Mahatma Gandhi touched the lives of millions when he was alive, and he continues to do so long after departing from this world. But there are few left whom he had physically touched, an experience many have described as a rare privilege in their lives. Last month I met Patil Puttappa (96), an eminent Kannada journalist, who has described this experience in his memoirs as “life-changing”. As a student-volunteer, Puttappa had received the Mahatma’s pat on his back when the latter visited his village in Karnataka. A couple of years ago, Justice Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, another 88-year-old Gandhian, recounted a similar experience on a widely appreciated episode of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate.
Narayanbhai Desai (90), who passed away in his native village, Vedchi, in Gujarat on March 15, had an even closer physical and missionary association with the Mahatma. First, he was the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhiji’s legendary personal secretary. The Mohan-Mahadev relationship was so special that after the latter’s untimely death on August 15, 1942, during their imprisonment at Aga Khan Palace in Poona in the wake of the Quit India Movement, Gandhiji remarked: “The whole life of Mahadev was a poem of devotion… Remaining the disciple, Mahadev became my guru.” As such, Gandhiji showered his love, affection and attention on young Narayan, who spent his early years in Sabarmati and Sevagram ashrams.
Second, Narayanbhai himself became a widely respected populariser of Gandhiji’s life, philosophy and mission through his performances of “Gandhi Katha”, week-long discourses in Gujarati, Gujarati and English conducted in the traditional Bhagawat Katha style with music and songs. He rendered more than 100 such programmes in India and abroad. In 2011, the Ahmedabad Management Association published the English translation of Gandhi Katha, with a foreword by Rajmohan Gandhi, who writes: “This book is your ticket to a noble age. India then seemed to be the world’s moral leader… No one can take you closer to Gandhi than 86-year-old Narayan Desai. He has lived longer with Gandhi than anyone else living today. He has understood Gandhi better than anyone else. He has an amazing memory. He has a gift for telling stories; he is a poet, too.”
We should be truly grateful to people like Narayanbhai, his father and also Pyarelal (who worked devotedly with Mahadev Desai and later became Gandhiji’s chief personal secretary in the final tumultuous years of the Mahatma’s life) because they were not only first-rate Gandhians but also first-rate scholars and writers. Narayanbhai wrote 40 books, including My Life is My Message, an epic four-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi, which was ably translated by Tridip Suhrud.
The Fire and the Rose, his biography of his father, is a gem. It holds a mirror to Mahadev Desai’s extraordinary life of service and sacrifice. If the world knows a lot about Gandhiji’s incomparably transparent life, including the smallest details, it is due mainly to Mahadev Desai’s meticulous recordings in his diaries. Again, I take recourse to Rajmohan Gandhi’s brilliant foreword to The Fire and the Rose. “His [Mahadev’s]diaries recorded Gandhi’s doings, conversations, political parleys, ethical dilemmas. Sometimes his articles and briefings interpreted Gandhi’s mind better than Gandhi’s own pen or tongue. Waking up before Gandhi in pre-dawn darkness, and going to sleep long after his Master, Desai lived Gandhi’s day thrice over — first in an attempt to anticipate it, next in spending it alongside Gandhi, and finally in recording it into his diary.”
Like all true Gandhians, Narayanbhai lived a life of utmost simplicity and dedication. And most of it was spent in constructive activities, which were an integral part of Gandhiji’s mission. He was a close associate of Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodan Movement, and of Jayaprakash Narayan in his Sampoorna Kranti campaign. He called his residence in Vedchi “Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya”, where he experimented with Gandhiji’s ideas about “Nai Talim” education. He was also active in the worldwide movement for peace and nuclear disarmament.
In 2013, Narayanbhai invited me to deliver the Kamalnayan Bajaj Memorial Lecture on “Technology and Nonviolence” at Gujarat Vidyapeeth, of which he remained the chancellor until his demise. My lecture at the university (founded by Gandhiji in 1920) was based on the theme of my book, Music of the Spinning Wheel — Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. Narayanbhai did not sound convinced with my argument that Gandhiji was not opposed to modern science and technology. Nor did he agree with me that tools of the digital era, if guided by the moral philosophy of the spinning wheel, can be helpful in ending the death and destruction man has inflicted on nature as well on members of his own species. Nevertheless, he listened to my views with an open and curious mind.
After the lecture, Narayanbhai’s close aides and I discussed an important project with him — the need to create a digital library of all the available audio and video recordings of his “Gandhi Kathas”, coupled with some fresh recordings to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, this project could not commence because of Narayanbhai’s failing health. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who condoled his death in a tweet, should ask his government to execute this project. The legacy of Narayanbhai and Mahadevbhai is too precious to be lost to posterity due to societal and governmental apathy.
The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee