Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday came. On October 2nd. As it always does. And went. As it always does. A bit low key, I thought, the celebrations. I have known previous birthdays of the Mahatma celebrated with greater gusto, as indeed has been the case with Chacha Nehru’s birthday, marked down for posterity as Children’s Day. This may only be my imagination, but what with all the incessant chatter about the Modi / Trump affair in the US, the Modi / Imran joust at the UN, Imran doing all the jousting, and the threatened face-off at the LOC, the Gandhiji birthday landmark has been pushed to the background somewhat. There have been snide words from the Opposition about the present BJP dispensation using the occasion to cynically push their own Swacch Bharat campaign at the very home of Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram, and questioning if that was in decent taste. Seeing as Gandhi himself was a great advocate of cleanliness and tried to get across the message to all his fellow Indians by setting a stirring example (not sure how successfully), our Prime Minister’s attempt to fast track the Clean and Open Defecation Free India agenda even further and seminally on October 2nd, was an apposite idea.
We will doubtless read and hear from historians, politicians and journalists, all about Gandhi’s relevance in this day and age, if he is only a fading memory or a shining beacon of inspiration. Gandhi’s benign face, now a brand logo, is pinned to lapels of jackets only as a shoddy badge of honour by the leaders of our nation, with nary a thought to treating him as a true Father of the Nation. Only lip service and cosmetic acknowledgment is paid to the values he espoused. The problem is that Gandhi has been elevated to the status of a Godhead (some might say deservingly), but that exalted position at times precludes an objective debate on the pluses and minuses of his mammoth contribution. Some distinguished thinkers in the past have asserted that one should critically assess the role of Gandhi as a great human being, that he was subject to human frailties, and not blindly deify him. That school of thought was given short shrift by the powers that be and did not have many takers. You might as well try and find fault with Lord Rama. As indeed, some have and not without reason. With little to show for it.
It therefore leaves not very much for me to expand on the Mahatma’s influence on India and the world. Sadly, Gandhi was shockingly slain just as India was beginning to preen itself to the world as a free country, a much longed for status that he fought so valiantly to achieve. ‘Fought’ is not the mot juste when speaking of the peacable Gandhi, but you get my drift. It helped that the British were themselves finding things too hot to handle in India and were desperately seeking avenues to beat a hasty retreat, but Gandhi’s relentless non-violent Satyagraha movement which included the statement making Dandi March, were the main triggers that opened the doors to let in fresh breezes that Indians had not experienced for centuries. Leading to millions revering him. In my constant quest to try and imagine what Gandhi would have thought about how things have turned out in his beloved country over the 71 years since his passing, I have attempted an apocryphal interview with him in the fond hope that my mind reading abilities have not completely deserted me. So, dear reader, imagine if you will, the Mahatma seated comfortably on the floor in his clean and spotless ashram, spinning assiduously his charkha or chakra, as some prefer to erroneously call the spinning wheel.
Question – ‘Bapu, you tragically left us, totally bereft, on January 30th 1948, victim of a shockingly successful assassination attempt. Now that 71 years have passed since that monumental tragedy, what are your thoughts on a day when the nation is celebrating your 150th birthday?’
Gandhi – ‘My young friend, is it not magical that at the age of 150, I can see and hear you so clearly? And that I continue to spin this charkha with so much dexterity? It is as if my age was frozen at 79 years when I fell to Nathuram Godse’s bullets. You may think all this is unreal and that you are in a dream and will suddenly wake up. Let me just say that as long as you are dreaming, accept my words as reality. Clean living and pure thoughts will also keep you young. Not just mentally, but physically. That is the message I would like to give all my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what their age.’
Question – ‘That is so amazing, Bapu. If this is a dream, I fervently hope I will never wake up. Tell me Bapu, does it pain you to see that after toiling so hard for India’s freedom, we are still struggling to fight corruption, petty political squabbles, poverty and hunger on such a large scale?’
Gandhi – ‘Of course these things you mention fill me with great sadness. But you know what they say, “Rome was not built in a day.” It takes time. The 72 years since we achieved Independence, is just a grain of sand or a drop in the ocean, in terms of a country’s ability to lift itself up from foreign bondage, become self-reliant and hold its head up in the comity of nations. Patience is required. And I am very glad to see that things are moving in the right direction. You have a point about political squabbles. It happens all over the world. I won’t worry too much about it. Corruption will gradually vanish once prosperity for all is experienced. It is a matter of time. Plenty of time.’
Question – ‘So well said, Bapu. Changing the subject altogether, I thought I should bring you up to speed on some technological developments since your departure. We have these things called computers, mobile phones and the internet. Extraordinary gadgets and services. For instance, if I were to send you a mail or a message, it would reach you instantly. Blink of an eye. If you permit, I would like to open an email account for you (firstname.lastname@example.org), as well as a Facebook account and Twitter handle. The ‘hits’ you will get will beat all internet records. Just say the word Bapu, and I will take care of the rest.’
Gandhi – ‘You appear to be speaking English, though I cannot follow a word. But if these new-fangled things you speak of enable me to communicate with my people from my heavenly abode, I will not come in the way of your initiative. Though I will need guidance. Speaking of “hits” I guarantee you Hitler will get far more “hits” than I can ever hope for!’
Question – ‘Ha, ha. That is so cool, Bapu. They always said you were a modernist. Incidentally, I don’t know how you are placed for entertainment in heaven, but did you get a chance to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi? It won a pile of Oscars, and Ben Kingsley looked more like you than you do yourself. If that is not an absurd statement.’
Gandhi – ‘It is an absurd statement, but I understand what you are saying. Though I don’t know much about the internet, I did see Gandhi at a special private screening arranged by Attenborough himself. And I must say, I was truly impressed. You are right about Ben Kingsley’s “dead ringer” looks and brilliant portrayal. If I must cavil, his body was much too taut and well-muscled compared to my rather frail frame. I thought Nehru and Jinnah were a bit contrived, but then you can’t have everything. They were a bit contrived in real life as well.’
Question – ‘I shall refrain from responding to the contrivance comment. People back home are very thin skinned. Finally Bapu, what do you feel about the celebrations down below on your 150th birthday?’
Gandhi – ‘I am very glad it is not being overdone, and that my memory is being celebrated by dedicating the day to cleaning up India, in every sense of the word. Please convey my warm regards to Prime Minister Modi, a man from my state of Gujarat and a man after my own heart.’
I raised my head from my Note Pad and, lo and behold, Bapu had vanished into the ether. At the same time, my mobile alarm went off. It was 5 am and I was in my bedroom, rubbing my eyes in disbelief. Was it all an impossible dream? Then this happens. When I switched on the room lights, I saw a pair of spindly wire spectacles lying on my bedside table and a bamboo walking stick leaning against my work table. ‘It can’t be’, I said to myself.
Happy birthday, Bapu.