How do you explain Gandhi to a 5-year-old?


This blog also appeared in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, on  March 16, 2008.

I had an unusual experience this morning (Sunday, March 9). I had taken my daughter to the planetarium, but landed up early. Having bought the ticket, we had an hour to kill, so I took her to the Discovery Of India permanent exhibition at the Nehru Centre next door.

She was quite excited to see sepia-toned photographs of the freedom movement, old utensils, photographs of Nehru’s childhood and a pictorial representation of the jails freedom fighters were often incarcerated in.

Then, she came upon the photograph of a bald, gentle-looking, frail man in a loincloth. “Who is this?” she asked. “It’s Gandhiji,” I replied.

I knew the answer was inadequate because, to a grown up, the name Gandhi is enough to conjure up images of the Freedom Struggle, Satyagraha and a way of life that seems far removed from the consciousness of an India that’s setting the standard in economic growth. But, to a five-year-old, all this may as well be Greek.

My daughter, of course, wasn’t letting me get away with just telling her the name of the man in the photograph. A child’s curiosity isn’t that easily satisfied. “But why is he here?” she demanded to know.

I could have told her about the barrister from Porbandar, who studied in England, settled down in South Africa and whose life changed when he was thrown out of a train just because he was a coloured man with the right ticket in the right compartment.

I have recently read a superb biography of Gandhi’s by Louis Fischer, and I could have told my daughter about how he lived in ashrams, what he meant to our struggle to be free, how he refused to raise his voice or hand, or lift a fire-arm. Yet, he was among the bravest men who ever lived.

I could have also made the connection to Pune, where we spent a wonderful year. Gandhi had been imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace. It was where he lost his beloved Kasturba, whose own role in the liberation movement is rather underplayed by history textbooks.

But, I knew, none of this would make sense to my little girl. I was struggling to find a way to make Gandhi strike a chord, make him relevant to her. And then, inspiration struck.

“Gandhi is the gentle old man who helped Munnabhai, remember?” I said. Her eyes lit up. “Yaaay, Munnabhai!” she shouted. “Yes, Gandhiji told him to always speak the truth, not to trouble others and say sorry if he made a mistake.”

That day, though my daughter may not have been able to articulate it, Gandhi became simply the symbol of what it means to live right. It took Munnabhai for her to learn that.

Thanks, Mamu!


23 thoughts on “How do you explain Gandhi to a 5-year-old?

  1. Good one! I fully agree with you that its very difficult to relate & express what books say to children. They understand more of the visuals! Well…it has also given me idea how to tackle such question with my child when he asks me!! 🙂

  2. In Delhi schools, even playschools, they tend to give a lot of importance to Gandhiji and therefore sensitise the kids to “Bapuji” or “The father of the nation” as my kids refer to him. But, yes, Munnabhai certainly made the task easier for them to understand the “philosophy” of the man.

  3. Ashrafbhai

    Its the responsibility of people in literature and the arts to keep history alive and relevant.
    Because the learnings of history cannot be belittled; nor can ignorance of a nations lineage. I fully agree with you on your blog and i would like to add here…..what the heck if Raju Hirani did not get an Oscar for Lage Raho…maybe the oscars didn’t deserve him

  4. thank you for this post. i have a picture of gandhi and a copy of his autobiography on my desk. my toddlers, ages 4,3, and 2, are always asking me who gandhi is…..and i haven’t known exactly how to capture him with words for their understanding.

  5. Dear Ashraf,
    I really enjoyed your post – How do you explain Gandhi to a five year old? To extend the thought – how do you explain Gandhi to children living in the other parts of the world?
    We are a US based non-profit called the Teach India Project (not related to the recent Times of India initiative). We work with local schools and with parents of Indian origin to teach children about India. Our webiste is and we deliver lessons through an online newsletter.
    We are working on a unit about Gandhiji and looking for ways to present his life and teachings – your post absolutely hits the spot and I wonder if you would allow me to reproduce it in our next newsletter. I would be happy to send you more information about our work and samples of past issues.

  6. Hi!
    Well,The way u have put the nature of “Mahatma Gandhi” to your daughter was wonderful if this was not Munabhai may be would be the same old info we normally wold give to our loved ones or friends,and i appreciate that ur daughter who is also the future generation is curious to know about the “Father of the Nation”.May more and more of parents take an opportunity to speak about the Great man as they tell them about Fairy tales when they are about to go for a wink of sweet sleep…
    Great Blog…
    Just a common man , However the Hero!

  7. Hello, I have had the same experiance, but with the possibility to show 50 images from the National Gandhi Museum. It was in Budapest, in Hungary, where I have to tell stories about the images of the Mahatma.
    I really like how you summarized the thoughts in 3 core statements. I could not do it better!
    What I think, is really amazing, how creative a parent should be to tell what is going on the pictures. When he was with workers in England, who showed their happy faces, they have realilzed, that they are happy, because Gandhiji is there.
    The most difficult was the last image. I am still finding ways, how to tell them more about the life.
    The last picture was Gandhi, as lying dead with flowers.
    I don’t know what to tell, if I tell them, that if somebody speaks the truth, apoligize for making mistakes and do not harm others will be shot?

  8. I have to tell you I am up at 11:00 at night putting togethar a presentation on Gandhi for my daughter’s kindergarten class. I wrote on my facebook page in a moment of desperation ‘How do you tell a class of 6 year-olds the story of Gandhi in a half hour?”. My friend sent me your blog spot. So tomorrow my friend, I will strat my presentation, “the story of the bravest man that ever lived”.

    Thank you,
    (yes I am not only a diplaced Indian living in America but one that married an Irish man! We now have an Irish/Indian, Hindu/Catholic home!)

  9. I congratulate myself for being able to associate myself with a blog of young Indians who still thinks of Gandhi seriously. Add some written on “Filhos de gandhy”.

    “Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it”
     Mahatma Gandhi

    • Thanks so much. Glad you liked it. I agree, it’s the little changes that will make a big difference.

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