WRITING ON GANDHI IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 Gandhi the moral man lived a message that whatever a man does to others he does to himself too; that we can be human together but never separately no matter what privileges you may enjoy.
GANDHI NEVER VISITED THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA THOUGH HE HAD MANY FOLLOWERS LIKE MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, AND PRESIDENT BARRACK OBAMA Satendra Nandan: It’s only in Gandhiji’s writing that I find some solace for he’s always searching for answers within h
I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and writing on Gandhi: A commissioned long essay for a book being published from Washington next year.
It’s been a difficult journey for me because one has a superficial knowledge of the Mahatma but writing on him for others, especially the Americans, is a different proposition. Gandhi was most admired by individual citizens of that first democracy so deeply rooted in idealism and crass commercialism. Unfortunately , Gandhi never visited the USA though he had many followers like Martin Luther King, Jr, and President Barrack Obama who kept Gandhi’s statue on his presidential desk. Louis Fischer’s biography The Life
Of Mahatma Gandhi remains a classic. It’s this book that impelled Richard Attenborough to make the finest biopic Gandhi.
Most of us have seen it many times. Its appeal has never been surpassed even by the films made by several Indian film-makers and in the fictionalized narratives of writers like R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao.
I’m not aware if Satyajit Ray ever tried his hand at filming Gandhi.
He’s a difficult subject for an Indian for the Mahatma was full of that complex sum of seemingly contradictory truths. He knew that from the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.
But Gandhi’s writings have the unity of an ocean. How does one enter an ocean ?
It may be that it takes an outsider to do justice to the Great Soul: the Father of the independent India was too close to Indians--indeed so close that one of them killed him at point-blank range.
I recall that in February 1983 I was on a Special Grant for Leadership to visit the USA for almost two months. I travelled from Hawaii to Little Rock, Arkansas, to give talks on a variety of subjects, including our fledgling Fijian
That very month the film Gandhi was released with Ben Kingsley in the leading role. Everywhere I went the audience wanted to hear about Mahatma Gandhi: No- one, it seems, was interested in my ideas of an evolving multiethnic democracy in the South Pacific.
It’s only after that fellowship that I had the privilege of visiting two places where Gandhi began his immortal journeys--Peitermaritburg railway station, South Africa, where on 7 June,1893, he was ejected from the train for racial prejudice, and the place in New Delhi where he was murdered on 30 January, 1948, for religious extremism.
Both, racism and religious extremism, are still part of our lives in these covidious times.
Since then so many journeys in between but none for me as places of pilgrimage as those two places: one obscure station at the age of 23; the other in the blazing lights of India’s vivisected freedom, when Gandhi was 78 years old.
Gandhi himself wrote like no other human hand.
His thoughts were like waves in a sea. He often put his heart and soul in the smallest of issues even while fighting the most vital battles of his life against the most powerful empire in human history.
And so often so much depended on a word or a sentence from him.
From sanitation to daily diets, from Satyagraha to Salt March, to non-violence at the most violent time in our world, he maintained a steady hand uplifted over hate of many kinds; he lived through two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
And finally the partition of a civilization and the love in his heart. COVID-19 has made many of us to make that inward journey where we discover our values by which we live and let live.
We may even realise that on what little things our happiness depends; and how little we really need for a healthy life.
This invisible menace has changed the very contours of our existence and relationships.
The world, as we know, will never be the same: its structures, relationships, global arrangements, economic prosperity of nations big and small, our health systems and our education and employment; our inequalities and our fight for freedom whether it’s on the streets of Hong Kong or the streets of Washington.
No matter how revolting our struggles, the Earth will keep on revolving.
As I’m writing this, having completed my Gandhi essay, Melbourne is declared a disaster state, severe lockdown for at least the next six weeks from tonight.
Once this was unheard of in our part of the world: from tomorrow if you break the curfew, you could be fined as much as AUD 20,000 (FJ $30,624.20). Thousands of ordinary workers are losing their jobs daily. The personal, psychic and social consequences will be unimaginable.
Suddenly this rich and comparatively compassionate society is faced with terrifying prospects; it may also make us think how we’ve treated asylum seekers in detention centres on remote islands named Christmas, Manus, Nauru.
Everyone now is in some sort of detention wearing a mask.
This journey, too, is an inward journey: For we begin to understand what it means to be in contact with others. Human voices wake us up like the touch of other hands.
It’s really the Other who give value to our life so simply and sublimely expressed in:
‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, or the most compassionate judgment : ‘Let the one without sin first cast the stone’. Reading and writing about Gandhi raises this question not so much in the mind, but in one’s conscience. COVID-19 has propelled many on this journey, areas of darkness in the human soul. But Gandhi, a most mortal human being, illuminates it all. Of course there are divinely endowed prophets and others but no-one so human ever, I think, attempted so mighty a journey for humanity.
For him ‘To err was both human and divine’.
While reading Gandhi in these times, I realized how appropriate his writings are on so many aspects and areas of human interaction so vital for our survival and solidarity in these traumatic, uncertain times.
He termed it his experiments in Truth of Living-Loving.
Today some of his experiments may appear mere fads to many who are dying of obesity and other obsessions that have reduced our Earth to a threatened planet in despair. A time may come when the Earth may not be able to breathe?
It’s calculated that in last summer’s fires in this driest of continents, as many as three billion lives were lost of a variety of species and damaged to home and habitats ran into billions of dollars.
The long-term effects on hundreds of people have been devastating. Some will never regain their homes or happiness no matter how much money is poured on these charred landscapes.
Fires, floods, cyclones, asylum seekers, greed and COVID must make us pause awhile on our desperate journeys towards the edge of a cliff hidden in the fog of our narrow borders and the clouds of our global greed.
It’s only in Gandhiji’s writing that I find some solace for he’s always searching for answers within his oceanic soul.
He’s the only man and statesman whose thinking cuts across moral and religious, philosophical and ideological traditions but also shows how by seeking truth of our existence , we can arrive at some humane understanding of our shared human condition.
Tragically some societies are discovering it now.
Whenever human beings are bound in the chains of race, religion, ideology, identity, injustice, tragedy has followed and the children pay the price. Gandhi as a lawyer and an astute statesman questioned every aspect of the Empire and criticized the jewel in the Imperial Crown.
Perhaps his most enduring contribution is the indivisible humanity that is
connected to every continent and island, every culture and civilization. And all species-beings are one: not only human beings.
Today we see how the clusters of coronavirus are found near abattoirs and ‘wet markets’.
Gandhi the moral man lived a message that whatever a man does to others he does to himself too; that we can be human together but never separately no matter what privileges you may enjoy.
He showed throughout his Himalayan struggles against violence that one’s brutal actions ultimately brutalizes oneself and one’s community. Wherever it was in white South Africa, or the Europe’s metropolitan colonizing powers, or the capitalist or communist ideologies or the oppressive structures that high-caste in India created to keep others down-trodden. Gandhi challenged all these for he knew their fears, anxieties, hatreds, obsessions, and limitations for which they needed these crutches for their self-deception subsequent disillusionment. COVID-19 has brought many of the Mahatma’s most thoughtful ideas to the fore.
Reading about him and re-reading his writings makes this inward journey most rewarding, especially if you have passed the biblical life-span of three scores and ten years.
My essay is too long to publish it in my favourite daily. But reading for it and writing it gave me some sense of wholeness in these unwholesome times.
Satendra Nandan ■ Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His volume of poems, GIRMIT: Epic Lives in Small Lines, will be published in October. His book, Love & Grief : Twin Journeys will come out at Christmas. Gandhianjali was published last year.