I visited the Raj Ghat with my husband and son on October 3rd. We handed over our slippers at the counter for safekeeping and paid one rupee for each pair. There were racks where you could leave your slippers without paying money. I observed that many opted to do that. Near the shoe rack, on a marble slab are inscribed Gandhi’s words. I read it aloud as my son listened. It said that every thought and action of ours should bring a change in the lives of the poorest of the poor. We went in and stood before the Samadhi. There were not too many visitors, there was a family standing before the samadhi and posing for a photograph, a group of men languidly stretched on the freshly watered lawn, a group of workers were dismantling the stage set for musicians and bhajan singers, rolls of white bedsheets and bolsters were heaped – the October sun on the white linen stung our eyes.
These were the many distractions that I had to tide over while I tried thinking what Gandhi means to me now and how I can take this man across to my 13 year old son. I did not want a history class with him. There were several one liners that I had directed at him during the times he got addicted to action movies and thought that power and strength were only of the physical kind. I used Mahatma Gandhi as an illustration of my point ‘True strength lies in forgiving and letting go’, ‘A great war can be won without raising your little finger’ – there were punch lines that I created and chanted like slogans when he got back home after boxing someone’s ears. I knew these were very simplistic and told myself several times that I would present the complexities involved in any struggle like the one Gandhi spearheaded, once my son grew up. So when my son got carried away with Sylvester Stallones and Arnold Scwhazeneggers I introduced him to Richard Attenborough’s movie ‘Gandhi’.
When I saw the film with my son I realised how much I had underestimated his power to critically reflect. When he saw the scene where Gandhi compels Kasturi ba to clean the toilet my son observed, “So Gandhi’s wife refused to support him.” He was upset that Kasturi ba had to be forced, Gandhi’s sudden burst of anger that was shown in the film went against his understanding of Gandhi. He at once saw that Gandhi was also coercing Kasturiba at a very subtle level by making her do what she loathed from the bottom of her heart. That made him uncomfortable about Gandhi.
On seeing the film he was surprised that freedom struggle involved so much blood shed despite the fact that Gandhi was involved in it. He had believed that Gandhi delivered the goods for Indians and that he carried on his frail shoulders the fate of our country. He learnt that Gandhi was not in total control and that there were forces that were beyond his control. And that non-violence and non cooperation did not always yield positive result.
As a sole historiographer of India’s struggle for freedom in my son’s home education process and in my keenness to use Gandhi for a personal agenda I had caused enough damage and have been unfair to true historical thinking.
I recollected that Mahatma Gandhi was like family to me when I was my son’s age. I grew up hearing how my grand father was a Gandhian, how my father’s cousin wore Khadi as a protest, my father waited as a young boy at the Kumbakonam railway station to see Gandhi who was travelling past the town. I was strongly advised to read Gandhi’s autobiography, large tracks of it was narrated as stories when I was barely a toddler – especially the episode of Gandhi refusing to take the help of his teacher to spell right as it amounted to cheating the School Inspector, and the story of Harish chandra came en route Gandhi. I grew to feel pride at the legacy of Nehru and Gandhi; my opinions of critical political events were influenced by this. I grew to believe that Hindu-Muslim conflict broke Gandhi and the Indo-China war ruined Nehru. A great sense of tragedy accompanied such knowledge. My understanding of colonial and post colonial history was embedded in the common sense discourse of the middle class Hindu milieu that I hail from. The trite history texts in fact remained independent of the rich narrative that I acquired otherwise. I did not have the tools to critically read these narratives till I came to college. The teenage phase of defiantly declaiming the past should not be accounted for.
At Raj Ghat I had read to my son Gandhi’s words with a voice filled with passion. As I stood on the lawns I told myself that I should not sell Gandhi, my son can find Gandhi on his own. So as we stepped out to wear our slippers I read the same words with a controlled voice and placed Gandhi for my son to analyse and understand in the way he deems fit. Two generations away, distanced by time and with the shadow cast by the specific historical period paling away, for an adolescent Gandhi is no more a name invoked by an anxious mother driving home a point about ahimsa. I have observed my son sift certain rudimentary tools to analyse historical events, I might offer him simple frames of class, caste and class to understand Gandhi. Any suggestions?