Wednesday, January 30, 2008


What does one think when he or she says the name ‘Gandhi’ in his mind? How does one see him - as a man, a phenomenon or a myth? Whatever you suppose him to be, how do you approach the entity, how do you make sense of him and his legacy, how do you understand what to do with it, how to put all of it together and even sum it up, if possible?

It is far from easy. Not just for an inexperienced, relatively uneducated youth like me but also, it seems, for people who have spent a lifetime ruminating over him.

The Gandhi Ashram today was not quite its normal, serene self. There was an air of activity around, more people than usual to be seen in the museum, around and inside Gandhi’s kutir, and on the edge of the Sabarmati River, admiring the view.

It was his 60th death anniversary, and there were to be a series of events taking place in his memory, from the morning Prayer to talks by eminent sociologists and Gandhians during the day. I reached the place at around one (thanks to three silly lectures in the morning), long after the Prayer and the first round of talks, missing the opportunity to listen to none other than Ashis Nandy speaking.

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to listen to some other esteemed speakers, including our own professors Tridip Suhrud and Ganesh Devy. Some talked of his relationship with religion and secularism, some of his take on nation-building, and some on counterfactual questions such as how different history would have been, if he had lived 125 years, as he jokingly (or maybe not) said he wanted to. I listened with unwavering attention, trying to grasp and understand as much as I could. And I daresay I followed much of the discussion.

But now, as I try to think of what I learnt from the day, how much it helped me to understand the man, his life and thought, I find myself at loss yet again. As before, when I try to gather my thoughts on him, to sum him up, there is nothing that comes to mind.

All blank.

And why is it so? Perhaps, the biggest reason why he eludes all reason is because Gandhi simply could not be classified. Humans rely on classifications for their understanding. We find it convenient and surer about a person once we see him as a part of something bigger. For example, the labels we put on the friends around us (like ‘Oh he’s a politician’ or ‘Saala nerd hai’) ease our mind, helping us to understand the person, seeing him as what we have defined him as.

In this sense, it is impossible to classify or label Gandhi. What would you call him – a religious thinker, a politician, a social worker, a designer, an educationist? What, if anything, defines him? This is almost beyond me to determine. And until I’ve decided on that, the approach, the man will continue to escape my understanding.

For some time to come anyway!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Evaluation?

This is a ‘personal’ post. So, kindly bear with me.

When you’re 21, you are used to changing your views as frequently as your clothes. Views about everything, be it people, places, or events are under constant scrutiny sub-consciously, if not consciously. Things that you absolutely deplored as a teenager can be the very things you follow earnestly now, and needless to say, the reverse is also true.

Now that I find my self quite deeply engrossed in the phenomenon of Gandhi, courtesy the course I’ve been offered at my college on his ‘life and thought’, it was rather amusing to go through an article I wrote for the college magazine about two and a half years ago.

Two and a half years is a pretty long time. And for someone as philosophically inconsistent as I regard myself to be, it sure is a pretty long time! Anyway, the article was interestingly titled ‘Gandhi-An Evaluation’ and without being too boastful, I would like to say that I found myself more-or-less correct in my convictions even then.

I’ll leave the reader to make a better judgement.

Gandhi – An Evaluation

Gandhi – never has a name in history evoked so much admiration, yet so much disdain, so much faith, yet so much disbelief, so much love, yet so much hatred ! It is undoubtedly the most researched name in Indian history, yet the man and his thought process to this day remain enigmatic to his own countrymen.

No one would argue about Gandhi’s contribution to the Indian national movement, of which he was undeniably an integral part. His twin ideals of ‘Ahimsa’ and ‘Satyagraha’ formed the pillars of India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi, a man for whom public behaviour was simply an extension of the self can be credited with playing a leading role in the birth and realisation of that something we today call ‘Indian Nationalism’.

Then why, one asks, does he receive so much indignation at the hands of his own folk ? Why does a man who is generally accepted abroad as one of the greatest man to have set foot on this earth get so much disgust in the very own land he served ? Why doesn’t the “Father of the Nation” appeal to India’s youth, as India enters the new millennium?

The answers are quite hard to find. After all, Gandhi was the man who urged people to think about “India’s starving millions”, who gave Harijans their name, who stood for the emancipation of women, who dreamt of a proud and independent India, who in earnest, dedicated his life to public duty and sacrifice.

But Gandhi’s biggest flaw was a product of his ultimate source of inner power – his ego. Gandhi’s tendency to see public life as an extension of his inner self, his inability or simply the disinclination to keep those two separate was his biggest shortcoming.

One can cite various instances to provide proof of his self-obsession. His decision to call off the Non-cooperation movement after the incident in Chauri-Chaura, despite huge protests by the men who had wholeheartedly chosen to support him, gave way to the belief that he placed his own thoughts and beliefs above everyone else. Another example would be his refusal to keep away Bhagat Singh and co. from the gallows, when he was in a strong-enough position with the British to do so. The martyrs could have been saved, but unfortunately, they stood for principles Gandhi fundamentally opposed.

But his detractors often get tempted in taking criticism too far. Gandhi has often been indirectly held responsible for something as gory as the partition. The Muslims claim that Gandhi had a soft corner for Pandit Nehru and wouldn’t let Jinnah, the Muslim representative assume the highest political post in independent India. That, they say, was one of the biggest reasons behind the division which took the lives of millions. Interestingly enough, the Hindus on the other hand feel that he appeased the Muslims too much and often gave in to their “unreasonable demands”. It is not merely a co-incidence that Gandhi was murdered by one of his own religion.

But to understand Gandhi, to admire him, one needs to go beyond these actions to the underlying philosophy. It would be unfair to see him only as the architect of the Indian freedom struggle, as its greatest leader. The real greatness of Gandhi lies in his simplicity of thought, in his application of his “Experiments with Truth”, in his vision of India. Gandhi fought for an India independent, politically and economically. He dreamt of an India free from unemployment, illiteracy and fundamentalism. He envisioned a state without violence and terrorism of any kind. This unshakeable belief that violence bred more violence and it eventually led to the complete moral decay of the society was the foundation his thoughts and actions stood on.

Today, when the world is caught in a grip of hatred and violence, in a world where terrorism has become bigger and better than ever before, can we afford to forget that “half-naked fakir” ? His message, due to its simplicity and straightforward logic is ever-relevant, something that needs to be remembered if the human race hopes to avoid eventual doom.

As General Douglas MacArthur once said, and I quote him – “In the evolution of civilization, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt his beliefs.”

And let us all hope that we don’t.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Of Screams & Grunts, Scratches & Tears

Dear Mr. Verma,

It has been almost fifteen years since you passed away. But on this cold December night, with the fire burning alongside and me lying awake in bed, I still can’t help feeling that you have remained with me, like an albatross over my heart, soul and mind, all throughout these last few years. I want to make clear that this letter to you is not about this night only, or the last, but about many such sleepless nights I have spent thinking about us, about that fateful afternoon. The afternoon that gave us both new lives. Brand new.

Fifteen years in a normal man’s life is quite a substantial period of time, Mr. Verma. No one remembers the petty details of everyday drudgery such a long way into the past, like what he had for breakfast, whether he had bathed that morning, or whom he met, relatives and friends. Or strangers, with long, unordered hair and sideburns, a patchy beard. But this day was different, wasn’t it? What happened on this day, as I said, changed two lives forever, making us both, in a way, newborn twins, with intertwined destinies.

But really, it had all started as just another day. I had gone to work early morning, having eaten the leftovers of the dinner the night before. I hadn’t been that hungry anyway, one and a half chapattis and a bit of salt was all I needed for breakfast. Mai and Bhaiya were still asleep when I left home. It was still drizzling outside, last night it had poured as if the gods had suddenly emptied their bowels, having kept their piss preserved cleverly for the last few weeks, saving it for this special day.

I had a job in the well-off houses on the other side of the pond, where every member of every family had a car or scooter to call his own, where the women had beautifully bordered red saris to wear every October for the Durga Puja, where the children had corn flakes for breakfast. My task was to finish washing their clothes, dusting away the dust from their exquisite bedroom drawing room artefacts, clean the floor, first with a broom and then with a wet piece of cloth, which more often than not, was the Saheb’s discarded vest or T-shirt. I had taken the responsibility of just one house, as the work was quite time-consuming and tiring too. I was only eighteen years old then, after all, a little girl with a restless mind and a restless body.

But oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Verma, maybe I’m digressing. Why should I burden and bore with such irrelevant details? How would you be interested in what I did before we met, how tired I was and what I had planned for the evening? Pretty foolish of me, I must say.

Let me come back to the point, to the epicentre, the afternoon that gave us new lives. Brand new.

So I went back home that afternoon, bolted the door from inside, joined two paav-rotis together and sat down leaning against the wall, watching the wet exterior through the little hole in our wall, munching away. Mai and Bhaiya had not been back from work yet, and there was nothing much to do.

Barely five minutes had passed when I heard a knock on the door.

It was you, wearing a pyjama-kurta, your hair long and unordered with sideburns and a patchy beard, smiling broadly. I asked you what you wanted and I suppose you remember what you told me.

Where’s your Bhaiya, you asked.

Not back yet, I replied.

And as I tried to close the door, you just stuck your hand in, and asked if you could get a glass of water. Sure you can, I had said and then went in. To this day, I can’t believe how you, without making any noise at all, got into the room and bolted the door from inside. All I remember is that you then grabbed me by the waist from behind. I was shocked, I forced myself away. But you just smiled, came slowly towards me again. Then I realised what I was in for, I asked you to back off. You didn’t and leapt for me again. I don’t exactly remember what I did at this precise moment, but I think I must have screamed (did I?), for you then took out a handkerchief from your kurta pocket and thrust it into my mouth.

What followed is only there as a blur in my memory. But I suppose we both know that too well. Why get into the details, the details of the event that gave us new lives. New. Brand new.

But to put it briefly, among many other things, there were muffled screams, violent grunts, a painful scratch or two and a piece of cloth torn so savagely that nothing remained of it after those fifteen eventful minutes.

Can you recall those fifteen eventful minutes, Mr. Verma? Can you recall the screams, grunts, scratches, tears? Can you recall anything?

Anyway, so much for nostalgia. Coming back to What Happened Next, I later heard that the villagers had come to know about our little meeting, about the screams, the grunts, the scratches and the tears, about how they pounced on you in an intensely grotesque realisation of the power and legitimacy of self-imposed justice, about how they punched and kicked you till you could breathe no more, about how they then threw your peaceful self into the nala, to be eaten away by dogs and pigs.

I offer you my condolences, for I have nothing else to offer.

For, to me, what they did to you afterwards held no meaning. They also could just have cut your penis off, chopped it into little pieces, and fed it to the crows, or something even more appropriate. But the issue is that it wouldn't have changed my life in any way. Lives don’t change twice so drastically in just one day, Mr. Verma. My fate, in other words, was sealed.

Fifteen years since that fateful afternoon, and it is still fresh in my mind. To this day, all I need is to strain my uneducated, illiterate brain a little, scratch my head a bit, and I can live it all again, I can feel you on my body the same way again, and again, I hear some screams, grunts, scratches and tears.

And I have a gut feeling that I’ll take those sounds to my grave, or even to my next life. Who knows? For those sounds are the irrepressible reminders of how everything can so easily change, how the ordinary life of a poor, village girl can be transformed so quickly into something absolutely new. Brand new.

In this, I feel that you are an integral part of my life, and my fate. In other words, if you would kindly grant me the liberty to say so, you are my best friend, my closest confidant.

And how do I end this stupid letter, this ‘The Story Of My Life’, Mr. Verma? One way would be to curse you, abuse you, saying that I hope your body rots in hell, if it didn’t reach hell already rotten, eaten away by the dogs. But that’s what’s expected, isn’t it? Though a part of me wants to wish the same for you, I would like to think otherwise. For I, fifteen years from that day, remember you with what I’m quite embarrassed to call a fondness, a queer closeness, and I think I know why. Because you, you alone, on that afternoon changed my life into something different. Something new. Brand new.

For the better or for the worse, is another issue.

God Bless You
The Girl
(For you wouldn’t know my name anyway)

Saturday, January 5, 2008


It might be a dream. Only a dream. But Amir can’t be sure.

The figure in front looks real enough. Amir glances at the window. The curtains are drawn and just below them, he can see a thin blue carpet of morning light. It must be around five in the morning.

How was he awake? Nobody woke him up, his parents were asleep in their bedroom upstairs and he was almost sure that there hadn’t been any noise or rattle to break his sleep. Yet, he had woken up, more peacefully than ever before, as if he wasn’t actually asleep, only lying down with his eyes closed.

And then when he looked up, he saw this man, sitting on the corner of his bed, feet down, only his silhouette visible by the light coming from the adjoining dining room. For more than five minutes now, Amir had been looking at this figure, the figure looking at him, both silent. Oddly, Amir felt no great surprise or fear at first sight of the figure, almost as if he expected it to be there, as if he wanted it to be there.

It can’t be a dream.

‘Who are you?’, the figure finally broke the silence. His voice was even, controlled, like a man sure of what he was saying or asking.

‘Who are you?’, Amir asked in reply.

‘That doesn’t answer my question.’

Who was he? For a moment, Amir felt like getting up, switching the lights on, to kill the suspense, but something within urged him not to do so. He wanted to move his legs, his hands, but they seemed to have frozen, unable to move. Or was it he holding them back? He couldn’t be sure.

‘Why do you ask me this question? What is that you want to know?’, Amir asked after this brief moment of hesitation.

‘Just describe yourself.’

It was quite a funny game he was playing here, Amir thought. This might be a dream (can’t really be reality, can it?), and if it was a dream, where was the harm in getting on with it?

‘I am Amir…a nineteen-year old boy…born on the 7th of June, 1985…living in New Delhi right now… with my parents…ummm…thats it.’

‘Be precise.’

‘What do you mean?’

The figure sighed, shuffled a bit in its position, his face fixed on Amir all the time.

‘Are you sure of what you just said?’

‘Well,’ Amir said, half laughing, ‘there is hardly anything to be sure of. I am Amir and I was born in 1985. Is there anything to be wrong about there?’

‘But that isn’t what you said.’

Amir stared back at the figure. What was he exactly getting at? What sort of answer did he want?

‘OK. I am Amir, born into this world on the 7th of June, 1985. Does that satisfy you?’

‘How can you be so sure about the date?’

Now, this was getting silly. Amir began to feel a little irritated, not able to see the point in it all.

‘You don’t think I was there to note down the time and date of my own birth?’, Amir replied, a hint of restlessness very much noticeable, ‘My parents told me that it was in the evening of that day that I first saw this world, and I choose to believe them. Will this do for you?’

‘Tell me what you know. You alone.’

Amir clicked his tongue, tired of this seemingly silly dialogue. What does this man mean when he says ‘You Alone’? Did I know anything straight from my birth, from my mother’s womb, or wherever and whatever I was before that? Isn’t everything I know been told to me by the entities around me, living and non-living? And did I ever have a choice not to believe them and think otherwise?

‘I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean, but if I do, then I’ll just say that if there is anything I know, if there is anything I’m reasonably sure of, it is this – I am called Amir, and I’m living in 2004 A.D.. Saying anything else would be incorrect as per your question, I think.’

‘You answer correctly, my dear friend. Well, almost! Make sure you remember this answer. Remember that there is hardly anything else you can be reasonably sure of, and absolutely nothing else you can be confidently definite about.’

‘I don’t think I understand you.’

‘You will, eventually. Just remember what I’ve told you.’

And then, the figure disappeared, his silhouette dissolving into the air, as if it was never there anyway.

Amir woke up from his mother’s call at around eight in the morning. He could recall the meeting with the mysterious figure with remarkable clarity, but he couldn’t really make up his mind as to whether it happened for real or was it only a dream, a fantasy.