians by the British government, way back in 1930. Now, in August 2017, some 40 little ones walked and sang together and listened to stories connected with that historic march. They will remember and hopefully, one day, understand what the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s life really means.

So, again, are people born great?