(I did the following interview for a just launched The Indian Diaspora portal)
Barely a year-and-half before India was to become an independent nation in the midst of unprecedented tumult, history making and bloodletting, a 12-year-old boy was dealing with his own personal anger at having been beaten up because of his color.
Living in a “hate-filled” South African society, the 12-year-old Arun had a grandfather to vent his frustration. His name was a certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
As one of Gandhi’s grandsons, Arun Gandhi spent over a year-and-half with the great man between late 1945 to the end of 1947 in the shadow of a new country taking birth. The memories of those days and his interactions with Gandhi have taken the form of a children’s book titled ‘Grandfather Gandhi’.
The book, co-authored by Arun Gandhi with Bethany Hegedus and brilliantly illustrated by Evan Turk, captures the reminiscences of those days with the main theme being how a boy turned to his grandfather to deal with his own anger.
Hundreds of its copies, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, were snapped up in the first few days. Based in Rochester, New York, the 80-year-old Arun Gandhi has had a distinguished career as a journalist, writer, columnist, public speaker and a passionate advocate of non-violence as the most effective tool for political change.
Born in 1934 in Durban, South Africa, Arun Gandhi is the fifth grandson of Gandhi. A part of his official biography says, “Growing up under the discriminatory apartheid laws of South Africa, he was beaten by “white” South Africans for being too black and “black” South Africans for being too white; so, Arun sought eye-for-an-eye justice. However, he learned from his parents and grandparents that justice does not mean revenge, it means transforming the opponent through love and suffering.”
Arun Gandhi answered questions from The Indian Diaspora. Excerpts:
What was a 12-year-old Arun Gandhi angry about?
My anger and frustration came from the experience of living in a hate-filled South African society and being beaten up by whites and then by African Zulus because they disliked the color of my skin. It was humiliating, to say the least, and I wanted revenge, which means fighting back.
How did you take his advice about channeling your anger that he likened to a bolt of lightning?
Grandfather told me that anger is like electricity. It is useful if used intelligently but deadly if abused. So, just as we use electrical energy intelligently for the good of humanity we must learn to use the energy of anger intelligently for the good of humanity. He taught me ways to focus on the problem that generated the anger instead of focusing, as we all do, on the person who acts it out.
Given that your book is gaining a lot of interest, what age of readership, do you think, is most drawn to it?
The book was written for children below ten but all those who have read and reviewed it feel it has a lesson even for adults.
Did Gandhiji appear to you like a regular grandfather or the fact of his stature play into your view of him?
To me, Gandhiji was a regular Grandfather but of course one could not escape his notoriety. Wherever he went there were thousands waiting to catch a glimpse of him. As a little boy, I was often proud of being in the limelight with him but that was a typical reaction of a ‘tweenager’.
The book is about a time in a boy’s age when he might just be becoming aware of the circumstances beyond his own personal life. How aware were you of the enormity of what Gandhiji was involved in?
AG: I was aware of what he was trying to accomplish but being a slow starter I don’t think I appreciated it very much.
The time that you talk about is the defining run-up to India’s independence. I presume it was sometime in 1946. How do you think Gandhiji as utterly preoccupied as he was with something historic found time to address a very personal challenge in your life?
Yes, we were with him from late 1945 till end of 1947 and, of course, as you say India was in the throes of being carved up and the resultant turmoil. He was constantly in and out. Sometimes, when he went to places where there was no turmoil he took me along but when he went to Noakhali and Calcutta I stayed back in Sewagram.
He was a master at time management. This is one of the first lessons he taught everyone. He said time is too precious to be wasted. I had to make a time-table of my day and stick to it so that at any time when he asked what were you doing at certain time on a certain day you knew exactly what you were doing. He lived what he wanted us to learn.
From what I have read you seem to have pretty vivid memories and recollections about that period. Would you care to talk about the most enduring impression about your grandfather?
When you live your memories they assume a life of their own. The memories and lessons he taught were enhanced and emphasized by my parents as we grew up.
The most enduring memory is the lesson he taught me about violence. It happened because I threw away a three inch butt of a pencil and he said that was a wasteful act and made me go out and find it and bring it to him. When I did he said even in the making of a simple thing like a pencil we use a lot of the world’s natural resources and when we waste them we are indulging in violence against nature.
The second lesson was that because we become wasteful we over-consume the resources of the world and deprive poorer nations of those resources and they have to live in poverty and that is violence against humanity. He made me draw a family tree of violence with two branches – Physical and Passive — Physical is something we see and experience every day. The kind of violence where physical force is used. Passive is something more insidious and has become so much a part of our nature that often we don’t consider it to be violent. Wasting, over-consumption, hating, prejudices, the hundreds and thousands of things that we do every day that causes hurt to some people somewhere.
Making this tree of violence was a form of introspection. Every day I had to put down on that tree all my experiences of the day. This exercise made me aware of how much passive violence we commit all the time every day.
It is passive violence that generates anger in the victim and the victim then resorts to physical violence to get justice or to get what he or she is legitimately denied. So, if peace is our objective, we have to become the change we wish to see in the world.
We are talking barely two years prior to his death. Was there anything in his demeanor that you remember might highlight his personal anguish about the way things were turning out for India?
One thing I learned about him was that when he was satisfied that he had given it his best and yet the result went against his wishes he accepted it democratically. Many wonder why he did not use his moral power to stop partition for instance but he realized that the will of the people and the democratic process superseded his own desires and judgment.
But I recall that earlier in his life he would always talk about wanting to live for 125 years to achieve all the goals he had set for himself. But in the last years he said he was ready to die whenever his time came.
How has the passage of over six decades since your interaction with Gandhiji changed your view of your grandfather?
As I said earlier, I have always been a slow learner and so as I matured I began to appreciate and understand a great deal of his philosophy. The one thing that impacted me the most is when he told a western journalist: The people of India will follow me in life, worship me in death but not make my cause their cause. These are words that could have been uttered by anyone of the great people we worship today. We have interpreted his philosophy dogmatically and then rejected it as inapplicable in modern times. But a philosophy can only be as alive and meaningful as the interpreter is sincere and truthful.