Gandhi Katha by Narayan Desai is an effort to involve people in the quest to understand the man behind the Mahatma.
Most young Indians respect Mahatma Gandhi
but don’t know him well
Haven’t we heard everything about Mahatma Gandhi? Haven’t we learnt about him from books, documentations, movies and speeches? Seemingly yes, so I was surprised when the India International Centre in New Delhi announced that it was hosting a 5-day ‘Gandhi Katha’ during November last.
The Gandhi Katha, as I later found out, is the story of the Mahatma Gandhi as narrated by Narayan Desai, son of Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai, one of the only few living persons who had spent significant part of their lives with the Mahatma.
Initially I was not sure whether this narration would be any different from what I have read, heard and seen about the great man. But I thought of giving it a try and must confess that I do not regret my decision.
The Gandhi Katha was started six years ago as reparative acts of creative non-violence after the violence in Gujarat in 2002. Since the beginning in Gujarat, the Katha has spread throughout parts of India and abroad as well. The 3 hours daily session for 5 continuous days compose the Katha in which Narayan Desai gives a first hand account of Gandhi’s life long struggle against the British. He provides an insight into Gandhi’s inner recesses as well as an analysis of his role in history through storytelling with appropriate songs composed by the narrator himself.
Seeing the determination of the 86 year old man sitting in the crisp Delhi winter evenings recounting the anecdotes was probably reason enough to keep the audience rooted to their seats, even when most were shivering constantly as dew began to fall.
Desai narrates the story of Bapu with such passion and emotions that he almost makes the listeners a part of the story itself. His interaction with Gandhi through his father and his personal interaction with Gandhi as a kid and later as an angry teenager connects with the audience at a far better level than any feature film or documentation on Gandhi.
Narayan Desai’s father Mahadev Desai was directly involved with Gandhi and the nationalist movements. A lawyer by profession, he was one of the earliest supporters of Gandhi. His work as chief secretary entailed going through Bapu’s mail, sending replies, dealing with people who had come to meet Bapu, taking notes of important discussions and meetings, and writing or translating articles for Bapu’s weeklies. He also translated Gandhi’s autobiography: “My experiments with truth” into English.
Narayan Desai narrates Gandhi Katha with passion and emotions
Gandhi treated Mahadev Desai as his own son and used to adore young Narayan. As Narayan Desai recounts, Gandhi used to call him Babla, a nickname he coined, and Babla like other members of the Ashram used to call him Bapu. But Babla had a dilemma: what to call his own father when he already had a Bapu (Father). So he called his own father: Uncle.
‘Uncle’ worked with Bapu for twenty five years and had to cope with an extraordinary level of heavy work which he coped up easily. The key to this feat was the complete identification he had developed with Bapu. In this relationship was a rare fusion of devotion to a superior, and allegiance to a colleague. ‘Uncle’ had an independent personality completely different from Bapu’s. Yet the degree of psychic unity between the two was astonishing.
The Gandhi Katha was started six years ago as reparative acts of creative non-violence after the violence in Gujarat in 2002. Since the beginning in Gujarat, the Katha has spread throughout parts of India and abroad as well. The 3 hours daily session for 5 continuous days compose the Katha in which Narayan Desai gives a first hand account of Gandhi’s life long struggle against the British.
One such example of the psychic unity between Uncle and Bapu was in writing. Bapu was pragmatic, a master of brevity. Uncle’s personal writing, on the other hand, was lavishly lyrical, full of lovely figures of speech. And yet Uncle in his articles had mastered Bapu’s style. Readers of Bapu’s weeklies would often comment that, without the initials at the end of the articles, they wouldn’t know whether the author was M. D.—Mahadev Desai—or M. K. G.—Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Gandhi Katha was like listening to the conversation of two grown up men discussing the problems India was plagued at that time through the ears of a young innocent child. There was no deviation from the truth that we have read already in history books, however the focus was not the topic of conversation but the way Bapu conversed and what all things might have been going through his mind at that moment.
Somehow as you sit and listen Bapu’s story unfold, topics like non-cooperative movement, quit India seem secondary. The actual focus of the listeners gradually shifts towards the character Gandhi was, something which I realized no literature can ever achieve. For example: As a man with the hopes, faiths and problems of the entire nation burdening his shoulders, did he ever mumble in sleep. The answer to such questions can never be told save by those who have actually seen him asleep. It seems a matter of no importance in the greater aspect but it does help us know the person better. The oneness with the person’s soul is perhaps the best way to understand him and his thoughts.
And that is what exactly Babla does. His interaction, confrontations and even arguments as a young kid with Bapu form the focal point of the Katha and give us the first hand account of what Gandhi must have been in real life. It is often agreed that a person may act something different in front of another person of equal stature, but in front of a young boy, that same person has to revert back to his original personality.
One such incident which Narayan Desai narrates, demonstrates the closeness between him and Bapu: During his father’ several incarcerations, Bapu would make young Babla sleep besides him and would lovingly tap the child’s body with his hand till he would fall asleep. Unbelievingly incredulous!!
Photos, books, videos and recordings can tell what Gandhi was to the world. But what he was in actual life could only be seen by peeking into the inner recesses of his heart and soul. And as Babla, Narayan Desai had that rare opportunity, and that’s what he honestly narrates. Bapu’s insight and his beautiful way of assessing and solving the problems get revealed in his little chats with Babla.
Gandhi to us is a national figure who we have been taught to respect. We hardly know anything about the real Gandhi and many of us find his ways hard to follow.
He pours emotions into his narration so well, making the audience laugh on humorous occasions and making them cry during the emotional parts. I noticed even the most stone hearted practical men had a smile or an upset face listening the Katha. But throughout the narration, Narayan Desai remained composed even when he had tears in his eyes and his voice was shaky while recalling a certain poignant memory.
The remarkable tales about Gandhi clears the shroud of awe around him and reveals a man who still is a mystery to many across the world. As Narayan Desai says: even a moment’s encounter with the righteous — face to face or in remembrances such as these — can be a boat that carries you across the sea of life.
But from a teenager’s point of view, its very hard for us to imagine or grasp the fact that simple man clad in khadi and armed with a a wooden staff could have crumbled a 200 year old empire with nothing but non-violence.
Gandhi to us is a national figure who we have been taught to respect. We hardly know anything about the real Gandhi. Many of us certainly find his ways hard to follow and we find it even harder to accept the fact that hunger strikes, peaceful protests, burning of foreign clothes and material could have achieved what guns and home made bombs could never achieve in 200 years. If in our minds we separate Gandhi from the politics battlefield, we get nothing. Personally speaking, I hardly knew the man behind the legend before being a part of the Katha. And I suspect there are millions like me in India and abroad.
And at the end of the 5th day of Katha, having heard the Gandhi’s life story compressed in 15 hours, a feel-good feeling dawns on us all. And you realize that the Katha was nothing more than Gandhi’s life story, but why a feel-good feeling for something that one seemingly knew? That’s the enigma called Gandhi!
Maybe it’s because of the emotion that Narayan Desai pours in his narration that any citations can never achieve. Maybe it’s the respect you show to the old man sitting in the harsh Delhi winter narrating his past and his day to day conversation with Bapu or probably because the Katha makes us see the man behind the Mahatma.
Perceptions might vary but for me it is a revelation. Now I know exactly why the short man in khadi loincloth holding a bamboo stick is called the Father of our Nation.
Sushant Sharma is a college fresher and an avid reader.