& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mahatma’s apostles

The Spirit's Pilgrimage is the autobiography of Madeleine Slade, better known to Indians as Mirabehn. In a moving story, she recounts how her interest in Beethoven was indirectly responsible for her awakening. It was Beethoven's music which led her to Romain Rolland, the French philosopher who guided her footsteps to Gandhiji. 

Rolland's book, Mahatma Gandhi, revealed to Mirabehn her one and only master, whom she served throughout her life. Without second thoughts, she gave up an affluent life in England and came to India, completely immersing herself in Gandhiji's life and work.

Mirabehn wasn't alone. There were several others who gave up everything they had, or could ever have had, to identify themselves with the man they considered next only to God - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It wasn't just the Mahatma's personality that attracted them; it was what he wanted to attain and they all came to share his dreams.

While Jawaharlal, Vallabhbhai and the Maulana (among others) were the political arms of Gandhiji, his work for the social reconstruction of Indian society – more important to him than the political transformation of the country – was done by a chosen few, working away from the limelight, quietly.

Disciples, through their long association with Gandhiji and his work, became his true apostles. They were Mahadevbhai Desai, JC Kumarappa, Mirabehn, Valji Govindji Desai, Kishorelal Mashruwala and Narhari Parekh.

For them nothing could ever come in the way of their endeavour to serve Gandhiji and carry out, without exception, even the most menial tasks assigned to them. Gandhiji's wish was their command.

When she first came to Sabarmati Ashram Mirabehn was given the task of keeping the premises clean. It is said that she did this with such thoroughness and sense of purpose that nobody could fail to notice it.

Mahadev Desai

Mahadevbhai Desai was, so to say, the first among equals. Thomas Hyslop, writing on Gandhiji's role as a social revolutionary in Quest for Gandhi, describes Desai thus: "Mahadev Desai, for over 24 years the secretary and chronicler of Gandhi, is in fact so able a reporter that her has been called Gandhi's Boswell…"

An incident which clearly illustrates the depth of Mahadevbhai's scholarly eminence occurred when master and disciple were languishing in jail. The discussion between the two veered towards literature and its social relevance.
Mahadevbhai was of the opinion that both Tolstoy and Ruskin initially concentrated only on pure art, but Ruskin later realized that life was much more than just art and literature; and that the advancement of the two could not alleviate stark poverty even indirectly.

It was this realisation that made Ruskin write Unto the Last – the book which forever changed the life of the Mahatma. Gandhiji felt that though Tolstoy too went through a similar phase, he did not write any such book.

To this Mahadevbhai replied that unlike Ruskin, Tolstoy was a true revolutionary and did not limit himself to writing a book, he changed his lifestyle totally. Gandhiji found this an important distinction.

Though he had translated Rabindranth Tagore's Chitrangada into Gujarati, most of Mahadevbhai's later writings were on Gandhiji's multifarious activities. The most memorable writings are the diaries Mahadevbhai wrote detailing Gandhiji's visit to England to attend the Round Table Conference, his internment in Yerwada jail, the Bardoli satyagraha and others.

Despite being an authority on the Bhagwad Gita himself, he was content with translating Gandhiji's commentaries on the Gita into English.

Mahadevbhai's end came quite unexpectedly, in August 1942, when Gandhiji and all the top ranking leaders of the Congress had been jailed in the wake of the Quit India movement. He was more than a son to Gandhiji and the Mahatma, never one to publicly display emotions, is said to have broken down when he heard of his demise.

Joseph Chelladurai Kumarappa

File:Kumarappa.jpgJC Kumarappa was born just a few days after Mahadevbhai, on January 4, 1892. His father was a civil servant and his mother, a deeply religious Christian. Kumarappa was the unlikeliest of Gandhiji's disciple.

Having studied in England, he had come back to India and started a chartered accountancy practice, through a partnership firm. It was while Kumarappa was researching the article he was writing on the causes of Indian poverty that his transformation to a nationalist began.

While he was in the United States, he wrote a book on public finance and Indian poverty. This book was read by Gandhiji, who called Kumarappa over to his ashram for a meeting.

That meeting changed Kumarappa's entire worldview and life. He gave up his practice and took up a job as a professor with Gujarat University, at that time totally controlled by nationalist leaders.

At Gandhiji's behest he undertook several research projects on the feasibility of initiating agro-based village industries in several villages of Gujarat.

Moreover, he was entrusted with the task of editing Young India when both the Mahatma and Mahadevbhai were in jail, which was quite frequent.

Kumarappa was so involved with Young India that once, when authorities sealed the offices of the publication in the hope that it would cease bothering them for a while, Kumarappa cyclostyled the content and managed to hit the newsstands in time.

Besides such crusading activism, Kumarappa was one of the main formulators of the Congress's policy on India's economy. He also drew Gandhiji's attention to the importance of applying economic theories to village-based industries.

After Independence, Kumarappa was appointed as an advisory member to the Planning Commission; but he could not see eye to eye with Nehru's ideas on state planning and disassociated himself with the Commission.

In 1959, he left Wardha and went to a village near Madurai, a broken-hearted man. On January 30, 1960 – 12 years after his guru's death – Kumarappa passed away.

Kishorelal Mashruwala

Kishorelal Mashruwala never really claimed that he was a Gandhian, but he worked all his life to make people adopt not just his ideals and values, but also Gandhiji's concern for social reconstruction. He was the head of the Gandhi Seva Sangh since its inception in 1925 till 1940, when failing health forced him to relinquish the post.

Gandhiji, instead of appointing someone else, wound up the organization, much to the consternation of the day's political heavyweights, members of the Sangh themselves.

Kishorelal MashruwalaAfter Gandhiji's assassination, Mashruwala took charge of editing and publishing Harijan and was quite vehement in his opposition to the Congress government of the post-Independence era. He wrote Gandhi and Marx which gives a glimpse of the immense understanding that he had of Gandhian philosophy.

He observed, "When it is said that Gandhism is Communism minus violence, the impression created is that the violence factor in communism is some small impurity, the removal of which will make it the same as Gandhism. The minus violence factor is of considerable value. The implications of minus violence are so great as to make the equation as illusory as to say that red is green minus yellow and blue, or a worm is a snake minus poison."

Narhari Parekh was a fervent organizer of the several activities that the Mahatma initiated. He was also a writer and between 1916 and 1956 he authored 15 books, six translations and edited nine collections. He concentrated on the constructive-work programmes of Gandhiji.

Valji Govindji Desai is best remembered for causing immense trouble at school where he was doing his matriculation; calling for a hartal when he heard that Khudiram Bose had been executed. He too had a long and fruitful association with Gandhiji.

With such disciples working wholeheartedly towards achieving India's social reconstruction, Gandhiji could well afford to devote a major part of his time to political transformation. 

He, however, never thought himself the master. For Gandhiji, the relationship he shared with Mirabehn, Mahadevbhai and others was not that of teacher-disciple.

Writing to Romain Rolland after Mirabehn had arrived in India, Gandhiji said: "What a treasure you have sent me: I shall try to be worthy of the great trust. I shall leave no stone upturned to assist her (Mirabehn) to become a bridge between East and West. I am too imperfect to have disciples. She shall be a fellow-seeker. I propose to share the honour of fatherhood with you."

Patriotism v/s Nationalism

In his insightful though not unbiased book What Went Wrong? The clash between Islam andmodernity in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, the British American historian, makes a challenging observation while assessing the impact of western ideas on the Ottoman Empire. 

Incidentally, the book was dismissed as being too simplistic by Edward Said.

Bernard Lewis
Lewis writes, "The impact of Western example and Western ideas also brought new definitions of identity and consequently new allegiance and aspirations. Two ideas were especially important, both new in a culture where identity was basically religious and allegiance normally dynastic.

"The first was that of patriotism, coming from Western Europe...and favoured by the younger Ottoman elites, who saw in an Ottoman patriotism a way of binding together the heterogeneous populations of the empire in a common love of country expressed in a common allegiance of its ruler.

"The second, from Central and Eastern Europe, was nationalism, a more ethnic and linguistic definition of identity, the effect of which in the Ottoman political community was not to unify but to divide and disrupt."

This distinction is not often made and almost never understood. In the last decade-and-a-half, both nationalism and patriotism have remained central to public discourse. 

Post 9/11 the flag-waving, bumper-sticker variety of American patriotism has drawn both derision and delight.

Nationalism is a different issue. It faces twin challenges – globalization and ethnicity. Globalisation appears to be making nationalities and national boundaries obsolete if not completely irrelevant. 

Equally, rising ethnicity seems to be sharply redefining nationalism. On another level, nationalism - perhaps in self-defense - is increasingly becoming strident and militant.

In India, nationalism continues to dominate political and public discourse. It is used to justify the dominance of the elite. But the system is indicating signs of uneasiness with the hegemony of nationalism. 

It isn't just the "problem areas" of the North-East, Kashmir and the Maoist-controlled middle India (or the Punjab and Assam earlier) it is the growing alienation of the people of the country with obsessive politics of the last two decades.

It is this discomfort perhaps that has led to flag-waving patriotism becoming more acceptable with the people, because it does not seek any major commitment from them, whereas nationalism does. 

In a slightly different context this phenomenon is also evident with the Indian diaspora.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hoover Buildings

I've been quite busy with my citizenship test preparation. So, not much time to read, and hence, one of the rare posts that belongs to the "Occasionally about other things, too" category. 

What’s in a name? Apparently a lot, if it’s Hoover
Herbert Clark Hoover Building

Unlike in North America, where buildings are identified by their street numbers, in India, they are identified by their names.

The Department of Commerce headquarters in Washington DC is on 1401 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC. It’s also called the Hoover Building, named after Herbert Clark Hoover, who was both the Secretary of Commerce and subsequently President of the United States.

File:Fbi headquarters.jpg
J. Edgar Hoover Building
The Federal Bureau of Investigations headquarters in Washington DC is on 935 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Coincidentally, the FBI headquarters is also known as the Hoover Building, named after the legendary head of FBI chief J Edgar Hoover.

In the early 2000 I worked for the US Consulate in Bombay. I had what many agreed was a resplendent, flowing beard that had recently begun to turn grey. I looked like a college professor. 

In March 2002, less than a year after 9/11, I was selected for a two-week workshop at the Department of Commerce headquarters.

It was my first trip to the US. And I knew I had to go to the Hoover Building.

On the connecting flight from a city in Europe (I think it was Amsterdam) to Washington DC, I was sitting next to a spunky woman in her late 60s.

As I recall, she was returning home after a short European sojourn.

We chatted for a while about movies, India, the United States.

“What do you do?” she asked me.

“I work for the US government,” I replied, and offered, “I’m going to attend a training session in Washington DC.”

“Where in DC?” she asked.

“The Hoover Building,” I said.

Then, I wasn’t aware that the FBI headquarters was also at the Hoover Building.

Her interest spiked immediately.

“What sort of training? Languages?” she asked.

“I don’t really know,” I answered truthfully.

“Oh, I get it. You aren’t allowed to talk,” she said.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” I said.

Then after a pause, she asked, “Are you really from India?”


“You look like you’re from somewhere in the Middle East.”

“Oh, that must be because of my beard.”

“I guess,” she said and smiled vaguely.

I smiled back and we chatted some more about movies, but her demeanour had changed perceptibly. She was more observant, she was asking more questions.

“Welcome to America,” she said when our plane landed at Washington DC.

Then added enigmatically: “Have a great training. We need people like you.”

I went and checked into the Four Seasons hotel. It was only the next morning when I went to the concierge and asked for a cab to take me to the Hoover building, the man behind the counter, after dialing the cab company, asked me, “Which Hoover building?”

I checked the address and said, “The one on Constitution Avenue.”

The drive from the hotel to the Hoover building was quick, and memorable.

“Are there two Hoover buildings in Washington DC?” I asked the cab driver.

“Yes, the more famous one is the FBI headquarters,” he said, and looked at me from the rear view mirror.

I realized that my fellow passenger in the transatlantic flight had taken me for a spy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience - I

I have enrolled for Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience, a six-part study series conducted by Sanja Ivanov of the University of Waterloo at the Toronto Public Library’s College Street branch.

We will be reading short stories by four authors David Bezmozgis (Natasha and other stories), Tamas Dobozy (Last Notes and other stories), Rohinton Mistry (Tales from Firozsha Baag), Dionne Brand (Sans Souci and other stories)

“The six-week literature course will explore the diverse manners in which contemporary authors portray immigrant experiences in Toronto. Close reading of the selected literary works will provide an insight into the roles of ethnicity, class, race, language, and place in the negotiations of identity and sense of belonging.”

The second session of the series was a discussion on Bezmozgis’s two stories – Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, and The Second Strongest Man – from his debut collection Natasha and other stories.

(“The book is a collection of linked stories about the Bermans, a Jewish family from Latvia adapting to their new life as immigrants to Canada. The central character is Mark Berman, who is a young child when the family first arrives in Canada.”*)

The discussion – interesting as it was – also conclusively proved that writing and reading although intricately linked are actually very different activities. Just as writing is linked with the personality of a writer, so is reading.

Yes, incredible though it may sound, reading is dependent upon a reader’s personality.

Let me explain this: The world that the writer creates is not necessarily the world that her readers create reading the writer’s creation.
The participants (readers) in the program had read the stories in their own individual (even individualistic) ways, each interpreting and relating to them differently.

As Angela Carter has said, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.” **

Another interpretation of the changing relationship between the author and the reader is offered by Daniel Neville (Nevolution –  http://nevolution.typepad.com)  while explaining the concept of complexism developed by generative artist and theorist Philip Galanter.

(Generative artist and theorist Philip Galanter (http://philipgalanter.com) has created the concept of Complexism - the application of a scientific understanding of complex systems to the subject matter of the arts and the humanities.)

Neville states, “Galanter provides an easy method to understand the shift between the relationship of these three entities (the author, text and the reader). It places an equal emphasis on all three, allowing all to be part of the same process. Modernism - taking a lead from the Enlightenment - sought to view the author as being in complete control of the text; the reader merely an afterthought.

"The shift that occurred through Postmodernism inverted this relationship away from viewing the author as in control of the text, to viewing the reader as able capable of many interpretations. In the Modernist relationship, there is no reader, in the Postmodern relationship, the author is dead. There is a missing actor in both examples.

"Galanter sees the relationship requiring all three components to make it work. This does not deny the role of the author in regard to the “totalising masterpiece” nor does it deny the readers ability to create their own meaning with the text.

"It holds all three as existing within the same relationship, giving each an equal status. We see the role of the individual as not just a Designer/Producer, nor as just an Author/Consumer, but instead acting as an Editor/Prosumer. By being situated between the two texts, the text that he/she reads that informs the text that he/she creates.”

More on this in the coming weeks.

First illustration by Laurence Musgrove (taken from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lemusgro)

Second illustration taken from http://nevolution.typepad.com

* Taken from Wikipedia

** Taken from Teri Windling’s blog Myth & Moor