October 2, 2018. Not just another Gandhi Jayanti. It is the 150th birth anniversary of Mohan Karamchand Gandhi, aka Mahatma Gandhi, aka Father of the Nation (that is India) etc etc.
There is no blaring music in my neighbourhood. Not even a recording of Gandhi's favourite "Vaishnavo jan to". It is a day off. In the middle of the week. Nothing more it would seem.
So in the middle class apartment block where I have lived for almost five decades, which has been home to Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and non-believers, a new generation is turning the clock back. From a place where tolerance was practiced without effort, they are bringing in rules that divide us on the basis of caste and class, and before long I am presuming on the basis on creed.
My day began when my part-time domestic help informed me that "servants" were not being allowed to use one of the elevators. Why? The manager apparently said that henceforth this was the rule.
When I went down to the building office to inquire and register my protest, I was told that a resolution had been passed by "the majority" at the Annual General Meeting to disallow "servants" from using one of the three elevators. In the 50 years that this building has existed, such a rule had never been introduced.
I found it tragic, and ironical, that on a day when we were commemorating a man who spoke of peace, of tolerance, of compassion for the poor, of building an inclusive India, there is now a generation that thinks nothing of doing precisely the opposite. Far from having any respect or gratitude towards those who make our lives so much easier through their paid (although often grossly underpaid) work, we want to make sure they are reminded daily of their lower status. And the justification is that "the majority" voted for this.
The majority -- the same "majority" that is making life impossible for those of us who believe in a just society, where women and men are equal, where you don't discriminate on the basis of caste, class, creed or gender, where you respect those who work with their hands, where people are not divided into "higher" and "lower" castes, a terminology that we continue to accept unquestioningly.
In 2018, not only has India forgotten Gandhi, it doesn't deserve Gandhi. Without elevating him to a god, or even a mahatma, can we not acknowledge that a good deal of what Gandhi said is relevant for our troubled times?
Fortunately, the anger and sadness I felt at the state of affairs in my building was dissipated when I stepped out to see whether Gandhi was being remembered elsewhere in the city.
Early this morning, a motley group of women and men, young and old, met at Chowpatty and then walked to Shantashram, where the Mumbai Sarvodaya Mandal and the Gandhi Book Centre are housed. Established in 1956, after Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan campaign was launched, Shantashram has been a presence in the Nana Chowk locality for decades. Since 1972, the one name that is associated with it is that of Tulsidas Somaiya, who has nurtured and developed the place with a dedication that is rare.
I vividly remember meetings held there during the Emergency in 1975-76 when those of who who wanted to resist and fight authoritarianism met to plan, or just to vent. It was a safe place, and a welcoming one. The bonds we forged then have stood the test of time.
Shantashram is a house, unlike the buildings all around it. It still has wooden balconies and windows, and an old tiled floor. It is overwhelmed by the noisy and busy Bhaji Galli (vegetable market) on one side, and fronts a really busy road that is virtually impossible to cross.
Across it used to be Shankershett Mansion, where my grandfather lived on the third floor. That building has disappeared making place for a tower, Orbit Heights and Annexe. But the sugarcane juice vendor at the top of Bhaji Galli, who would go running up three floors to deliver the frothing, delicious juice whenever my grandfather clapped from his balcony to draw his attention and then gesticulated the number of glasses he wanted, is still there. So there is change, but there is also continuity.
Today, Shantashram is busy. In the courtyard as you enter, there is a group of mostly older people. The oldest of them is the indefatigable, doughty almost 94-year-old socialist and Gandhian, Dr G. G. Parikh. Along with others, he has decided to fast for the day. Not just to remember Gandhi, but to remind us of the relevance of Gandhi's actions for these difficult times.
Dr Parikh asks how many of us, after all these years of knowing about Gandhi's endeavour to build an inclusive India, have Muslim or Dalit friends, have lived in a slum and understood how the poor survive, have felt the need to reach out to people who are not like us? He points out that this is the way to remember Gandhi, to realise that even after 71 years of Independence, the Dalits still live in a separate section in the majority of villages, that Muslims feel insecure, that there is more hatred between communities.
A floor above sits another indefatigable fighter, Aruna Roy. She has come to the city for the day to show solidarity with people like Dr Parikh and others. She has just finished talking with a group of women, led by Shabnam Hashmi, who are travelling from Kerala to Delhi to talk about harmony and healing, something Gandhi would have done had he been alive today.
Meeting Dr Parikh and Aruna Roy, after the depressing start to my day, was not just uplifting but also humbling. Their work and commitment remind me that it is possible to be realistic and yet not cynical, that you can be passionate and hopeful about the possibility of change if you set out to do what you can, what you must, even when the problems seem insurmountable.
In the Indian Express today, Avijit Pathak has written a really thoughtful article titled, "Gandhi for the young" in which he writes of his discomfort with the "official" Gandhi that is celebrated while not finding the real/living "experimental" Gandhi anymore. The article is worth reading in its entirety but let me end with his concluding paragraph that, I believe, says it all:
"On January 30, 1948, when he was walking to attend the prayer meeting in Birla House in Delhi, he was trying to see sanity in the insane Subcontinent. It is, however, a different story that Nathuram Godse, or the militaristic ideology of nationalist that created him, thought otherwise. Do the youth realise that killing Gandhi is like killing a dream, a possibility; and this demonic force has not yet disappeared from our society?"