Khade raho Gandhi

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14 April 2021, ‘Ambedkar Jayanti’

My Dear Bapu,

This is my first attempt at writing a ‘public’ letter to you. So far, I was content talking with you, in a whisper, Janantike as the Sanskrit term goes. It could not have been otherwise as the whisperer shared secrets with you, joy, agony, ennui. And you lived by a code, what was said to you Janantike remained buried in your heart, you destroyed letters when the correspondents asked you to, even kept them from Mahadev’s Diaries and the babblers around you.

You said that one should write only when one cannot restrain oneself. And one cannot, especially when one has a complaint to make, a quarrel to have with you. In the grand tradition that you nurtured through Indian Opinion, Navajivan, Young India and Harijan, I wish to place before you and through you before those who care, a plea.

Bapu, please stop being a statue. Not just because it is a bad time to be a statute in this country and anywhere else, especially for you.

There are many reasons. Most respectfully sheweth… as you would have written in countless petitions before the courts in South Africa.

You should have known that we are not going to read what you wrote. We did not even read the Hind Swaraj, even Hind Ke Jawahar had only faint recollections of it. And we, your fellow Gujaratis prefer to read only PNs (Promissory Notes for the uninitiated) as you know. And who ever read 97 volumes of your writings in three languages! (Albeit, in Gujarat we decided to have mercy and gave up after 82 volumes.) If we had, we would have come across a correspondent telling you weeks before Independence that you were being ‘buried alive’ and your resolve to ‘cling to the hope that I am not yet buried alive.’1 If we had cared to read, we would have known that there was a proposal soon after Independence to erect a statue of yours in Bombay at the expense of ten lakh rupees and your horror at the very thought. You received several letters criticizing, some even fiercely, the proposal, as if you ‘were guilty of making such an extravagant proposal.’ You wrote publicly: ‘In the present case there seems to be a foundation for criticism. I must say that I have a dislike for even being photographed; nevertheless, photographs have been taken of me. I have let artists make models more than once. Notwithstanding this inconsistency, I must dissent emphatically from any proposal to spend any money on preparing a statue of me…’2 

Your dislike of statues and photographs had a religious basis; you had learnt this from your Muslim friends. In 1939 there was a proposal to set up a statue of yours in a Congress session, yours was an expected reaction, a statue of clay or mettle for a person made of clay! And then you said; ‘I have learnt from my Muslim friends, among whom I have passed the best part of my life, my dislike of statues and photographs of my figure.’3 

Bapu, you should know that we are all rather well aware of what you call your ‘inconsistencies’; some of us prefer to call it hypocrisy, deceit.

Of course, you were photographed; you were among the most photographed man of your times. Margarete Burke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson and your very own Kanu Gandhi took luminescent photos of you. If one were to look at them attentively, we would know that you do not look into the eye of the camara, some superstition about the camera stealing the soul of the person. And very recently I was shown a photograph of a work in progress, of a bust of yours being sculpted by American sculptor Nancy Cox-McCormack (1885-1970), who gave it to your son Devadas in London in October of 1931, with ‘unfinished’ written across it in thick nib. We know due to the meticulous auditing of Gopalkrishna Gandhi4 that apart from Cox-McCormack you ‘sat’ for three other sculptors, Jo Davidson (1883-1952), Clare Sheridan (1886-1970), and Clara Quien (1903-1987) and two ‘non-sculpting’ artists, British wood-engraver Clara Leighton (1898-1989) and expressionist draughtsman Felix Topolski (1907-1989). See, we do not need to go far to know of your ‘inconsistencies’, what you failed to record, your truly diligent grandsons and great-granddaughters present to us.

We know that you liked memorials and obituaries. You were, at the last count, involved with the memorials for Hakim Ajmal Khan, Deshbandhu C.R. Das, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C.F. Andrews, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, Dharmanand Kosambi, Jallianwala Bagh, Kamla Nehru and Kasturba memorial. You knew when and how to cash into public sympathy (albeit not as well as ‘Mahamana’ Madan Mohan Malviya), and collect funds. The difference between the memorials that you were involved with and the one’s that bear your name is vital. The memorial funds that you collected were used, always, without exception for ‘constructive activities’ (not to be confused with ‘construction activities’) that forged us into ‘one people’; and you knew that the day these activities became distant from people and their concerns they would under the weight of their own redundancy fold up.

But let us go back to 1944. On July 6, 1944 that ‘Svyam Prakash’ ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose used the appellation ‘Father of our Nation’ for you for the first time in a radio broadcast from Rangoon. What he said out of deep fondness was soon to become a burden for you and us. (As an aside, no one today believes that there was any fondness, deep regards and reverence between you and Netaji. In fact, in our present estimation you have no ‘friends’ or fond relations. It is you versus… the only ones to be spared are Charlie Andrews and Bacha Khan, more so because we have forgotten them.)

You know the fate of fathers. We know that you did not read Freud seriously and Ashis Nandy came into his own after you, but you still knew what sons (and that is why you were keen to collect daughters and be a mother) need to do to their fathers. Kill. And so we did. (I do however feel somewhat let down that we did so with a ‘second-hand’ berretta.) And so doing we gave you icchamrityu, a death that you wished for, a violent death at the hands of an assassin.

And as you know once the father is dead, he becomes a photograph; ideally adorned with a sukhad mala bought at a discount from KVIC stores, but fathers of our nations require proper propitiation. We need to go beyond photographs, postal stamps,5 memorials, statues, collected writings and roads. We set about doing all these.

Panditji, grief stricken and incredibly lonely decided to have an architectural competition. That man was too much into modernism – Ray and Charles Eames, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Habibur Rehman. He selected a young America trained architect Vanu Bhuta to design a memorial for you at Rajghat on the banks of Yamuna. And the new nation-state had it first ‘proper’ memorial, we set about making protocols and brought every visiting dignitary – tyrants and tinpot dictators included – to lay wreaths, so that you remain buried under heaps of flowers, unbreathing.

We did not stop here. You had left enough real estate for it to be converted into memorials, museums, places of pilgrimage and tourism. Even here our romance with modernism continued. Charles Correa designed a memorial museum at your Sabarmati Ashram; it sits light besides Hriday-Kunj; expensive to maintain but delight to inhabit. We did Gandhi Film Society, National Gandhi Museum, the works. You do not know how creative we are with memorials. And then we began to name roads after you; each settlement if it had a paved road, has an M.G. Road; the cumulative length of all M.G. Roads must far exceed the Grand Trunk Road. We also did for five long decades an exercise to collect, verify, translate, annotate everything that you had written, did not even spare your conversations. How was Professor Swaminathan to know that he would lose his sight in the process and as soon as he finished, we would promptly maul it? As a result, we have 97 volumes of your ‘inconsistencies’.

And finally came statues, we placed you everywhere we could find a crossroad (spatial, not ethical) and said Khade raho Gandhi. There are, as you might know two favoured poses; one has you walking, mid-stride, with a stick in your hand and the other seated in prayer, meditative silence; and when we had resource constraint we did busts.

Khade raho aur chup raho, don’t pretend to be conscience keeper and all that, no moral compass please. Over time your stick ceased to be the measure of Truth. Since the time of Indira Priyadarshini – yes, the same whose marriage to Feroze Gandhi you defended publicly, who gave you a fob watch and brough Parijat flowers to you – the stick has come to be lodged in our backsides, of late we have become so adept at it that we do so to ourselves, self-reliant we are. Your prayerful, meditative pose suits us, we can forget that we did not allow you to take the name of Allah, merciful and compassionate, and we sent you to meet your Maker while you were hurriedly walking for the prayer. The meditative pose is taken as your silence, acquiescence.

We did in the process create some very fine art. Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, Ram Suthar come to mind, but before I tell you about my three favourites, I should make public my own complicity.

Hitherto my most meaningful misadventure has been to try and be a manager – probationary – of your memorial at the Sabarmati; and since I am slow to take hints it lasted rather long. There I lived out my Gujarati dream; to be a petty shopkeeper. We sold books, memorabilia; Gandhi pens (oh yes, K.V. Ratnam’s descendants still make ‘Swadeshi Pens’), ‘coloured’ photographs (the limitless possibilities of photoshop), foot rulers in the hope that we learn to have a measure of things and your busts. Riyaz Tyyabji (the same to same who repairs bicycles and restored Magan Nivas in such exquisite detail that T.M. Krishna sang there) and I decided to 3D print a bust of yours in five metals. In our defence the argument was aesthetic – isn’t that always the case – the German made bust that sits on my table is aesthetically way too desirable than what was previously sold, courtesy Moradabad.

And yes, the three statues; Johannesburg commissioned Tinka Christopher to make a statue to mark your relationship with that city, and she gave a bronze statue that is breezy, light, your barrister’s robes wind-swept, transforming the Government Square. This is the only statue of yours as a young man, hurrying to law courts to fashion the jurisprudence of ‘public interest’, ‘work in progress’, ‘unfinished’ as Cox-McCormack wrote.

Your beloved London has two of your statues, you stand in the Parliament Square very close to Nelson Mandela in Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson’s (b. 1944) interpretation, and Polish sculptor Fredda Brilliant (1903-1999) has sculpted you in a seated pose, not silent, but deeply furrowed and in all your boniness, bare chested you are installed in the Tavistock Square.

But one that captures your force, your steely determination is Ramkinker Baij’s sculpture of yours in Poet’s Santiniketan.

Those were tough years for us. Our wheat came under PL 480, and in return we gave America libraries full of books and hold your breath – I know you don’t like Pranayama – your statues. We are told that the land you never visited has the most number of your statues outside this country.

You became the new Buddha of Suburbia. And as with ancient teacher your export outside coincided with your banishment from home. As we turned you in a statue our hope was that you would do the assigned task, be a resting place for the pigeons, allowing us to dust you out occasionally, ceremonially.

You refused to die and came out at most inappropriate times to prick our conscience like a bad sofa spring. You did not realize that we were changing and with that changed our perception of you. (I don’t want to discourse you on how your followers turned out to be made from plaster of Paris, how they love subsidized existence, the glint in their eyes at the sight of Formica laminated khadi bhandars; how they became apologist for our rulers; how they turned your ahimsa in some kind of harmless homily.)

Even those who like to hear your voice, those who whisper to you, young women with seditious hearts who walk to Dandi or from Dandi, who go to jail because they ask Pinjara Todo are disappointed in you for being so last century, in fact 19th century. You were a bad father to Harilal (ipso facto an undeserving father of nation), you did not allow Manilal to marry Fatima Gool, you did nothing for your sons as middle class and middle caste fathers are expected to do (if you had we would have complained as to how very middle class you were, of perpetuating a dynasty), your ‘Vahali Kastur’ suffered in silence while you tested your steadfastness to brahmacharya; and you just refuse to recognize that desire could be the basis of lasting love, you deceived Subhas Bose, did nothing for Shahid Bhagat Singh, foisted Jawaharlal on us, did precious little to prevent Partition (after all you wanted your fellow Gujarati Quaid-e-Azam to also be a father of a nation), even fasted to give them 55 crores! How could you? We also know you to be an obscurantist, your deep unease with modern civilization, your fondness for an imaginary village republic and handmade economy. What bothers us most is your unwillingness to recognize the need for a strong state, a masculine state, a pragmatic state apparatus tuned to the crooked timber of humanity and not to some imaginary moral compass. If we had followed you all of us would have been render effete.

Let us admit there is also deep pain. Your inability and let me make it bold to say unwillingness to understand that one cannot choose to be ‘untouchable’, that such a formulation and desire is a privilege and a pernicious one. You ought to have heard Dr Ambedkar who came to your prison and said, ‘I want political power for my community. That is indispensable for our survival.’6 How could you not have recognized the coercive nature of your fast and the moral dilemma that you placed before Baba Saheb. Would any moral person allow you or anyone to fast unto death? Did Ambalal Sarabhai allow you to prolong your fast? How could Dr Ambedkar have been any different? How could you not have seen the ethical and ‘experiential’ difference between experience of humiliation and the sense of having committed a sin or a sense of shame? Your failure to understand the humiliation that Dr Ambedkar spoke about was an ethical and moral failure. And how could someone like you, who knew India better than anyone else, not see that hierarchy and purity/impurity are inextricably linked?

Equally seriously you were a ‘stretcher bearer of the Empire’ (till you turned seditious that is), you harboured deep prejudice against the native Africans, describing them with impunity as ‘raw kafirs’; preferring to be classed apart from them in their own land. Your neighbourliness with Rev John Dube notwithstanding your ideas, your language and advocacy were morally reprehensible and socially unjust, even at that historical time.

We read all this in the 97 volumes of your writings. A serious reassessment of your virtues was done, and you came out as a human person might, or even should – flawed, imperfect, unfinished and even incorrigible at times and yet ever ready to learn, rise again after every fall. And yet sublime in your steadfastness to truth and non-violence, in your commitment for communal harmony, in your capacity to recognize the truth of every faith and most fundamentally in your deep and unwavering belief that all are equal in their capacity to grasp truth and act in accordance of that light. We forgot that you were the original ‘chammar chhap’, made sandals, designed and built toilets, your self-description was ‘a weaver and a farmer’, you nursed, you healed, and stood alongside the destitute as one of them.

We recognized that the ground had shifted, frames altered. As Ashis Nandy divined you had been rendered the ‘stepfather of our nation.’ This was our opportunity to topple you.

Not content that many peoples and countries had on their own volition erected your statues, not entirely unmindful of your ‘unfinished’ condition, issued postal stamps; we decided to foist your metallic presence on unwilling peoples. They are repulsed by this, this ‘exportation and imposition’ of what someone called ‘Gandhiplomacy’. They recognize this as a new form of colonialism dressed up as anti-imperialism, a tool of foreign policy. They called out, ‘Gandhi Must Fall’. And fall you did, in Ghana and in several other places, including India, your statue invoked anger, violence and some structural damage.

And we did this while we were turning more inwards, closing our doors, hearts and minds to others. I should tell you that in Gujarat where you were born and worked for several decades there is no memorial, road, a patch of public garden that celebrates a Nelson Mandela, a Dr Martin Luther King, a Badshah Khan.

We are now in the final act. Remember that station, Pietermaritzburg, where you sat shivering, afraid, seeking light in 1893, the same place where Nelson Mandela and your grandson gave a message of hope, of reconciliation, of redress and reconstruction;7 at that very place in 2018 we installed, even you with your forbearance will be appalled, a double-faced bust of yours, golden in colour. We have achieved what we set out to do. We have made you Janus faced.

Bapu, let us start once again. We like our fathers to be imperfect, they are more tolerable, and do not require repeated killing. Please I beseech you, this statue-ness does not behove you. Take a walk. Barefoot we walked last year, miles, hungry, thirsty, rejected, afraid, petrified, in search of succor, home, safety. We realized that you had deceived us, failed once again. You had said that you would wipe every tear from each eye. You had spoken of abhay, of fearlessness. We are fearful, of ourselves, of our neighbours, of our state. And weep we do, aranyarudan, cry in wilderness. Come take a walk, and some of us with our own failings will walk with you.

I remain,

Yours truly,

Tridip Suhrud

 

P.S.: Bapu please reply; and if Sardar is not too embarrassed by the size of his statue and still makes envelopes in his little workshop, please use one of his.

 

Footnotes:

1. CWMG, vol. 89, p. 16.

2. Ibid., p. 178.

3. CWMG, vol. 68, p. 386.

4. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, ‘More than Clay’, The Telegraph, 20 October 2018.

5. Vinay Lal has estimated that at least 100 countries have issued a Gandhi stamp.

6. CWMG, vol. 51, p. 459.

7. 25 April 1997, Conferral of the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg on Mahatma Gandhi by President Nelson Mandela, received by the then High Commissioner of India, Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

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