Saturday, October 2, 2010

Celebrating Mahatma Gandhi with Children's Author Subhadra Sen Gupta

The text-book version of Mahatma Gandhi--and most other historical figures, for that matter--is typically pretty flat.There are many reasons for this, but you can't really blame the author's of text books alone.  Our system of education requires our children memorize vast amount of content, but does not ask them to think deeply about ideas. It is enough to memorize names and phrases.  My son's fifth standard SST textbook, for example, covers the modern freedom movement in four pages. Two paragraphs are given to the Non-Cooperation Movement, including this beauty:
During the Non-Cooperation Movement, leaders such as Rajendra prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, C Rajagopalachari, Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru participated actively.  (My Big Book of Social Studies, by Pushpa Jain, p. 107).
We ask our children to commit to memory long lists of names, but we forget to ask them to evaluate and analyze the ideas, politics, and passions that inspired and informed the people that led the movements that made this country what it is--for better or worse. We forget to tell them that these leaders, like all of us, had flaws, that they often looked at each other critically, and that we, in turn, will only move forward if we learn to think critically about our own society and the history that gave rise to it.

In the long run, we need to remake our system of education. But for this Gandhi Jayanti, I'll suggest something more modest. Next time you're in a bookstore, go buy Subhadra Sen Gupta's Mahatma Gandhi and read it with your children.  If you don't have a child, then go buy the book for a child of a friend or relative. 

The Gandhiji in Sen Gupta's book is shrewd, complex and funny. Sen Gupta clearly loves Bapu, but by presenting him as a complex character, she allows young people to engage with his ideas on their own terms. Later, if they encounter less sympathetic portrayals of Gandhi and the movement he helped organize and lead, they will be in a better position to evaluate those ideas as well.  A good understanding and analysis of our history will not help us predict our future, of course, but it can help us to understand our present. 

I realize that the bookstores are mostly closed today. So I asked Subhadra Sen Gupta if we could run an excerpt of her book here at the Dhaba--something about Gandhi the environmentalist. She sent the section below, from Chapter 7, and she even agreed to give us an interview, which we'll run next week.  

As you read, think about the similarities between Gandhiji's ideas and the ideas that inform the best of the environmental movement. Ideas are great that way--unlike paper and plastic, they can be recycled indefinitely, and they often get stronger in the process.

It was while walking from village to village in the Champaran district of Bihar that Gandhiji came face to face with rural poverty for the first time. The hopeless lives of the villagers shocked him to the core. Kasturba who was with him met a family where the women possessed only one sari and lived in that one dirty garment till it was in tatters. They saw the empty huts without a stick of furniture, kitchens with few pots, the filthy streets with open sewers and the constant fear of hunger stalking the land. Gandhiji never got over the experience and the welfare of Indian villagers and finding a solution to their poverty became a constant challenge for him.

He was the first national leader to go deep into the countryside where he sat and listened to peasants and what he heard turned him into a crusader. For the rest of his life he worked ceaselessly to improve their lives. He knew that this was the real India where 85% of Indians lived and it was pointless talking about freedom, democracy and human rights when people were not sure of getting even one meal a day. How could they become a part of the freedom struggle when they were illiterate, burdened with work and afraid and did not even understand what democracy meant?

During his wanderings Gandhiji noticed that farmers sat idle for many months every year once the sowing of crops was over. This was when he wove in the idea of khadi into the old Swadeshi campaign. He spread the message that Indians were not only to use Indian products but those made in villages. He started the All India Spinners Association and began to distribute charkhas encouraging village men and women to spin thread and weave cloth. He also hoped that it would revive India’s dying textile industry which had always been based in the villages.

Today when the world is dazzled by the intricate craftsmanship and variety of Indian textiles remember, it all began with Bapu distributing charkhas to villagers and making leaders start spinning daily to spread the message. From the delicate ikats and pochampallies to the gorgeous patolas, tangails and maheshwaris – all these traditional weaving arts were under threat. They were being systematically killed by high taxes and cheaper British factory products. The weavers of Dacca who were famous for their fine muslin were dying in slums because they had no work. The khadi campaign slowly breathed life into these beautiful crafts.

It is hard to imagine Bapu as a fashion icon but he sent a message when he was photographed walking into Buckingham Palace in his dhoti and chaddar. He was always a shrewd judge of the message a picture could send and knew that when a man from a colonised nation wore his traditional garments to meet a king he was being fearless and also proud of his own heritage. What he was saying with his impish grin was that his khaddar chaddar was just as good as the king’s medal encrusted uniform! The khadi campaign made the wearing of handlooms both patriotic and trendy. At political rallies people saw the handsome Maulana Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru in natty achkans and Subhas Bose in an elegant flowing dhoti and began to wear khadi. When Sarojini Naidu swished up on stage in kanjeevaram saris in brilliant peacock hues, suddenly the socialites of Bombay began to discard their French chiffons for handlooms.

Gandhiji wanted villages to be self-reliant – growing their own food, weaving their own clothes and making their own pots and pans. He spoke constantly about living simply and believed that we should only use the earth’s bounty as much as we need. He opposed the senseless cutting of trees and the destruction of forests. He said, “The earth has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed” and remember he said this at a time when no one was talking of the threats to the environment or the dangers of climate change. And he showed this through his own simple life. All his earthly possessions could be packed into a single cloth jhola bag. He travelled light. There were his dhotis, chaddar, his rosary beads, tin bowl, plate and spoon. And also his spare glasses, false teeth and a copy of the Bhagwat Gita.

From the time he returned to India in 1914 his life became one of ceaseless work as he travelled across the land, often walking. At every village where he stayed he would talk of how the villagers could improve their lives. He tried to break their apathy by teaching them about hygiene and cleanliness, guided them towards cooking nutritious meals, the need to build schools to educate their children, the equality of women and against untouchability. He was keenest on hygiene and the need for clean toilets because he knew that if the sweepers did not have to clean them, then slowly the stigma of untouchability would fade away. Sadly even today many village homes lack toilets.

Even during the Dandi March, at every village where they stopped he spoke of ways in which villages could become self-reliant – dig canals, build roads and schools, clean their streets, start small scale industries like weaving, making baskets, pottery, metal and leather work. What is really amusing is that the government, that did not trust Gandhiji at all, even looked at his social work with great suspicion. Officials and the police were convinced that under the guise of social work he was in fact building up an army of rural Satyagrahis!

If you think villagers always listened and obeyed Bapu you would be mistaken. Many of them looked at him with suspicion and were angered by his talk of the rights of the lower castes and of women. Also many of them did not know how to help themselves and Gandhiji realised that he needed volunteers from the cities to go to work in the villages and among them were people like Vinoba Bhave and Baba Thakkar. So all the Non-government Organisations (NGO) working in villages today are really carrying on the work he began. Today’s Khadi Gramodyogs, Cottage Industries emporia, Dilli Haats and crafts melas are really a continuation of his campaigns and they provide livelihood to millions of crafts people.

The village improvement campaigns he called “a plodder’s work” – slow, laborious and needing endless patience but he persisted with it for thirty years. The poor were never far from his thoughts. It is easy for a politician to strut into a village, stand before a microphone, give a lot of advice at the top of his voice and drive off in a big car. Do you think they are taken seriously? The villagers listen politely to his “bhashan”, shake their heads in amusement and go back to their hard lives. They do not trust politicians.

Bapu walked the talk. Not only did he live simply, he also moved to live in a village. He chose a tiny village called Segaon near Wardha in Maharashtra and in 1936 built a hut there. Segaon had no shops, no post office or school, no roads and forget about electricity or telephones. Slowly a whole community of people interested in social work grew around him, all of them working in the nearby villages and they included a Japanese monk. This ashram was named Sevagram and the Congress leaders had to travel there to meet Gandhiji, at times trudging through ankle deep mud during the rains.

Bapu also decided that the Congress workers should experience village life first hand. So the next annual session of the party in 1936 was held in Faizpur, a village in Maharashtra. The pandal was like a bamboo village designed by the famous artist from Shantiniketan, Nandalal Bose. Delegates were served village food, lived under thatched roofs and they had to do all their sweeping and cleaning and Bapu made sure the Brahmins picked up the brooms. It was his way of introducing future ministers to their real constituents!

Critics of Gandhiji say he was against science and technology and wanted to go back to some ancient pre-industrial time but that is not correct. He was just very suspicious of technology and rightly so. What he did not like was our belief that any new technology is automatically good for us. Every industrialist and his factory are not for the benefit of the nation, take a look at our polluted rivers and our smog filled air and you know he was correct. An industrialist is in it for profit and he is not thinking of the people at all and in most cases industries just make a few people very rich.

Often industries also deprive people of their livelihood - take our tribals who are losing their forests because of the mining industries and this has spurred on the Naxal movement that is leading to so much violence. What Bapu wanted us to do, is judge every technology on its merits and decide whether we really need it or not. He wanted the people to decide, not the bureaucrat or politician. As he used to point out gently, even the charkha or a potter’s wheel is a machine but it does not pollute, it does not take away people’s livelihood, instead it offers them a source of income.

He often spoke of turning “waste into wealth” and was passionate about recycling things long before the word entered our vocabulary. He would use pencils until they were reduced to tiny stubs. He collected all the letters he received and they came by the hundred every day. He opened out envelopes and used the blank sides of letters for his replies. Both his ashrams at Sabarmati and Sevagram were filled with trees, had kitchen gardens and there were cows and goats being tended by the children.

Gandhiji’s ideal village was of a “perfect democracy based on individual freedom” and his villagers would grow their own food, have a school, an auditorium and a medical clinic, good roads and shops. Everyone would find employment in the area and no one would be not forced to migrate to the cities. Here elementary education would be free and children of all castes – girls and boys would study together. People called him a dreamer but in fact he was a supremely practical man devising practical solutions to poverty. And he was not afraid to fight for his dream.
From Puffin Lives: Mahatma Gandhi (2010), by Subhadra Sen Gupta.
Buy it from Friends of Books
For more Dhaba reviews, go to our review page.


  1. Great post HB, and thanks v much for the extract.

    Friends, you could also check out Bahuroop Gandhi, described by my friend Arvind as "the best book on Gandhi for children". It can be downloaded from his wonderful site (english & Marathi versions); its a real treasure trove.

    Lina Krishnan

  2. @Lina, thanks for stopping by and thanks for the tip!

  3. It seems like a must buy for kids. Thanks for the extract here. Made fascinating reading.

  4. @Banno--so glad you liked this. I did also.


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