Blinkered pastiche of a cliché

The modern world would have failed Gandhi’s moral force. Munnabhai makes a virtue of his limited utility and mocks at the make-believe

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata

The rollicking success of Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai disinters the relevance of Gandhi and his teachings of ahimsa and satyagraha in modern times—non-violence and passive resistance to fight injustice—as recipes for coming to grips with the essential philistinism of India. A paunchy, ageing, sleazy-eyed ‘hero’ of the Hindi screen, as a noted commentator puts it, becomes the brand ambassador of the scrawny little man and his cult, now known as Gandhigiri. Is it all hype? Is the film a travesty of what Gandhi essentially

stood for?

But Munnabhai is not the first fictional presentation of Gandhigiri. Dramatic reconstructions of Gandhi’s life in film and fiction range from Richard Attenborough’s Academy Award winner in 1982 (Gandhi) to Indian novels like Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable. Or take the instance of R.K. Narayanan’s Waiting for the Mahatma, which tells the story of Sriram, a 20-year-old student of Swaraj. Gandhi becomes Sriram’s rite de passage— as he becomes Munnabhai’s—through his service to India. At the very first meeting he is intimidated and Gandhi, sensing this, “looked up at Sriram and said, ‘Sit down, young man. Come and sit as near me as you like’.” To a fearful Sriram, Gandhi said, “By the time we meet again next, you must give me a very good account of yourself.” In the novel, Gandhi always seems to the fully himself as in Naraynan’s depiction of Sriram’s encounter with Gandhi—the message is exactly that. Munnabhai, too, reforms himself, he turns into a moral do-gooder from a goon.

If Gandhi is a model to look up to or his ideals are so emulating, there is a formidable corpus of hagiography and iconoclasm vying with one another. Some myths, some stock-in-trade of history, mix with metaphors of the larger-than-life image of Gandhi. While one resorts to Gandhism, or the mongrelised version of what is known lately as Gandhigiri, there are some obvious bottlenecks.

If pastiche of history, for instance, is taken from Gandhi’s autobiography, when he, at 16, expresses his morbid shame of having given in to the carnal desire to have sex with his wife at the time of his father’s death in 1845, one can see the difficulty. It was not until some 15 years later, after the birth of his fifth child, that he began in earnest to try to restrain his sexual needs. He had long believed that abstinence was the only morally defensible method of birth control. He embraced celibacy, after possibly he had enough, and found in the art of reining in the senses, through brahmacharya, a way to attaining divinity. He was apparently a highly over-sexed man and  found mastering his sexual needs a daily struggle, like “walking on the sword’s edge”.

Or take the instance of Gandhi’s personal crisis in the Hindu-Muslim rioting of Noakhali. Although truth and non-violence were the forces governing Gandhi’s civil-disobedience campaigns against injustice, oppression and religious strife in South Africa and India, his belief in their power were put to its most severe test in 1946 in Noakhali. While we learn that very few Muslims in Noakhali, in effect, took Gandhi’s message of religious toleration to heart, M.A. Abdullah, the superintendent of police in Noakhali, responsible for protecting Gandhi’s life, began to be suspected of being a Hindu sympathiser by the Pakistani government later. Gandhi came to reflect his sense of frustration on his apparent failure to stop the gore in Noakhali: “Truth and ahimsa, by which I swear and which have to my knowledge sustained me for 60 years, seem to fail…”

Gandhi would have positively scoffed at all the films made on him (there are debates as to whether he was pre-modern or anti-modern). He rarely saw a film, read a book of poetry, visited an art gallery or watched a game. As Bhiku Parekh, an authority on Gandhi, finds, he rarely took interest in history, archaeology, modern science, wildlife, unspoilt nature and India’s natural beauty. When the discovery of the North Pole was announced, he wondered what good it had done to the world and why it should cause such excitement. When he visited the Vatican museum, he briskly swept past the Botticellis and Michelangelo’s frescos, but stood motionless and wept before a painting of the crucifixion. “For Gandhi,” Parekh writes, “the care of the soul was a full-time job requiring undivided attention, and the arts and sciences were relevant only to the extent they promoted the supreme goal.”

Gandhi saw that violence was sometimes not only practically unavoidable but also moral, and needed to be judiciously combined with non-violence in a balanced theory of moral change. He condoned violence during the Quit India Movement in 1942 and gave his ‘tacit consent’ to the dispatch of Indian troops to Kashmir in 1947.

Consider that even Hitler and Mussolini were not beyond redemption in Gandhi’s scheme of things. They, too, loved their parents, wives, children, friends and pet animals. The problem was not that they lacked that capacity for

fellow-feeling but rather it was limited to a few, therefore our task was to find ways of ‘expanding’ it. Satyagraha was a ‘surgery of the soul’, a way of activating ‘soul-force’. But can the civil insistence on satyagraha, or the tenacity in the pursuit of truth, be trusted to reach out and activate the soul of the opponent in these days of post-modern anxiety, when the enemy is amorphous and faceless?

Pastiche of history, readers must consider, with part accounts of Gandhi’s life, does not do justice to either his life or his ideals. History does not treat him kindly for his role in the Khilafat Movement, the Partition of India, and his penchant for a pre-modern society. His treatment of Kasturba and other women who set upon as agents for his experiments does not pass the test of modern canons of gender politics. He was blind to the complexities and capacity for human evil. His stress on forced abstinence as a means of birth control was problematic in that it was usurped by the lust-weary West as a fad. Modern world would have failed Gandhi. He was a moral force and Munnabhai makes a virtue of his limited utility and mocks at the make-believe of his incompatibility with the modern world.

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