Being stalked by the Mahatma
Historian Ramachandra Guha on investing over three decades on researching and writing about the extraordinary life of Gandhi
EACH time chef Varun Ramachandran steps out of his Shivaji Park home, he ensures there are a clutch of visiting cards on him. The bad**s cards — bathed in black — have nothing to do with the professional life of the 35-year-old, who heads a food and lifestyle television channel. It reads: “Congratulations on owning a TUV. We are a group of passionate owners and would like you to be part of this journey. Join us on WhatsApp...” The cards have been printed with the sole purpose of networking with IN Bollywood, it was Sanjay Dutt, who first portrayed an eccentric obsession for the Mahatma in the eponymously titled film Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Having spent a night poring over dust-laden literature related to Mohandas K Gandhi inside a library, Munna Bhai starts having hallucinatory visions of the leader. It’s this vision that later guides the goon to the path of truth, integrity, and what film-maker Rajkumar Hirani wittingly made us remember as Gandhigiri. Historian and scholar Ramachandra Guha, who has just released an 1,100page biography, Gandhi: The Years That Changed India 1914-1948 (Penguin/Allen Lane), and has spent over three decades researching him, may have never succumbed to this glorified reverence to Gandhi, but he still admits to being a “great admirer of the man.”
This also explains the 60-year-old writer’s never-ending quest to understand Gandhi, which “accidentally” began in his teens. “I grew up in the India of the 1950s, when every year on October 2, you commemorated Gandhi and sang Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. So, there was always this halo around him,” Guha recalls, in a telephonic interview from Delhi. But, his first tryst with Gandhi was fellow owners of the Mahindra TUV, the luxury SUV manufactured by the automobile brand. Interestingly, Ramachandran was the first Mumbaikar to buy the model when it launched in 2014. Since then, there have been three upgrades with Mahindra TUV 300 Plus being the latest in the market. “The one I drive with 80 bhp doesn’t exist anymore. But, it doesn’t matter which version you own, as long it is a TUV,” he says. His love for the car is such that if he spots one, he makes it a point to go over and hand the card to the owner. “And if it’s in the parking lot, I simply place it on the windshield,” he laughs. More often when he read his autobiography (The Story of My Experiments with Truth) as a college student. “I was struck by his description of taking off his sacred thread. After that, I resolved to never wear one. For me, a sacred thread was a mark of caste distinction, and I felt if Gandhi abandoned it, so should I.”
The motivation to explore the Gandhian narrative, however, got hold of him, when he was pursuing his PhD on the history of environmental movement in India in the 1980s. On realising that its “main actors [Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Medha Patkar] were influenced by Gandhi’s methods of analysis, critique, struggle and reconstruction,” Guha’s curiosity piqued. From thereon, he started extensively consuming stories about Gandhi. The first book that had a significant impact on him was Belgian writer JTF Jordens’s Gandhi’s Religion. “It was a very moving and sympathetic account of Gandhi’s religious pluralism, and provided an insightful understanding of everything he stood for,” Guha says. Later, while writing about the social history of cricket, he once again realised how Gandhi had influenced the manner in which the game was watched, played and talked about. “I was being stalked by Gandhi’s shadow,” he admits.
It wasn’t long before he started gathering material and books than not, he receives a call back from curious owners eager to learn more.
A step up
Meet Mumbai TUVians, a group of 88 car owners with a self-professed love for all things automobile. Their activities have not only been noticed by Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, who often retweets their posts, but also Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, whose office has invited them for a chat, on learning that they recently adopted three villages in Pen, a town in Raigad district around and about the remarkable historical figure. “And I did it without really thinking that I would one day write a biography on him. That idea struck me only 15 years ago, when I realised that Gandhi in either an influential or marginal way was seeping into whatever I was working on.”
His new magnum
So, what is it about a car that is making Ramachandran and his group build a community around it? “This is about every person who always dreamt of owning an SUV because at one point of time in India, say even three years ago, the SUV was reserved for the cream of society. It was like the American dream,” he says. For Ramachandran, the transition from a hatchback to a SUV was a chance to tread terrains that were initially out of bounds. “Finally, I had to the opportunity to go offroading and drive on practically roadless areas smoothly, which is not always possible with a small car,” he says.
No business, please
opus, a The conversations on the group revolve strictly around cars — from hacks that customer service won’t tell you to identifying anomalies and fixing them. As a rule, the group forbids anything that is done with a commercial interest. Despite owning an SUV
Saraladevi Chaudhurani (seated), with whom Gandhi once contemplated a ‘spiritual marriage’, photographed with her sister. Gandhi’s remarkable secretary, Mahadev Desai, at his side as always, as so often explaining a word or phrase to him.
Co-founder Varun Ramachandran; (inset) The TUVians at a social meet-up