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The Spectacular Return of Gandhi’s Spectacles


I

Gandhi’s spectacles did go under the hammer in New York-for money.

And money bought them back for India.

The Mahatma (great soul) wished the Capitalist class to perform as the "Trustees" of the nation’s interest.

As the premier Gandhian, Vinobha Bhave, was to write of Gandhi’s equation with Scientific Socialism: "Socialism wishes to advance by setting class against class, Gandhism by cutting across classes."

Well, the whisky magnate, air-line and stud farm-owning industrialist, Vijay Mallya, may or may not be a trustee of the nation’s interest, but he surely has paid more than a million dollars to retrieve Gandhi’s spectacles etc.

India of our days may have only an archival interest in those spectacles, but Mallya surely will benefit. Frontline entrepreneur that he is, his vision is sharp.

He may even set up a huge enterprise cloning those spectacles for the global market.  And global celebrities may pay for them more than handsomely as well.  And then walk the ramp. Them spectacles could become the best business going.

The powers-that-be, after all the melt-downs, still devoted to neo-liberal economics, may claim during the forthcoming general elections that they did not let the Mahatma’s spectacles fall into foreign hands as mere commodity, even if it barely sees eye to eye with the eye that saw through those spectacles.

Asked once how any individual may assess and evaluate the rightness or wrongness of a course of action, the Mahatma responded with his famous talisman:

Ask yourself, he counseled, whether the thought you think or the action you contemplate has any benefit for the most wretched of faces you may ever have seen, and if the answer is "yes" know that you are in the right path.

As the number of Indian billionaires burgeons, and the gulf of inequity between the top and the bottom widens forever, it beggars the imagination to claim that the Indian state has been a devoted votary of that talisman.

But, on another front, what is a nation without heritage?

II

The word "memorabilia" is of course a dead give-away.

It connotes atonce that he/she whose effects we gather and embellish is a memory, rather than something that impels our present thoughts and actions as a living force.

Yet, the more fallible we are, the more good memories and tough ideals we need.

Plagiarising the poet, Browning, a man’s memory must exceed his greed, or what is our striving for.

There are times when a twitch of memory may reclaim us from the excesses we are about to commit.  It sort of lends a Kantian distance to our embroiled subjectivity.

And memory expanded manifold is after all what we call history-which is something quite distinct from a chronology of past events.

And it may even now be rather impossible to conceive of India’s modern history without reference to Gandhi, however we may work that hermeneutic.  Indeed, the more he nags us, even if as an unpleasant toothache, the better our gastronomical functions might become.

III

To illustrate.

I was once asked by a perfectly well-intentioned bigot why I retained my commitment to socialist ideals, since socialism was now all a memory.

Naturally, this was several years before now, when Capitalism is fast on the way to becoming one as well,–a memory, I mean– and when Das Kapital is suddenly the highest selling work in Europe and Karl Marx on the cover of Time Magazine.

I sighed back in shamefaced agreement, but posed a question back to him as well.

You seem to me a very religious man, I said, and a good one at that.  Of course, he shot back with glee, and some satisfaction at my percipience.

So, do you often go to the temple?

Ever since I was a child.

That would make it some fifty odd years.  Yes.

Which means you must have seen god more than once?

Alas, that good fortune I haven’t had.

And yet, I said, you keep visiting the temple?  I do, he answered with pride.

In other words, you continue your devotion to something you have never seen, but advise me to abandon that which I and the world have, and which continues to exist in one shape, colour, or form, here, there, and elsewhere?

That indeed was the end of that.

IV

Which is to say, Gandhi did exist and walk the earth, even when, as Einstein had prognosticated, many find it hard to believe that such a one did so.

And not only did he walk the earth, he led a movement for freedom from colonial oppression in a way that seems today to have come to invalidate other ways of seeking freedom from oppression.

So that the more violence the world sees and perpetrates, without finding the ends that the violence is directed to achieve, the more Gandhi stands validated.

The more that the glaciers melt and the oceans rise, and the forests disappear, and draught and flood answer the sophistries of the profit-maximizers, the more all of that underscores the simple truth that Gandhi enunciated:  "the earth has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed."

The more that organized bigotry backed by big money takes mankind away from god, the more Gandhi’s pluralist pieties seem  vindicated, warts and all.

I recall once asking a colleague at Madison, Wisconsin-a seventh-day Baptist he was– what he thought might be Gandhi’s fate on Judgment day, remembering that he was one man who carried the Sermon on the Mount everywhere he went, and sought to live Christ’s simplicities.

He took not a second to answer that he (Gandhi, that is) would be damned, not having been baptized. 

Jesus, are you there, and listening?

Further, the more that technologies calculated to free us from necessity actually bind us into unfreedom, the more we may recall what Gandhi said of freedom:
ask not what you are free from, but free for.

V

So, what of the warts I spoke of-his insistence that politics without religious inspiration must be evil, that the varna ashram (caste system) has a point to it, barring the reprehensible practice of untouchability, that the cow be seen as a panacea for all kinds of economic and moral maladies, that the rich have a place just as the poor, assuming economic democracy to be  neither achievable nor perhaps desirable, that the village system be preserved in perpetuity, and so forth?

Here is my simple suggestion: take a cue from the old man and mount a Gandhian movement against all those warts.  And most others as well.

Indeed, what many Civil Society Movements in India and elsewhere in the world seek to do in resisting authoritarian pogroms against democracy and human rights, against the degradation of the earth, against social evils of one kind or another, against corruption in political systems, bureaucracies, and big business, against armaments, polluting agents, war, after all, owe not inconsiderably to the legacy that the Mahatma left the world.

It remains for us then only to extend the reach of that legacy to resist the irrational and  uncritical impulse of idolatory, of the impulse to justify his work everywhere without warrant, and to use his methods to rid his legacy of those warts.

Something of course that must require us first to imbibe as much as we can the daring selflessness and freedom from distorting personal ambitions, the conviction to refuse sectarian purposes and  self-righteous loathing of the "other", or the belittling impulse always to claim credit that so informed his life and work.

Now that his spectacles are back with us, how about we recall what he said to the Nawab of Junagarh when he made a gift of those glasses to the fleeing Nawab:  "these are the glasses through which I saw my way to the freedom of India."

That seems far more miraculous than anything in Harry Potter. 

The paradox is that while India strains to recover those spectacles, it is governments and leaders elsewhere who talk passionately of his vision.

Gandhi said to Louis Fischer that he regarded himself a Communist, and that Communists after Marx had greatly distorted the spiritual force of the latter’s work and vision.

Hey, as the meltdown deepens everywhere, how about we begin to see our way to marrying the two-Gandhi and Marx-and see where that takes us. 

What is there to lose, more than we have lost?
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