By K Satchidanandan
Gandhi has called himself “an artist of non-violence”. That makes it easy for artists, including poets who are artists of the word, to connect with the great man and his lasting legacy. Gandhi has said very little about poetry, though he had deep spiritual links with the Bhakti and Sufi poets and had carefully and critically read Gita, if we consider that an example of India’s poetry which is, at times, nothing but philosophy in verse. But his very life was like that of poetry, ever- seeking, ever-evolving, profoundly conscious of the power of words to establish connections among apparently distant and even contradictory things, employing suggestive symbols picked up from the kitchen and the work place, creating new meanings out of paradoxes and retreating into suggestive silence when words seemed to fail.
Gandhi and Poetry
One day a lean poem/ reached Gandhi’s ashram/ to have a glimpse of the man.
Gandhi spinning away/ his thread towards Ram/ took no notice of the poem/ waiting at his door/ ashamed as he was no bhajan. The poem cleared his throat/ and Gandhi looked at him sideways/ through those glasses/ that had seen Hell. “Have you ever spun thread?” he asked,/
“Ever pulled a scavenger’s cart?/ Ever stood the smoke/ of an early morning kitchen?/ Have you ever starved?”
The poem said: “I was born/ in the woods, in a hunter’s mouth.
A fisherman brought me up in his hamlet. Yet, I know no work, I only sing.
First I sang in the courts/ then I was plump and handsome;/ but am on the streets now, half-starved.”
“That’s better,” Gandhi said/ with a sly smile, “but you must/ give up this habit/of speaking in Sanskrit at times.
Go to the fields, listen to/ the peasants’ speech.”
The poem turned into a grain/ and lay waiting in the fields/ for the tiller to come and upturn the virgin soil/ moist with the new rain.
Gandhi and the Tree Gandhi was walking in the sun/ that had survived Noakhali. “Come, have some rest.” Gandhi turned back:/ It was a shady tree. “You? It is not yet time/ for me to rest,” replied Gandhi.
The tree complained: “The world/ is in a hurry. I have grown old;/ no more do I flower nor bear fruit: / even birds have abandoned me.”
“Don’t worry,” Gandhi said,/ “You are waiting for the axe/ and I, for the bullet.”
“Don’t say that,” the tree was in agony,/ “Someone will need that shade.” The memory of spring escaped/ the tree as a sigh. “Pray,” said Gandhi. “If you don’t stop, I/ will have to walk with you”,/ the tree now began to walk with Gandhi.
A wind blew. A bird/ flew to the tree. “See, I am in bloom again”/ the tree laughed with white flowers. “You have started walking? Then/ I can cease,” Gandhi’s blood/ whispered as it gushed out,/ like a prayer for every being. “See, my flowers are growing red,” cried out/ the emancipated tree.
Three birds that had/ dreamt of fruits came flying from the East.
Ninety years ago,/ we extracted from the sweat of/ the ocean’s ceaseless waves, a handful of salt:/ a blossom of tender white in a lean raised hand.
One hand suddenly turned into/ six thousand manacled ones:/ millions of fists raised against/ an empire “where the sun never set”.
From that day truth in our land/ came to be called “imprisoned salt”.
Ram, Allah, Khuda, Messiah,/ that salt was everything to us:/ the prophetess who emerged from/ the seafoam and arrived in the kitchen,/ the white-winged angel, the eternal saviour of our dreams.
A handful of liberty,/ a handful of equality, a handful of love,/ a handful of kindness, a Buddha of salt. Today once again we raise/ a flag of white salt/ in the background of/ the ocean’s dark turquoise blue:/ the fleeting vision of dark-haired freedom/ slipping off from our little hands,/ the snowy elaboration of fair equality/ that we still keen our ears for,/ a calloused hand with the scent of sweat our flesh and tears have,/ a handful of the dark-edged salt of justice/ studded with the sand grains of rebellion/ that Gandhi had raised in Dandi/ ninety years ago.
(Satchidanandan is a poet and bilingual literary critic. Translated from Malayalam by the author)