I have pity on birds and respect for Gandhi; I query his quirks and ponder his paintings, follow his final steps and lament his lost legacy.
India is 75% Hindu. Businessmen chant mantras with prayer beads on the Delhi metro, worshippers bow and ring bells at temple entrances, everywhere you look are roadside shrines and colourful pictures of diverse deities. But I’ve been in surprisingly few temples here, as Delhi’s main monuments are mostly Muslim. An acquaintance who moved up from south India said he missed the towering gateways and huge complexes of Hindu temples in his birthplace.
I’ve had a taste of Jainism, a much older faith that stresses non-violence to all living things (see my post on Jainism here). Jain monks wear gauze masks and sweep the path to avoid breathing or crushing little insects, and to enter their temples leather objects like belts must be removed. Opposite the Red Fort in the heart of old Delhi is a Jain Charity Birds’ Hospital. A corridor was lined with cages full of pigeons, peacocks, parrots, finches that were suffering with broken wings, splinted legs, bloodied heads. Above the cages were cartoons of birds caught in fans, power lines or kite strings; attacked by crows, cats or hunters. A poster told of a brave and merciful divine king who gave pieces of his own flesh, and finally his whole life, to save a pigeon from a hawk.
The nonviolence of Jainism strongly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, whom I’ve long admired. As a science graduate I love the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth – I introduced the book and the man here. At the National Gandhi Museum I was again inspired. I wish I could truthfully say, as Gandhi did, “My life is my message”, or, “My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another”. Gandhi went one day per week without talking and again I was challenged by his emphasis on silence. So much of my speech is empty chatter and self-seeking aggrandisement.
A plaque outside had Gandhi’s “Talisman” that shows his compassion for the poor. It was some of the last advice he gave:
Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.
Gandhi spent his last 144 days at Birla house. It’s now the “Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum”, which presents “a spectrum of information technology visions inspired by Gandhian thought”. Pluck a harp string to hear a recorded national freedom song, or press a harmonium key for an interfaith hymn. Pick up salt from an urn to play a presentation on Gandhi’s Salt March, hold up your hands to activate lights on the Pillar of Castelessness, or turn a train cab’s steering wheel to select video clips on Gandhi’s train journeys around India. A little quirky, but fun for the kids and designed with high ideals: “Each object in the Museum, whether a pixel of light, a bit-map on the screen, an animation, a circuit or a handcrafted object is a living prayer.”
I wondered how well it all fitted with the stark simplicity of Gandhi’s life. In his bedroom his few possessions were on display, almost untouched since his death: a mattress on the floor, low writing desk, spinning wheel, staff, sandals and Bhagavad Gita on his pillow, and a small wooden sculpture of the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil. Through the French doors, low hedges lined his final path. 182 footsteps set in concrete lead to a small shrine in the garden where he was shot on 30 January, 1948 by a fundamentalist Hindu. A video counted down the minutes to 5:17 as he went to morning prayer. A 1968 cartoon sent a shiver down my spine. Gandhi speaks to Martin Luther King: “The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”
I farewelled Gandhi at Rajghat. On a black marble plinth where he was cremated are engraved the last words he is said to have spoken, “Hai Ram”, invoking the god he loved. A small group of Buddhist monks sat with a turbaned Sikh and a western woman, chanting together for peace. They reminded me of paintings in the Gandhi Museum. In one, Buddha, Christ and Gandhi tread a shining path to rescue the suffering masses from demons. In another, rivers flow from a church, temple and mosque to unite in a blue shawl draped over Gandhi’s shoulders; with blood dripping from three bullet wounds in his bare chest, he embraces four figures: a Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.
The site is near the Yamuna River. The shoreline is hard to access, but I got a distant glimpse, or rather a pungent smell: in effect it’s an open sewer. Gandhi’s ashes were scattered where the Yamuna meets the Ganges downstream in Allahabad. I’ll be there next week!
Gandhi was a man of incredible integrity who always practised what he preached. A woman once asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi requested she return in a week. She did so, and Gandhi asked her boy to abstain from the sweet stuff. Mum asked why he didn’t say so the first week. A week ago, Gandhi replied, I still ate sugar myself.
The character of such founding fathers of India has sadly not endured. A newspaper article on India’s culture of hypocrisy had a cartoon of a pious haloed bureaucrat in traditional white shirt, with a photo of Gandhi and his slogan “high thinking, simple living” on the wall. Below his desk, he is in jeans and sneakers, with a box for bribes and the floor littered with cigarettes, alcohol bottles, meat bones and a rifle.
I’ve seen estimates that India’s black economy is one third of the official one or even as great – bringing the statistical consolation, quips writer Shashi Tharoor, that India’s GDP is twice the official figure so the average Indian is only half as poor as he thought! A friend told me this story.
An Indian Member of Parliament visits an American counterpart and admires his luxurious private home: “How did you afford this?” His Yankee friend points upstream: “See that bridge? 10% cut.” Next year the American MP visits his Indian pal and is speechless at the palace where he lives, his fleet of antique cars, his stable of racehorses and army of retainers: how could a lowly back bencher pay for all this? The Indian takes his friend for a stroll to the river that flows past his estate. “Do you see that bridge downstream?” he asks. The American looks, rubs his eyes, looks again – he can’t see a thing. The Indian grins at his friend and winks. “100%”.
I can understand why Shashi Tharoor writes with admiration, “we were not led by a saint with his head in clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground”, but regretfully defines Gandhi as:
A legendary, almost mythical figure, shrouded in the mists of history and the masks of textbooks, whose precepts, like God’s, are cited more often than obeyed. The father of our nation, with a billion children and no followers.
I’ve seen signs that some people may be getting fed up. In the Gandhi Museum a young man wore a T-shirt proclaiming “India Against Corruption”, and there is an official website based in Bangalore to report it: www.ipaidabribe.com.