Saturday, October 5, 2013

Arun Gandhi: Lessons from My Grandfather

Last week, Rollins enjoyed a visit from Mr. Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, the man who made non-violent resistance world famous.  I’ve often thought that Mohandas Gandhi would have been a good candidate for a “man of the century” award, but, when I googled this phrase, I discovered that Time Magazine had named Albert Einstein the Man of the Century in 1999.  Einstein is also a worthy choice, but I was pleased to see that Gandhi was listed by Time as a runner-up.

Arun Gandhi keeps up the work of his influential grandfather though, as he is quick to point out, he does not maintain the ascetic lifestyle of the Mahatma.  He spoke to the campus on Wednesday evening in the Knowles Chapel.  The crowd who came to hear him filled the chapel such that a video feed had to be set up in the Tiedtke Auditorium to accommodate the spillover audience.

He had a number of interesting stories about his grandfather as well as about his grandmother who, it turns out, was near to being saintly in her own right, given the demands of the Mahatma’s austere and single-minded life.   

Gandhi used to sell his autograph for five dollars apiece as a way to raise money for his cause.  When he was about twelve, young Arun had made up his mind to get his grandfather’s autograph without paying the “fee.”  His struggle went on for months, and involved him interfering in his grandfather’s important meetings always with the hope that the Mahatma would give up and in exasperation offer a free autograph to his grandson just to end the nuisance.  It didn’t work.  And tellingly, Gandhi’s unyielding intransigence did not involve any sort of physical punishment or harsh verbal scolding.  The worst that happened to the boy was that when his grandfather was busy in a discussion with colleagues, if Arun showed up with his autograph book, the Mahatma would put his hand over the boy’s mouth and hold his head to his breast to keep him still.  But of free autographs, there were none, not even for beloved grandchildren.

At a later discussion, Mr. Gandhi recounted an incident when he talked Jawaharlal Nehru (who was destined to be India’s first prime minister) into making him an omelet by claiming that he ate eggs – something Mahatma Gandhi did not do.  When his grandfather found out, he questioned the boy’s parents about eating eggs.  “No,” they said, “we do not eat eggs in our household.”  So later when Gandhi was together with his son and grandson he asked, “Now which one of you is telling the truth? Arun, you told Mr. Nehru that you eat eggs, but your father says no eggs are eaten in your household.”

“Well,” replied Arun, “we eat cakes in our house, and I don’t believe you can make cakes without eggs.”  At this the Mahatma laughed and said, “Yes, you will make a fine lawyer someday.”

I had the honor of driving Mr. Gandhi to the airport at the conclusion of his visit.  On the way there he talked about Gandhi’s idea that people should not have enemies.  “As soon as you see someone as an enemy,” said Arun, “you dehumanize them.”

I was also interested to hear him talk about the rivalry between north Indians and south Indians that even finds expression in communities here in the United States.  North Indians prefer statues of deities made of white marble, while south Indians prefer black marble.  In fact, there is no religious reason to prefer one over the other, but sometimes communities break apart over this issue and set up separate Hindu temples just because they’re being “cussed.”

I loved hearing Mr. Gandhi use the word “cussed,” which I don’t believe I’ve known anyone to utter since about 1958.

When I asked him about Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, he said that he thought it did a very good job of portraying his grandfather’s philosophy and personality.  Some people criticized the film, he said, because it didn’t give adequate credit to Mr. Nehru and other leaders who worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi for the independence of India.  But, after all, he added, it was a film about Gandhi, so this kind of distortion is to be expected.

When I asked if he and his grandfather appreciated satire, Arun said, yes, if it was appropriately aimed and not too bitter.  His grandfather, he insisted, had a terrific sense of humor. 

When I finally said good-bye to him at the airport, I encouraged him to come back and spend more time at Rollins, and I was glad to see that his response suggested that he just might. 

The following morning, I bragged a little to my class about having had the honor of taking Mr. Gandhi to the airport.  They were duly impressed.  Then I told them that we got into an argument over my driving that resulted in fisticuffs, at which they laughed.  They knew I was joking; not even I could be that cussed.

    With Mr. Arun Gandhi at the Knowles Chapel

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