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

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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.

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