I am in Mumbai for three days. Mumbai, the financial hub of India, is the capital of Maharashtra State. Mumbai is also the center of India’s Hindi-language film industry, otherwise known as Bollywood. I’m here to conduct a seminar at SNDT university, about which more anon in another blog. I spent the first full day (Sunday) touring the city with a local driver as my guide and discovered more about India that touches my heart.
It was fascinating to visit the Gateway to India, built to commemorate the visit to India in 1911 of Britain’s King George V and his wife, Queen Alexandra. The only way I’d seen it before was in film (Gandhi, Passage to India, etc.) or in picture books. Now, here I was standing before the real thing. My own father, William Gerard Poole, was born in South Asia, just a few hundred miles from Mumbai (Bombay as it was then), in the hill town of Maymyo, Burma—Pwin Oo Lwin, Myanmar now. Throughout my stay in India I have wondered wistfully about how close I am to my dad’s birthplace, where, growing up, he must have experienced a way of life similar in some respects to what I am experiencing during my stay in the traditional, olde worlde town of Tirupati, in South India.
I feel like I am retracing my roots. My father was the first of 5 children of my grandfather and grandmother on my father's side. My grandfather was a non-commissioned officer in the British army during the halcyon years of the British Raj. My father was seven years of age before he saw for the first time England's "green and pleasant land." I like to think that this is the reason why I have not had the slightest difficulty adjusting to Indian cuisine. My mother, engaged to my dad and no doubt anxious to please him, learned how to cook a hot Indian curry from her future mother-in-law. Needless to say, we children grew up enjoying those Indian curries, too.
It is Sunday, so during our morning and early afternoon drive around the city, I enjoyed the relatively traffic-free sweep of Mumbai’s boulevards and beaches. My driver/guide was careful to show me only the more salubrious side of the city. The architecture runs the gamut of styles from traditional, old-Bombay's balconied apartments, to the mostly Victorian, neo-classical, governmental monuments to the British Raj, to the glistening, glass-faced skyscrapers of modern times. It was not until two days later, when being taken by another driver to the airport, that I discovered the other, seamier, side of Mumbai—the bleak, neglected, ramshackle, rampant poverty in the backstreets where the majority of Mumbai’s twenty million citizens live.
Religion is never far from people’s lives in India. I saw it represented in Mumbai by majestic, pseudo-Gothic Christian church spires, colorful, marbled Hindu temples, and a particularly striking mosque, the Haji Ali Mosque, poised on the extreme end of a spit of land that reaches into the Bay of Bombay. The arcing semi-circle of ocean beach is lapped by the waters of the Arabian Sea. At night, the bay is defined by a glittering necklace of lights that strings along Marine Drive.
But the highlight of my touristy day in Mumbai was a visit to Mani Bhavan, the house—now a museum—where Gandhi lived not long after he returned to India for good in 1915. It’s a rambling, colonial, three-storey building in a quiet corner of the old town, not far from the center of the city. He lived here with his family from 1917 to 1934. Prior to that he had worked as a lawyer in South Africa where he learned, developed, and honed his skills in satyagraha—peaceful, non-violent resistance to the injustices inflicted by the strong and powerful on the weak and defenseless.
We arrived at Mani Bhavan before opening time, but a word from my driver to the attendants who were hanging around outside gained us early entry right away. They opened up the house just for me and I had the run of the place for a good half an hour before anyone else showed up to disturb my quiet, pensive, somewhat dreamlike enjoyment of this place in time, this piece of history that memorialized the impressive achievements of the man who led India on its march to independence.
The house was wall-to-wall pictures, photographs, dioramas and artifacts that recalled Gandhi’s life and times. As I wandered the corridors, stairways, and rooms, I was moved over and over again by memories triggered in my mind by my lifelong love of all things Indian. Here I paused over the very place where Gandhi sat spinning cotton—a place I’d only previously seen in photographs. There I gazed from the balcony over the front door where, in the company of his wife and Jawarhal Nehru and others of his political devotees, he greeted the crowds gathered to see the man who made such a relentless nuisance of himself in his dealings with the representatives of the British Raj.
I’ve learned much about Gandhi since coming to India. Everywhere there are statues to his memory—iconic depictions of well-known milestones in his life. The icon most frequently captured in monumental stone or cast metal is of a sandaled ascetic, head pressed forward, stubbornly stepping out, staff in hand, to lead the people in a non-violent challenge to the “authorities” over a Salt Tax. The “Boston Tea Party” in the American Revolution comes to mind as a parallel political statement of discontent. It is significant that tomorrow I fly to Ahmedabad (pronounced Am-da-bad), capital of Gujarat, the state in which Gandhi was born. It was from his ashram in Ahmedabad that Ghandi began his 400 mile march to the salt-strewn shores of the Arabian Sea.
Gandhi, who trained as a lawyer and was a politician to the core, devoted his entire adult life to advocacy on behalf of the underprivileged, such as the migrant Indian workers in South Africa and the Indian peoples subjugated by the British during the time of the British Raj. With all his faults—and he had many—it is only fair to recognize the success he had in galvanizing against their oppressors those people whose rights were being abused, whether in South Africa by the Boers or in India by the British.
Gandhi carefully and shrewdly cultivated an image of austerity and self-denial and he did so with great effect. He wanted to be identified with the poor and oppressed even though, as his popularity and fame grew, it was hard for him to live a life of abnegation. He courted imprisonment but, because of his standing, was rarely, if ever, treated as a common criminal.
It took more than a mere image, though, to place him amongst the pantheon of God-like figures in India’s storied past. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “I am not concerned about what history will say of me, because I intend to write it myself!” So, too, Gandhi. He was accompanied everywhere on his travels across India by an amanuensis. His every word was recorded in writing for posterity. The biographies of Gandhi that I have read thus far unashamedly toe the Gandhian line, usually quoting directly or indirectly from Gandhi’s own autobiography, which I read first, soon after I arrived in India. I’m looking for a biography of Gandhi that uses more than Gandhi’s autobiography as a primary reference.
That said, I do admire the man. I certainly don’t have the guts, determination, chutzpah, and high threshold of tolerance for discomfort and pain that Gandhi had. Nor do I have his charisma. In many ways he was a public relations genius, but above all he had an extraordinarily focused mind. You’d have to have a focused mind to doggedly hold on to non-violence in pursuit of political goals when faced with the indignities and physical suffering inflicted arbitrarily on his followers and himself by the South African and British overlords.
So I take my hat off to the Mahatma Gandhi and sing his praises, even as I hold onto my personal reservations about him until I’ve had the opportunity to study the man more.
In my studies of Gandhi, the name Ambedkar keeps popping up, especially when I read anything written by someone other than a Gandhian devotee. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) is considered the father of the Indian Constitution. Ambedkar was a dalit—a "broken one," one of the Hindu outcaste "untouchables." He championed the dalit cause as did no other. An Indian friend of mine reminds me that Bombay belongs to Ambedkar, too. I'll have a lot more to say about Ambedkar in an upcoming blog.