Literary Review

The Mahatma in Manhattan

Standing tall: The statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington.  

In the midst of the barrage of news about the presidential elections, Americans have just welcomed the arrival of the third book of March, a graphic novel about the Civil Rights Movement. Told through the prism of the life of John Lewis, a long-time U.S. Representative and one of the heroes of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the three volumes add up to almost 600 pages. When the first book came out with an easy-to-read story and vividly drawn visuals, it became an instant sensation. It stayed on The New York Times list of Top 10 bestsellers for 49 weeks.

It all began with a small 16 page, 10 cent, comic booklet, published in 1957 titled, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which articulated the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the non-violent resistance deployed by King. Lewis was deeply impacted by this comic.

Millions of copies of March have already been sold. The New York City Department of Education has included it as part of the Social Studies programme for eighth graders. And it is included in the reading programmes in many universities throughout the country. March, along with other materials of the civil rights era, continues to keep the memory of one of the most significant events in the history of the U.S. alive and relevant.

Lewis is proud to acknowledge that his life story can now serve as a roadmap for the next generation of activists, not only as an inspiration, but also as a guide to develop skills necessary for “being the change you want to see in the world.”

The last phrase should resonate immediately with Indian readers. It’s one of the lines most often attributed to Gandhi, who inspired King to develop a non-violent protest for civil rights for African-Americans. King vividly described his first encounter with the philosophy and actions of Gandhi: “The whole concept of Satyagraha was profoundly significant to me… Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from others, I found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

As I perused March and the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, sometimes bleak (blacks being beaten senselessly for attempting to sit in the front of the bus), but often inspirational (King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech), I felt sad.

I heard Lewis’ interviews and I saw pictures of young Chinese-American, Latino, African-American and white kids, eagerly talking to Lewis and reading the illustrated book, and I thought of my younger grand-nieces and nephews in India. Where and how could they get excited about the non-violent struggle that is uniformly acknowledged as India’s unique contribution to the world of social justice?

What if there were a series of comic books like Amar Chitra Katha, all focused on key moments in the struggle, such as the Salt March or the Quit India movement? What if there were interactive museums where young people could imagine being a freedom fighter or a participant in the Salt March?

What if, through the prism of the Independence Movement, young people were taught the lessons of effective social activism? How wonderful it would be if they understood the legacy and impact of Gandhi on the rest of the world by learning about King and Nelson Mandela?

Next year, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. It’s not too late to begin planning innovative ways to bring to life India’s unique contribution to the world. March shows us that it’s possible to make such a project exciting and impactful at the same time.

King said that “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.” This Independence Day, let us engage young people in learning about the unique legacy of Gandhi and understanding its implications for our times.

Vishakha N. Desai is Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University, President Emerita of Asia Society.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 7:53:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/The-Mahatma-in-Manhattan/article14566324.ece

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