When my editor asked if I would write a book on Gandhi for young readers, my instant response was, “no”. Because that is what my reaction would have been had I been a child, “Oh no, not another book on Gandhi!” Besides, I write fiction, mostly reality fiction, but I don’t enjoy writing documentary. And that is the only way to treat Gandhi. How can you fictionalise a man we statue-ise? So, “no” was my only answer.
But she persisted and I was persuaded. “Fine, I told myself, I would write something Munna Bhai-ish for very young readers. Light and breezy. But as I proceeded, I found the idea too thin, too insubstantial. Most of all, it just was not true to myself. I was panicking, as I do when I can’t believe my own story. It took some help to calm myself down. That’s when a thought that had been lurking in my head and heart crept up. I didn’t even know that I had this thought — no, not thought — more a deep, deep wound that had festered within me for three decades. It rose up and demanded to be remembered, to be felt. In its raw, visceral form. Telling you more about this would be a spoiler for the book, so I am not going to do that.
I had my breakthrough. I knew why I had to write a book on Gandhi for young readers. Why I needed to write a book on Gandhi and make sure young people would read it. Because there are wounds that we experience and we need to not nurse them instead of burying them. They are raw wounds that even young people need to know and care about. And most of all, remember so that they don’t repeat them. There are questions and concerns that confront our children today whether we acknowledge it or not. There are words in their vocabulary that I certainly did not have growing up.
Being Gandhi is an urgent book, not because the anniversary of 150 years of Gandhi is coming up. But because, more than ever, we need Gandhi today. We need his thoughts, his activism, his principles. Most of all, we need his courage to stand up for what he believed. Stand up in the face of criticism and worse. We need Gandhi today because we need to relearn that courage of conviction. We need, first of all, to care and then to act. Our compassion needs to be bolstered by action and our action led by compassion. In the collective “we”, I include children and teenagers. And, because we cannot time-machine him back, we need to be Gandhi ourselves.
We need to pay more than lip service, we need to be more than a costume representation of white dhoti and laathi and bald wig, if we’re lucky. We need more than a good skit on Gandhi challenging imperial forces, or posters lining classrooms, which is what most schools are gearing up to do. Yes, I am saying that we need to bring Gandhi out of the paper-dry walls of veneration, off the high pedestals that we have placed him on, so far out of the reach of young hands and hearts. We need to find the man that has been buried in God-like texts and believe that he exists and must live through his principles and actions. Adolescents need this and they need it today.
Easy access to WhatsApp violence leads to a dangerous apathy. You can see a lynching, an assault, a murder with the tap of a couple of keys. Anyone can, including children. The impact this must be having on young psyches is for psychologists and researches to study. My concern as a writer of books for young people is not to protect, but rather to prepare to help them make some sense, and, most of all, to help them care, develop an empathy towards what they do and must believe is wrong. If we could get children to think, “What would Gandhi do?” and if we can get them to be Gandhi by standing up for those beliefs, wouldn’t it be a more powerful and better world?
Children need to understand Gandhi at the level of the heart, rather than the head level. For this, we need to humanise Gandhian principles rather than put him on a pedestal. We have not allowed children to question a man who had the courage to raise uncomfortable questions. We venerate and deify rather than understand or challenge, even. We quell the debate on Gandhi in schools because we have made it feel like blasphemy. But it should certainly not be so because, then, we are robbing our children of the rights that Gandhi fought for in the first place.
I have, over many years, worked with over three lakh children. For the large part, they are feisty, full of ideas and questions and confident enough to express them. But every time Gandhi is mentioned, there is an invariable hush, a visible deflation. They quieten as though they have entered a place of worship. I am all for being respectful to the Mahatma, but let’s not forget that he also loved being Bapu.
As I finished writing Being Gandhi, my daughter-in-law walked in and found me in tears. She asked me what had happened. Without thinking and because I was so overwhelmed, I replied, “I think I have just written a beautiful book.” I assure you, I am not a vain person. But I felt that I had found a way to “bring Gandhi front and centre into young lives today,” as Ruskin Bond has said in his blurb. I do hope that it will be more than a book for children. It is a call to action for citizens of this country and the world, and I hope they will find a Gandhi who they can relate to and aspire to be like.
(Paro Anand’s novel, Being Gandhi [HarperCollins] has just been published)
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘To Seek Time and Again’
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