January, 2015 was an important time in my life. I was compelled to take a very important decision. The controversy over Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) had turned my own people against me. A false propaganda had insinuated that my writing had discredited my native village and the women there. There were no takers for my opinion. Instead, my life was in danger; my family was facing a crisis. Circumstances were forcing us to shift out of our home; we were about to be robbed of our livelihood. Those unfamiliar with the ground situation had much advice to offer. I realised that they would not work in my case. Most of them were swayed by ideological considerations. I listened to them, but did not respond. This led to more confusion and I was unsure of my next step.
Then, on a night of pristine darkness, after pacing on our terrace for a long time, I visualised a man trapped in a flood. It was impossible to swim, or rise above the flood waters. The only option that seemed feasible was to go with the flow. Then I decided to listen to my heart. It was saying I was not wrong. But my voice was drowning in the cacophony of opposition. I decided not to compromise the value of my voice; I had to save it somehow. So I chose to respect the sentiment of the opposition. Forgiveness is no sin, it is merely an expression of a mellowed-down heart. I wrote a letter seeking forgiveness from those who claimed to be hurt by my book and signed it.
I was now done with respecting the opposition. But I could not erase that part of me which had not committed any mistake: I had to protect the sanctity of my own voice. I arrived at two decisions: To withdraw all my works and to not write in the future. These decisions, however, triggered unexpected consequences. So I chose not to talk in public.
Many questions were raised over my choices. While others argued and debated my discussions, I too was searching for answers within. I scrutinised the different strands of the position I had taken and realised that they were premised on forgiveness, the need to withdraw from the public and the desire for silence. How did these factors that influenced my decisions reach me? I can say with certainty that it was because of Gandhi’s words and Gandhian principles. Even as I learned about Gandhi as the “father of the nation” in school textbooks at a young age, I had the opportunity to read his autobiography, Sathiya Sodhanai (My Experiments with Truth).
While in Class 8, I had participated in several poetry competitions as a representative of my school. I got My Experiments with Truth as a gift at one such competition. I came from a family that could not afford books. For someone like me, who took great interest in even reading a pamphlet, the book was a source of great joy. Around the same time, I also had the opportunity to read Vanavasam (Exile in a Forest) — the autobiography of lyricist Kannadasan. In his foreword, Kannadasan, referring to Gandhi’s statement, “my life is my message”, would speak about his work thus: “My Experiments with Truth is an example of how to live. Vanavasam is an example of how not to live.” I was more attracted to his views on My Experiments with Truth than Vanavasam. I read Gandhi’s autobiography again, and, several such times thereafter.
Later, I read some of Gandhi’s works available in Tamil. I have also understood Gandhi through the interpretations of “Thanthai” Periyar. Periyar has often been critical of Gandhi, and occasionally praised him. When Gandhi passed away, Periyar had several recommendations to memorialise his life. One such was to rename India as Gandhi nation. He said it would have a positive impact.
Even when Periyar differed with Gandhi on many principles, he followed Gandhi in his political struggles. Periyar had learnt of Gandhi’s ways while holding positions in the Congress early in his political career. Gandhi preferred legal ways of protest with no space for violence. When evolving his own form of protests, Periyar did not give up on the fundamentals of Ahimsa.
Having absorbed Gandhi in these ways, I believe it was what helped me in my hour of crisis. Gandhi showed me the merits of the path of forgiveness, solitude and silence. Our society as a whole cannot bring itself to seek forgiveness. Caste, age, position and responsibility come in the way. It is in our nature to push back the heart that comes forward to seek forgiveness. The society built on caste hierarchies professes to expect only those lower in the hierarchy to seek forgiveness for no fault. Gandhism is capable of questioning this premise and altering it. In several circumstances, Gandhi has stressed the importance of forgiveness. He believed that seeking forgiveness and granting it were high virtues.
“Distancing” oneself is also a way of Gandhi, at times when protests spiral out of control. Gandhi practised it even in his private life. It could immediately bring a turbulent situation under control. Distancing could put a spoke in the plans that people would devise to use an issue for their convenience. It was not necessary for someone involved in something to go on till the end. Distancing is about realising the gravity of problems that might arise in the process, and take appropriate measures to avoid them. Distancing will render the weapons of the opposition futile. I see my announcement to withdraw from writing as one such act. Not just in personal issues, but this approach also helps to avoid negative consequences in the public arena and redirects the focus.
Silence is the sharpest of Gandhi’s weapons. He had a deep interest in vows of silence, which bestowed the mind with great strength. He had practised silence on many important occasions. Silence yields benefits in personal as well as public spaces. One cannot be sure if one’s words in a public space will always be taken in the intended spirit. Because of tone, background and many external reasons, it could assume other meanings. There were chances of them being grossly misunderstood. It was not possible for a person who uttered those words to always offer explanations. It was important to think things through before uttering a word. It was not possible to take a word back. Silence was not so, it was more an armour that could withstand any kind of attack.
When I decided to not talk in public, I never had such thoughts. Only when I understood the impact of silence, did I realise its armour-like nature. Often, people who want us to speak want to hear their thoughts in our voices. Sometimes, they would want to spin controversies. Silence gave me protection against all this. Even now, I am not so keen to talk in public. The world opens many doors when we watch in silence.
Gandhism had a rare influence on me: It helped an ordinary writer like me find a way to handle a crisis. I can say without doubt that it might have more to offer society as a whole. It has given society and individuals ways to live in harmony and to maintain a sense of self and to not hurt others even when one has been hurt. In a world where forces that use divisiveness to hold on to power continue to dominate, Gandhism, which teaches us to think of others, has much to do. Fasting, sloganeering, rallying and yatras are some forms of protest given to us by Gandhism. We are yet to find more powerful ways to express dissent, protest and take our demands to the authorities. Gandhi and his ideas are still needed in our private lives, our societies and our times.
Murugan has published many works of poetry, fiction and essays. Translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan
— This article first appeared in the October 4, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Gandhi in need’