1947 brought us political freedom, but the battle to free ourselves from the colonisation of our mind, is still incomplete.
Every year, as we approach October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, I have often wondered what the British must have made of him. Here was a man who spoke their language — English — impeccably, but wrote his first book, Hind Swaraj — in Gujarati. He could have worn a suit and a tie, as he did, indeed, when he was a barrister in London, but took to wearing only a dhoti in India. He could, while opposing the British, have lived in a home that was a replica of a colonial bungalow, but built his ashram, in terms of design, space and furnishing, in an entirely Indian way that was authentic yet beautiful. He knew the Bible, perhaps in greater detail and with more understanding than most, and was particularly fond of the Sermon on the Mount, but was thoroughly rooted in the scriptures and philosophy of his own faith — Hinduism — and the other religions of his country.
When Gandhiji emerged as a leader of reckoning in the freedom movement, the British must have wondered why he was not, like most others they had encountered, a photocopy of his colonial masters. How were they to deal with a man who, against every consciously planned consequence of colonial rule, had the courage, quite simply, to be himself, without affectation or hate.
This one lesson has often escaped the westernised elite of our country. Somewhere, in the pursuit of “modernity”, they have failed to realise that, ultimately, outsiders respect only those who are culturally rooted, and not nondescript imitators immersed in a “cosmopolitanism” that has made them adrift from a knowledge of their own culture, even as they will always remain, in more ways than they realise, perpetually alien to the “foreign” culture they wish to emulate.
Essentially, Gandhiji understood that the fight against colonialism is incomplete without the assertion, without xenophobia or chauvinism, of one’s own culture and identity. In this sense, he was echoing Chanakya’s view that a nation is not only about territory and an administrative structure, but a cultural construct, based on identifiable markers of a civilisational legacy. When the nation, and the culture that underlies it, are not in sync, you produce a Republic that has the paraphernalia of nationhood, but without a soul.
1947 brought us political freedom, but the battle to free ourselves from the colonisation of our mind, is still incomplete. One sees this in almost every sphere of creative endeavour, in lifestyles, aspirations, status symbols, sartorial choices and above all in the denigration of our own languages in preference to badly spoken English. It is my firm belief that the entire politics in our country about languages will cease once we begin, first of all, to respect our own languages.
India is a young nation. The majority of our people are below the age of 35, and from these, the bulk is at least 10 years younger. This is, undoubtedly, a demographic dividend, but it is equally true that our youth are the most adrift from their cultural roots. Cultural rootedness does not mean chauvinistic exclusion, but informed inclusion. Our young may be nationalistic, as they should be, and, on occasion ultra-nationalistic, as they should not be, but they are largely abysmally ignorant about the fundamentals of the very culture that underpins the nationalism they are proud of. The result is that they know the rituals but not the philosophies underlying them; they will fight for their regions’ language but have not read any of the classics written in that language; they will speak of the greatness of Hinduism but have not read the Upanishads; they will celebrate Valentine’s Day — which is quite cute — but know almost nothing about the Sringara love poetry about Radha and Krishna; they are happy with “Hinglish”, unsure about Shakespeare and unaware about Kalidasa; enthusiastic about “designer” Navratri thalis, but ignorant about the profound philosophy of the Shakti doctrine in Hindu philosophy; indignant about the “intrusion” of Western culture but without a clue about Bharat’s Natya Shastra; proud to be Indian, but, often, unable to provide a line by line meaning of the National Anthem.
That is why the one lesson we need to learn from Gandhiji is that you can only be really Indian if you make the effort to be one. Once, at the Viceroy’s Palace, where he was invited for talks, Gandhiji demonstrated this in his own inimitable way. To the surprise of his hosts, during the lunch break, he benignly smiled at them, and spread out a chatai on the ground and began to eat. A horrified British official recorded a note about this incident: “I remember Gandhi squatting on the floor and after a while a girl coming in with some filthy yellow stuff which he started eating without as much as a by your leave.” On another occasion, Gandhiji responded to the urgent summons of Viceroy Mountbatten by walking into his study with a finger on his lips to indicate that it was his day of silence. That left Mountbatten to do all the talking, while Gandhiji, as the Viceroy later recalled, “scribbled a few notes on the backs of used envelopes”.
As I have written in my book Becoming Indian, such idiosyncrasies, if this is how some would wish to see them, were not only about the virtues of silence, or the merits of sitting on the floor while eating. They were symbolic of a revolution of spirit, a proclamation of intent, that even under British subjugation he would meet with the rulers as himself. His persona was, therefore, at once rid of both deference and mimicry.
The question is whether he can inspire us even today — for the issue is as important now as it was then — to be Indian through a conscious decision not to be imitative or unthinkingly derivative. If he can, then we would be equipped to authentically preserve our self-respect and dignity while simultaneously enhancing our stock as global citizens.