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.