It is the second day of October again. The newspapers doggedly carry the same old monochrome pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and his trusted lieutenants. We see them conferring, marching with and speaking to the Indian Public. Carrying these pictures is an annual ritual rather reluctantly observed by the newspapers, losing a fortune in column centimetres of advertisement space. For the majority of Indian public, the ‘half naked fakir’, as Winston Churchill once famously called him, is usually brought to mind in the morning and forgotten before the day is done.
In the Indian state of Kerala there is one group of people, who solemnly remember Gandhi on the first of October itself, one day before his birth anniversary. They are the town drunks, for on the day of the great man’s birth anniversary, all booze outlets are closed. They have to find the hard cash and stock up on the previous day itself. By the evening of the dry day, the cheapest paint remover will be prized like premium single malt.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Growing up in middle class Kerala during the sixties and seventies was a rather sedate experience. Children were brought up in families where fathers were home by sunset. The kids would have reached a couple of hours earlier from school. After a bit of running around with neighbourhood friends, we had the compulsory evening wash and settled down to study and to do homework. Mothers seldom held jobs and were fulltime housewives. There were no single parent children born to unwed girls. Nor were unsuspecting kids made to live with same sex parents. To a great extent, thankfully, paternity too was a certainty. I am not suggesting that it was an age of saints, but values were indeed valued.
Grandparents were very much around and commanded respect. Old age homes were unheard of and these senior citizens had considerable influence on us and our own parents. I consider myself lucky that both my dad’s and mom’s fathers were educated and world wise. Dad’s father was one of the first Chartered Accountants in our state, during the fifties and sixties. I remember him as a quiet and peaceful man who had immense patience.
During his youth my mom’s father found himself looking after the family’s farmlands in a sleepy little village called Neyyattinkara, south of Trivandrum. He soon tired of it all and joined the British army sometime in the mid 1920s. During the Second World War he served in North Africa, enjoying the rank of a Company Quarter Master Sergeant*. During the early forties, he saw action in Tripoli and Tobruk under General Sir Archibald Wavell. He suffered severe shrapnel injuries from a shell fired by Erwin Rommel’s advancing German forces and was sent home in 1942 after a long spell in a military hospital.
BACK TO GANDHI
In pre-independence India, no one considered Gandhi to be a politician, except may be the British. He was a saint, a father figure, who had a sharp mind and clear vision. He had the great fortune of having a band of fine followers who seldom questioned him. To rephrase that, let us say that he was not really disagreed with, till Subhash Chandra Bose went on to join the Japanese in his armed fight against the British and later, when Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted a separate nation for the Moslems.
During these times in the early forties, my grandfather must have been a very confused man. He had just returned from North Africa after fighting Rommel. Back home, he found fellow Indians busy with the Freedom Movement trying to overthrow British rule, albeit peacefully. He had great admiration for Gandhi, but he was also drawing a British pension. He wore hand spun clothes, but never joined the Congress Party. A very devout Hindu and a vegetarian, everyday he lit a lamp before a picture of Lord Krishna and stood in silent prayer. On his writing table, he had two framed photographs. One showed Gandhi sitting before a spinning wheel, his eyes closed in meditation. The second one was the iconic photo of General Bernard Montgomery, binoculars in hand, atop a British battle tank. He must have been a very troubled man indeed. All the same, he was loyal to the Crown till he died a free Indian in 1960. Though he greatly respected Mahatma Gandhi, he missed his British masters till the very end.
Coming back to the Mahatma, for us children Gandhi was an inescapable presence. In school, the teachers spoke of him all the time. There were pictures of him in homes, classrooms and government offices. In the back room of my paternal grandfather’s office, where the junior accountants, advocate’s clerks and typists worked, there was a picture of him with Jawaharlal Nehru, Vinoba Bhave and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. In the teachers’ room in Model High School where I studied, Gandhi was shown seated with Madan Mohan Malavya, Acharya Kripalani and Maulana AbdulKalam Azad. Other pictures elsewhere showed Gandhi with great souls like Mahadev Desai, Chakraborti Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Sushila Nayar, Morarji Desai, Manibehn Patel, Jeevraj Mehta, Pyarelal Nayar, Subhash Chandra Bose, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. It is quite clear that Gandhi was surrounded by people of character, calibre and promise. For many of these stalwarts, Gandhi was a friend, philosopher and guru. He showed them the correct path and urged them to bring out their best.
After the Mahatma was assassinated in 1948, many of these dignitaries were around and they saw India through the difficult initial years of freedom. Other than Freedom itself, these illustrious leaders were some of Gandhi’s greatest gifts to India. The services of these magnificent men and women were available for another twenty years, right up to Lal Bahadur Shastri.
A RATHER ABRUPT CONCLUSION
We have seen that the Mahatma was quite comfortable in the company of talent and promise. Let us bring ourselves to the present times. Take a good look at the pictures of current leaders with their next in line. What we see is an endless sea of scurrying and furrowing animals, craning their necks to be in the frame. With rare exceptions, we see con artists, switchblade experts, smugglers, muggers, common thieves and simple idiots. We see this line up with almost every political party in the fray.
Sixty five years ago, when Indian population was less than half of what it is today, we had an endless supply of good men and women to lead us. No, people of such mettle are not extinct in India. The simple reason for their absence is that current leaders see anyone with any capability as a threat to their own long term survival. If you have a moron with you, you can control him. If you have a criminal, you can blackmail him. If you have someone with no scruples, he will do your dirty work. The reason for the current miserable state of Indian politics is very simple. It is a clear case of small minds in high positions bringing in even pettier creations that are happy to exist on leftovers and handouts.
Samuel Johnson once famously said that “(false) Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. It is best rephrased as “Politics is the best refuge of a scoundrel”.
*Note: An Indian soldier who held the same rank as a white man was paid much less, though he marched the same, fought the same and died the same. The present day controversy of treating Ghurkhas lesser than British born soldiers is nothing new. After he was wounded and retired, Mr. Krishna Pillai, my grandfather, was paid a life long pension of thirty two rupees a month, the equivalent of about forty five pence in today’s currency. Thanks to the status of a regional landlord back in India, he did not starve.