Stranger in a Strange Land
Tales of a Year Abroad

Happy 141st, Gandhiji!

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In addition to being Gandhi's 141st birthday (October 2nd), this year also marked the 75th anniversary of Gandhi's Salt March. For those of you not as versed in Indian history, Gandhi devised the Salt March as a peaceful protest against the British Raj's unfair Salt Tax (instituted in 1882). In essence, what the Salt Tax did was outlaw not only the production and sale of salt by non-British entities, but made it unlawful for workers to freely collect their own salt from the marshes peppered along the Indian coastal line. Essentially, the British created a monopoly from which only they benefited. 

In response, Gandhi first wrote a letter to the British Viceroy informing him of his intent to protest: 
If my letter makes no appeal to your heart, on the eleventh day of this month I shall proceed with such co-workers of the Ashram as I can take, to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws.  I regard this tax to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man's standpoint.  As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil.
The Viceroy responded, informing Gandhi that Britian's stance on the tax remained firm.
And so, on March 12, 1930 Gandhi and a number of his followers gathered at his ashram (men only as he felt that including women would not elicit the same--hopefully--violent response from law-enforcement) began the 23-day march from his ashram on the west bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad to the coast. Upon reaching their destination, Dandi, Gandhi gave a speech and then did something that would inspire a nation. 

He bent, perhaps ran his hands over the rich earth, fingers searching before plucking a small lump of salt from the ground. With this simple gesture, Gandhi broke British law.

His fellow protesters followed suit, and, over the course of the next month, nearly each and every one of them--including Gandhiji himself--were arrested and thrown in prison.

But the damage was done. The Salt March encouraged the people to protest, and protest they did. Some ended in violence when peaceful marchers, refusing to respond to threats of violence, were clubbed to death by armed policemen. Others were peaceful boycotts. Either way, a number of British salt mills and shops were forced to close and the seed of revolution was planted in the people's minds and hearts.

I was thinking of this on Wednesday when Steve and I visited the Hutheesing Center on CEPT's campus. The gallery is hosting an exhibit called "Mahatma: The Youthful Perspective", a series of full size/nearly full-sized images of Gandhi created by artist Debanjan Roy. The artist modeled each of   the statues after a pre-existing image of Gandhi and attempted to capture the spirit of Bapu (meaning "father"; the name that Gandhi's friends and associates affectionately called him) as well as that of modern 21st century India. The artist describes his exhibit thus:

Now, here's the thing. I'm not overly fond of symbolic art (and I'm even less fond of artist's "notes" that feel the need to explain the symbolism of their installation--I have eyes, I can see, and I'm pretty educated so I like to draw my own conclusions, thank you very much). However, I do like thought provoking art. This exhibit was a little bit of both. Take a look:

Bapu with iPod
Bapu and Me
It doesn't show well, but the artist--the "me" in the title--is sharing his iPod with Gandhiji

I don't remember the title of this one, but we called it Bapu the Hipster
A close-up of Bapu's Pug

Bapu with Goats (this one is probably the most iconic-like representation of Gandhiji in the whole collection)

Bapu on the Moon
Bapu on the Phone

Bapu and Soldiers (It might be hard to see, but the two soldiers have the same name tag, Debanjan Roy)

Bapu with Laptop

Absence of Bapu (this one was, perhaps, the most symbolic of all the pieces)

The "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys are above the gate at Gandhi's ashram

When people visualize Gandhi, I would hazard the first image that comes to mind is that of a thin, frail-looking, blad-headed old man wrapped in a white cloth, wire rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. This image is also highly representative of the way people intellectualize Gandhi's teachings--truth and nonviolence. Here is an unassuming man--he is not muscular, and thus non-threatening (in the physical sense)--who desires discourse over violence, intellect over brute force.

Despite Gandhi's renunciation of worldly goods in pursuit of these two principles, it is important to emphasize that Gandhi's simplified life was NOT a rebuke of modern life or modern things. In fact, Gandhi was a big proponent of using the trappings of modern life--and especially modern techniques of communication--to emphasize and relay his teachings. It is Roy's depiction of Gandhi interacting with our modern technologies--the cell phone, the iPod, the laptop--that is perhaps the most indicative of Gandhi's appreciation of science and technology. It is, therefore, not difficult to imagine Bapu updating his status on Facebook, rallying his followers on Twitter, or creating podcasts of his latest speeches.   

But it is also important to recognize that Gandhi would have instructed us to not become the sum of our things. We are not our Facebook pages or our Twitter handles; we are living, breathing, vibrant people. Furthermore, he would encourage us to disengage from the technologies--log off the computer, remove the iPod buds from our ears--and engage with the world outside our technological cocoon. 

I've often wondered what Gandhi would think of how his image and teachings are used. I often think, especially here in India, that he would be sad at how easily his name and image are grossly contorted by individuals and groups who aren't living Gandhian principles. However, I couldn't help but think that if Gandhi were able to see Debanjan Roy's statues, with their mixture of playfulness and seriousness melding to create a message not unlike that that Gandhi preached, Bapu would be pleased.


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The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Alladin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions, whose yesterday's bear date with the modering antiquities for the rest of nations-the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world combined.
- Mark Twain

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