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A Gandhi-intoxicated man

Sunday 10 April 2005, by SHARMA*Jyotirmaya

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Jyotirmaya Sharma
Narayan Desai uses Gandhi Katha to spread the Mahatma’s message.

NARAYAN DESAI, a Gandhian, and son of Mahadev Desai, one of Gandhiji’s closest aides, is enjoying a sense of heightened `intoxication’ these days. For him, this state of complete attachment and immersion comes from telling people in various cities of Gujarat, three hours a day for seven days at a stretch, the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and thought.

On January 30, 2003, Narayanbhai completed his four-volume biography of Gandhiji in Gujarati, a book that has since been hailed as one of the finest insights into the life of the Mahatma. That night, he was inspired to make an attempt to reach Gandhi’s message to the ordinary Gujarati, someone who might not read the four-volume biography, much less buy it. This thought gave birth to the Gandhi Katha.

The number of people who come to the Gandhi Katha varies. But all kinds of people come to listen to the story of the Mahatma’s life and thought. Many young people regularly attend these sessions. They also write letters to Narayan Desai asking him questions or disagreeing with his gloss on a particular topic.

People these days ask Narayan Desai, who is past 80, what he thinks of the re-enactment of the Dandi March, a question he chooses to answer only circumspectly.

When Gandhiji set out of Sabarmati Ashram on March 12, 1930, to walk to Dandi to break the salt law, Narayan Desai was a little boy. But he remembers vividly the salience of the original event. "If one had to capture the essence of the Dandi March, one could say in a sentence: The spontaneous enthusiasm of the people," he says.

Most importantly, the Dandi March was not a Congress event. "Gandhiji chose only those who were part of the ashram and were initiated into the discipline of the ashram," Narayanbhai says and adds that the Mahatma himself planned every single detail, including the route of the march and the composition of the group of 78 people from every part of the country who were to walk with him. He did not include people younger than 18 and older than himself.

Gandhiji did not include women either. (Many women did join the march along the route though.)

Narayanbhai’s mother and her friends went to him and asked: "You did not find a single woman worthy of marching with you to Dandi? Don’t you think even one woman deserves to be part of the group of 78 people you have chosen for this purpose?" Gandhiji told them that he would have been surprised if they had not come to him with this complaint. He then told them that he envisaged a greater role for women in the non-violent movement. Women would be able to make greater sacrifices and show greater instances of courage than men in the cause of non-violent satyagraha, he felt.

Once the salt law was broken, the whole country was electrified by Gandhiji’s call for non-violent satyagraha and non-cooperation, reminisces Narayanbhai, and women were at the forefront of picketing liquor shops and shops that sold foreign cloth.

Maniben was picketing a liquor shop when she heard a rumour that her husband, Narhari Parikh, had died. Despite this, she refused to budge from that spot, saying that nothing could shake her from performing her duty. Instead, she sent her daughter, Vanamala, who was 10, to find out the truth. Can such commitment and sense of duty, not to mention idealism, be ever replicated, wonders Narayan Desai.

Having said all this, Narayanbhai smiles and summarises the Mahatma’s philosophy. "People’s strength is the single essence and the fundamental truth upon which Gandhiji’s idea of democracy rests", he says. For now, he is satisfied disseminating this essence to the people of Gujarat. - J.S.

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