Waiting for the Mahatma

This slim 1955 novel by R.K. Narayan is the best Gandhi Jayanti gift I could have given myself. It transported me to the days of the Independence struggle. The story itself is not really the crux of it, though it is a novel and there is a love story interwoven with the freedom movement.

So much time has passed since the time of the Mahatma that we cannot really fathom what it must have been to live in his time, to be inspired by him and be, even in the remotest way, a part of the freedom movement. And that is just what the book brought to me. That the most uneducated person in the remotest village in any corner of the country was somehow moved and fired by this figure called Gandhi. Whether the person fully understood what Gandhi stood for or what he wanted of them, still they were ready to believe in him, to dedicate themselves to his mission. In the tens of thousands they stood for hours in the sun for a glimpse of the Great Soul. In the thousands, they were ready to give up everything in life and go to jail for him. The book gives us a glimpse of the person behind the myth.

The incidents in the book obviously draw from many, many real happenings of those times. When I found the photograph of the Mahatma, children and fruits, it told me how authentic was the experience from which the book came. The book describes an incident when Gandhiji is taken to the house of the richest man in a town he is visiting, and all the elite are there, waiting for him to speak and to catch his attention. There are trays and trays piled with fruit. Not one of which he touches. Instead, he calls the children in the audience and distributes the fruit to them. While the adults are not thrilled, they still tolerate it. But they definitely are not happy when the Mahatma spots a little urchin in completely tattered clothes in the crowd, calls him up to the dais, seats him beside himself, plies him with fruit and has a full-fledged conversation.  And then decides to go and stay in the home of the urchin, who lives in the Cleaners’ Colony– the poorest, filthiest and unhealthiest part of town. In spite of the exhortations of all the bigwigs to stay in the house of the town’s wealthiest man where arrangements have been made, gently but uncompromisingly, Gandhi insists on going to the boy’s house, throwing the local elite and officials into a complete tizzy.

His uncompromising insistence on truth and ahimsa. His never sacrificing the means for the end. His belief in people, and at the same time, his being able to understand why they slip from the path. His interest in the minutest details of the lives of those around him. His prodigious correspondence—responding to each one of the letters he got. His sense of humour and unshakeable resolve. His sticking to his point without aggression. With this, he inspired a sub-continent and fought the mightiest empire of the time. With this he got us our freedom.

But we still make the Mahatma wait for us. Wait for us to live up to his ideals. Wait for us to be the nation he dreamt we would be.

How long will he have to wait?

–Meena

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