Why Gandhi Still Matters: Rajmohan Gandhi tells over an austere meal

Over an austere meal, Rajmohan Gandhi tells us how the man with capacious stomach made fast a potent tool against the British Empire

May 18, 2017 07:00 am | Updated May 20, 2017 12:38 pm IST

New Delhi, 09/05/2017: For Metro Plus ---  Biographer Rajmohan Gandhi at the Oudh Restaurant in Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi on May 09,2017. Photo : R. V. Moorthy

New Delhi, 09/05/2017: For Metro Plus --- Biographer Rajmohan Gandhi at the Oudh Restaurant in Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi on May 09,2017. Photo : R. V. Moorthy

Almost 70 years after he was silenced by a bullet, Mahatma Gandhi continues to be the strongest symbol of peace and non violence across the world. Putting his life and times in perspective, noted scholar and Mahatma’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi has penned an honest appraisal of the Mahatma’s legacy. In Why Gandhi Still Matters (Aleph), Gandhi traces why Mahatma continues to live on. “If you look at any other country, is there any figure who died 70 years ago and is recalled in conversation, is evoked in debates like Gandhi is in India? He may be criticised but he is relevant. He is a topic of discussion, heated discussion, ” says Gandhi as we settle for a leisurely lunch at Oudh restaurant in The Ashok hotel. “I am very glad that I will be presented to the future as a glutton,” quips Gandhi as he frugally populates his plate with vegetarian fare.

Timeless appeal

Coming to his timeless appeal, Gandhi reflects, “He had aims beyond the freedom of India. His vision was not limited to the Indian Freedom Movement. From the very beginning he had an international team around him.” One of them was Charlie Andrews, who urged Gandhi to focus just on removal of untouchability for the rest of his life. Like many of us, he felt that the Mahatma’s focus often shifted from one issue to another. Gandhi reminds the answer lies in Mahatma’s response that he is “just like a pianist, now emphasising one note and now another. But they are related to one another.”

Gandhi admits that Mahatma helped recruit Indian soldiers for the British Army during the First World War and supported the dispatch of Indian soldiers to Kashmir in 1947. Doesn’t it dilute his idea of non violence? Gandhi reasons that he felt if he offerred to recruit soldiers, the British would be more willing to consider Indian demands. “He was acting like a political leader there. However, he never compromised on using violence in the Indian Freedom Movement. We have to ask why he felt that in some international scenarios violence was unavoidable but in India’s internal struggle, violence should not be used. My own understanding is, and he has also written, that if we make violence respectable in this nation where there are dominant high castes and musclemen in all villages, the vulnerable, the physically weak and the women will be crushed. In Kashmir, he agreed to send forces but simultaneously he said that the will of the people should prevail.”

An important part of Mahatma’s struggle for freedom was to inculcate self denial in his daily existence. Recently, Barack Obama showed interest in having dinner with Mahatma. “Yes, somebody asked him if there is a table for two whom would he like to have, and he said, ‘Well, Gandhi.’ His emphasis on the need to be master of what you are eating rather than being governed by what you eat makes Gandhi figure in any discussion on food,” says the grandson as he tries tempered yellow dal, stuffed brinjal and roti.

Sense of sacrifice

Talking about Mahatma’s food habits, Gandhi reminds that while writing about his life in London, Mahatma admitted of having “a capacious stomach.” “In London, he was living with an English family who would give him only two slices of bread.” Gandhi goes on to recount an incident. “In Sabarmati Ashram, some women were enjoying their food. As Gandhi walked past them, he teased them, ‘Oh! you are enjoying your masalas.’ Ashram food was supposed to be very simple. Kasturba hit back. ‘Oh! you say this to us but do you remember the days when you used to just eat off all the delicious things I used to make for you.’ So Gandhi did enjoy his food but discipline in food was part of his general conviction that those who fight for freedom need self discipline and if need be self denial and fasting. The Indian Freedom Movement was based on a sense of sacrifice. You might say some of the rules went too far but it is easy to say this now but in those days it was not as if everybody was in favour of the Freedom Movement. Many people were happy with hotels, salaams by men in uniform, and invitations from the Governor General. The freedom fighters had to face taunt and mockery. So creating a feeling of self denial was also part of the Movement.”

Fond of fruits and salads, Gandhi says Mahatma had given up tea and coffee. “Though in the early days he was fond of these beverages, he never became a gourmet. He decided to give them up step by step. Some people find fasting easy, he didn’t yet he persisted with it.”

He used to cook. “During the early years in the ashram, people did see him in the kitchen. And then there is reference of him cooking in Noakhali in the last phase. He was very good at peeling vegetables,” says Gandhi who hasn’t imbibed such skills.

On his foreign assignments, Gandhi assumes, Mahatma carried his food because he could not afford to fall ill. “In those days, the concept of working lunch was not there. However, there is an interesting incident. When he was visiting England from South Africa, there was a public event where drinks were being served. Gandhi had no problem in passing the glasses of wine from one end of the table to the other. He never consumed it, but he was sufficiently well-mannered to cooperate.”

In these times, when a section of people is trying to guide the eating habits in society, Mahatma’s take is worth remembering. “His take would have been human life is the most important. Secondly people should not coerce one another. Of course, he honoured the cow and this question came up many times in his life. He would have been very happy if Muslims would shun eating beef but at the same time freedom of the individual was very important for Gandhi and he said it again and again and was against coercion of all kinds. Coercion can come from the State; it can come from the street.”

Lessons in frugality

Turning to his experiences with his grandfather, Gandhi remembers how Mahatma mocked a new pair of spectacles that he was wearing. “He said, ‘You have something new on your nose.’ I fought back, ‘you know I have weak eyes. I needed the new spectacles.’ ‘And you also needed a new frame,’ he asked. He was trying to teach me the value of frugality.” On another occasion, Gandhi says, when he wrote a letter to him, Mahatma replied, “ ‘When you are writing to an old person, whose eyes may be weak, use pen and not a pencil.’ He was trying to teach me to think about others, and not just about myself.”

Often we talk about how he neglected his family life and Gandhi admits he did. “Somebody who is trying to make the whole world his family, can’t have time for his family but he could have done better, and he admitted it himself. Sometimes, he gave excessive advice to his children before saying, ‘do what you want to do.’ In South Africa, he could have sent his children to better schools but it meant sending them to a school of establishment, whom he was fighting against.” These days the so-called dissenters have no such qualms. “And you know what kind of credibility they have,” remarks Gandhi.

But the selfie generation talks about shedding the Gandhian guilt. Finishing his dessert — pieces of melon and papaya — Gandhi responds, “I don’t know whether those who are trying to become self indulgent were denying it earlier.” Gandhi says one has to understand that Mahatma was a product of times when self indulgence was not possible for great many people anyway. “If you wanted to represent the common people of India, one had to share their life. Many people from privileged backgrounds consciously accepted hardships in life. We can poke fun at them now that we have facilities for indulgence but we should remember that the number of poor in this country is still significant. It would be a great pity if we feel that great changes can come about without some commitment, sacrifice and self control.”

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