& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A decade in Toronto - 25

Che and his classmates with
Toronto Mayor John Tory, promoting cricket
Che is to the left of Mayor Tory

2015 was the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India after over two decades’ stay in South Africa (he returned to India on 9th January). He had left for South Africa in 1893, a year that is significant to Indian history (and I’ve written about this earlier, too) as it was in 1893 that Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Congress of Religions in Chicago, transforming the world’s comprehension of a civilisation. It was also the year when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak launched the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav to bring about caste unity.

Gandhi went to South Africa as a lawyer and returned from South Africa as a leader of the masses, equipped to take on the might of an empire. He would transform Indian society and in following decades and have a tremendous impact and influence on the 20th century movements that led to the end of colonialism, the rise of the underclass (the unwashed masses) across the world, and the assertion of fundamental human rights to protect one’s identity.

To commemorate the Mahatma’s return from South Africa, the Government of India launched the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2003 – a three-day congregation of the Indian diaspora that commenced (until Narendra Modi changed the date, for no reason except probably his ideological distaste for all things Gandhian) on January 9 every year.

For 2015, the Government of India produced posters highlighting Gandhi’s rise as a leader in South Africa. I have reproduced one here (these are taken from an earlier blog on the subject: A Pravasi Comes Home). 2019 is the 150th year of the Mahatma.

Today, when nationalism is acquiring dangerous dimensions, and there is a tendency (especially in India) to call anyone who disagrees with the official Hindutva line as an “anti-national”, it’d be relevant to understand Gandhiji’s views on nationalism.

During the Vaikom Satyagraha (anti-untouchability agitation), Gandhiji defined his nationalism thus: “My idea of nationalism is that my country may become free—free that if need be the whole of the country may die—so that the human race may live. There is no room here for race hatred.” (Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings (p. 164). Edited By Irfan Habib. Rupa Publications. Kindle Edition.)

For a unique perspective on the ongoing Sabrimala agitation and its linkage to the Vaikom Satyagraha, read Ramchandra’s Guha’s article: Remembering the Vaikom Satyagraha in the light of Sabrimala

The Pulwama attack by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 44 Indian soldiers has dominated social media in India and in the Indian diaspora abroad. I have often wondered how effective Gandhiji would have been with his satyagraha and nonviolence if he’d faced religious fundamentalists of today. There’s little doubt that he’d have been assassinated all over again, and in double quick time.

There’s a Nathuram Godse in all religions because fundamentalism is an ideology, not religion, and fundamentalists use only those parts of religion that preach intolerance against other religions.

Masood Azhar’s supporters (the perfidious Pakistani establishment) can justify that he is fighting the good fight for his fellow Muslims in Kashmir. But, there’s little to distinguish his thought process from Godse’s. Azhar regularly masterminds the massacre of innocents in the hope that he can bend the Indian state to do his ideological bidding – leave Kashmir. Godse assassinated a man who influenced an entire civilisation to do his bidding for living peaceably together.

In this context, I want to briefly return to the nationalism debate. My former colleague Sudheendra Kulkarni walked out of a television debate recently when the host (the abominable Arnab Goswami) called Sachin Tendulkar anti-national.

Kulkarni's voluminous Music of the Spinning Wheel has a fascinating anecdote of a meeting between the Mahatma and Romain Rolland (Kulkarni presented the book to me when I met him in 2017). 

“I played him the Andante from the Fifth Symphony, and, on Gandhi’s request, returned to the piano and played Gluck’s Elysian Fields from Orfeo, the first orchestral piece and the flute melody,” writes Rolland.
Kulkarni says, “Since Gandhi never showed much interest in Western classical music, we can ask ourselves the question: Why did he expressly ask Rolland to play him Beethoven?” There are many answers to this question, Kulkarni says, and then adds: “…there is another, more important, reason behind Gandhi’s request to Rolland to play Beethoven for him. That reason was Mirabehn.”
What follows is a fascinating narration of a little-known history:
“Strange though it may seem, Beethoven had played a pivotal role in bringing Madeleine Slade to Gandhi. She fell in love with Beethoven’s music when, at age of fifteen, she first heard a composition by him, Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 She writes in her autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, that her whole being was stirred by it; she played it over and over again…She learnt French so that she could read about Beethoven’s life in Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (the 10 volume novel that got him the Literature Nobel)…”
Upon meeting Rolland, she was advised her that “the only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Madeleine had never heard of the Mahatma. Then, after she had read Rolland’s book on the Mahatma (which he had written without having met him), she decided to visit India.
Kulkarni writes, “(Rolland)…had been himself craving deeply for many years to receive Gandhi in Villeneuve and to let him experience Beethoven’s sublime music. In a letter to Mirabehn on 25 April 1927 (that is, four years before Gandhi came to meet Rolland), he had written” “If Gandhi knew him (Beethoven), he would have recognized in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”
“Earlier, too, in his letter to Mahadev Desai on 24 February 1924, Rolland had described Beethoven as ‘our European Mahatma’ who ‘sings in his Ode to Joy; Let us – millions of human beings – embrace each other.’”


Akshya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India was published in 2015 – the year when the first high-profile lynching of a Muslim allegedly for beef consumption occurred in India. (Dadri lynching)

It was just a year after Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India, and there would be many lynchings in the next three years.

Mukul's book gave a perspective to the rise of Hindutva ideology. It linked the rise to the ferment in the Indian society in the late 19th and early 20th century when for the first time since the medieval era, the Hindu identify began to manifest itself socially, culturally, economically, and politically on the Indian subcontinent.

The business class (and in India’s case, the class and the caste almost always subsume) consolidated the Hindu identity by coalescing the other two upper castes (Brahmins and the Kshatriyas) into a force that began to influence the political and sociocultural landscape.

In retrospect, what is surprising is that the subterranean influences that these forces unleashed have remained relevant and have grown in influence to dominate public life in the 21st century. They were reined in and controlled only because of the enduring combined influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mukul’s book also gives deep insights into the relationship that the Indian elite shared – it was a nurturing relationship that overlooked ideological differences in preference of protecting class (and caste) interests. To read more, click here: The ties that bind the elite.


A cinematic experience that I’ll never forget was to see Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights I, II and III at the Toronto International Film Festival, which celebrated four decades in 2015. The film comprises three parts - The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. It is about contemporary Portugal – altogether 383 minutes that narrates the transformation of the Portuguese society through fantasy; especially graphic is the depiction of the relationship between a young woman and a banker. The film is an epic.

My motivation in choosing this all-day film was to know about contemporary society in Portugal, a country that has historical links to India.

To read more about the film, click here: Arabian Nights I, II, III

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