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Mahatma and the ritualistic ism

This is what happened one-and-a-half decades ago. I was asked to perform tervi in the memory of my paternal uncle, who had just passed away after living a quiet life in Porbandar. The pujari, who was asked to perform the ceremony for me, was an old man. He asked me pointblank, which took me by complete surprise: “Mahatma Gandhi never believed in these rituals. Why are you performing this ritual?” The pujari told me that his great grandfather used to perform puja for the Gandhi family in Porbandar. He was called in because my aunt, Vinuben, who had passed away a few years earlier, belonged to Porbandar’s Gandhi family.
My aunt was younger sister of Manuben Gandhi, who was with Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, when the Mahatma was shot by a Hindu terrorist. Grand niece of Mahatma Gandhi, my aunt was in charge of the Kirti Mandir till she passed away. Thereafter, my uncle, who always clad khadi and Gandhi topi as a ritual, was forced to move out of Kirti Mandir. He wanted to live on there itself in a corner, but was not allowed. Though he owned a small house, being alone (they had no issue), he preferred to live with the descendants of the Gandhi family. It is they who called me from Ahmedabad, saying only I should perform tervi.
Clad in white kurta-pyjama next to a small temple off the sea shore, I sat for the ritual which I would have termed “theatre of the absurd” in a personal talk with friends. I replied to the pujari, quite sheepishly, guilty of violating the Mahatma dictum: “My relatives wanted me to do it, hence I decided to perform the rite. You see, I had no choice.” The pujari smiled, looked at me suspiciously through his old, round specs, and began the ceremony. But his query even today reminds me starkly what the Mahatma stood for, and what he didn’t.
Indeed, rites and rituals never mattered to those who were wedded to the Gandhian ideology. As a small child, on every auspicious occasion, my mother, a freedom fighter and a comrade-in-arm of Mridula Sarabhai, would prefer bhajans over rituals. All bhajans would be selected from Ashram Bhajanavali. But as a rule she would never call a pujari. Even for the house-warming ceremony in Delhi, the pujari was avoided. Children of our family friends, instead, performed the “rites”, it was such great fun. She wouldn’t generally wear khadi, yet simplicity was her buzzword. She treated persons of all castes and religions with an equal eye.
In fact, she once proudly recalled an incident when she was shunted out of her house by her parents for refusing to “repent” and “cleanse” herself after she had meal with Harijans. “I went away and stayed with my mama (maternal uncle), who was close to Gandhiji”, she told me. My grandmother, who had asked my mother to repent, regretted the incident in late 1970s. All of us were sitting next to the bed of my mother, who was deeply sick, and she said: “Vanu (as she was called), you were right, and I wasn’t. You fought untouchability. We couldn’t overcome the bane. Even today we haven’t fully recovered.”
In 1993, I made Gujarat my homeland, something I always aspired for. I had just returned from Moscow after a seven-year assignment as Patriot and Link correspondent. Working with the Times of India, somewhat as a pastime I would try discussing Gandhi with relatives and friends. What struck me was the general disdain with which the Mahatma was being treated. “He created Pakistan” was one theme from my middle class near-and-dear ones. Another was how the Mahatma’s ways “appeased” Muslims out of all proportions. Even today, I find, the image of the Mahatma remains what it was then. To them, Narendra Modi is their new “defender” against “Muslim terror”, which had “ruled” Gujarat till the 2002 riots. They even tell me how he stands heads and shoulders above the Mahatma.
I also found that Ahmedabad was a deeply divided city, segregated between Hindus and Muslims. It has become even more divided, a decade after the 2002 riots. It all began during the Babri Mosque outrage in 1992-93. Two of my relatives who lived in a Muslim-dominated area of Paldi sold off his house for peanuts to feel “safe” in Hindu-only areas. A top Muslim architect, who had a big house with a swimming pool, had to leave the “Hindu” area after his house was razed to ashes amidst Babri Mosque outrage. I found the division between Hindus and Muslims were deep. I wondered: What had happened? Where were Gandhians?
Among other places, I visited Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the university founded by the Mahatma, and Gandhi Ashram. It shocked me. Gandhi had been reduced to a ritual. Ramlal Parikh then ruled the roost in Gujarat Vidyapeeth, while Morarji Desai was its life-time chancellor. Entering his cabin, I found khadi all the way. Parikh sat on a comfortable khadi gadda, and he warmly greeted me. I asked him a simple question: “What do you think, what does Gandhism mean to you?” Parikh began his lecture. He explained it meant non-violence in daily life, vegetarianism, and all that. “It keeps your body clean and pure”, he explained, giving certain “Gandhian” medical tips to me to keep me healthy.
I asked the Vidyapeeth chief: “I see lot of violence in society here. There is a deep division between Hindus and Muslims. What do you have to say of that?” Parikh didn’t expect the question. He answered, “Well, that’s a law-and-order problem. The government should deal with it.” And what was the duty of those who run an institute founded by the Mahatma, who the epitome of communal amity? He answered, “I’ve told you. Frankly, Gujarat Vidyapeeth can’t do anything about it.” Amrut Modi, who headed Gandhi Ashram, was more guarded, but his views didn’t differ much from Parikh. Insiders confirm, ritual rules both in Vidyapeeth and the Ashram in the same way as it ruled in 1990s.
Then there were Gandhians who spoke of how the Mahatma stood for alternative sources of energy, or for village self-sufficiency was the only source of end to exploitation. Issues related with casteism or communalism, as if, didn’t exist in the Mahatma’s vocabulary. There were, of course, exceptions, but these were hardly in between. Not without reason, during the 2002 communal violence, the worst one since Gujarat was formed in 1960, no Gandhians were traceable. A few small voluntary organizations, instead, kept high the banner of non-violence in public life. They live on and fight even now, though their influence is quite narrow. And, in sharp contrast, there’s a chief minister, whose thinking on Gandhi doesn’t go beyond asking people to buy and wear khadi.


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