Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bapu and Ba

Shopping, Madame?” That Monu thinks he’s got my number, but I’m after culture, not retail, today. “No,” I say, “the Gandhi Museum.” His face falls. “Gandhi House?” I stop, one leg in, one leg out of the car. Butter-side-down territory, for sure. If I say Yes, there’ll be two different establishments, and we’ll end up at the one I don’t want. I scuttle back to the thirty-third floor, to get precise co-ordinates from my Best Friend, The Internet. It’s the work of moments. I then have a small doorstep crisis, because, according to Hindu lore, returning home so soon after leaving, allows in evil spirits. You can either dash in and dash out again, five times over the threshold, or, sit down and have a drink of water, as if you’re staying. Either cunning stratagem confuses them. I opt for the latter, hoping that swigging from a bottle counts, and slam out again, complacently. Back in the car, I tell Monu, I've foiled the evil spirits. He’s utterly baffled. This isn't widespread Indian lore, then - clearly didn’t get as far as Lucknow – which tips my Eccentric Quotient over the edge into outright madness. Am thus on sticky wicket from now on...

Two and a half hours later, we pull up at the top of Laburnum Road, Gamdevi. “This Gandhi house street,” says Monu, laconic as ever. I lose all confidence in the enterprise, and want to go home. It’s only because we’ve come so far, that I get out of the car at all. Monu comes with me to the museum door, swatting away street vendors (Do I want to buy a spangly purse? NO.) “Gandhi house,” he points. “I waiting here.” I have no choice.

Mohandas and Kasturba, known to all-India as Bapu and Ba - were betrothed at seven, but their marriage was delayed until they reached the ripe old age of thirteen. Later, Gandhi says this was ill-considered of all parents concerned, but admits that, at the time, he was too preoccupied with new clothes, party food, and a strange playmate, to wonder at the wisdom of early marriage.
Ba was illiterate. Despite years of intermittent but patient teaching by her husband, she died at the age of 64, still trying to master her Gujerati primer. (She has my every sympathy - I have spent hours, myself, drawing Hindi script characters, and it is Jolly Hard. The only thing I’m confident of recognising, without sneaking a look at the answers, in the back of the book, is the word “OM” – and that’s because it’s embossed or embroidered on virtually every wall-plaque or cushion cover from Amritsar to Chennai.) Lettered or un-, Ba stood by him – or at times, confronting the world’s press in his absence, instead of him – all of her life.

The museum’s musty and sad. This may be on the job spec of all museums, thinking about it. There’s nothing interactive for kids, here, for instance. Everything was pasted onto boards, the day after Gandhi died in 1948, and no-one’s dusted since. Yellowing letters to and from Tolstoy, Eisenhower and Hitler. Black and white photos, quotations from Nehru on Gandhi, Gandhi on Nehru. After our pilgrimage drive, I need to be in here for longer than fifteen minutes, so I write down what Einstein said: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe, that such a one as this, ever, in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.” I look for Churchill, but, interestingly, in all the panoply of early twentieth century “A”-list celebs, he doesn’t merit so much as a postcard. Serve him right, for calling Gandhi a savage.

Not only was he the Father of the Nation, Gandhi was also the mastermind behind non-violent civil disobedience, famously “prepared to die” but not “prepared to kill.” “The cry of blood for blood,” he said, “is barbarous.” I write this down, too. There’s an American woman, having a sit-down, opting out of the final staircase, but whether she’s overcome by emotion or tired feet, I wouldn’t like to say. She encourages her compatriots, as they pass through, to look at the Tolstoy correspondence, to prove she can do culture, sitting-down.
Only two days before he was shot dead by Vinayak Nathuram Godse, Gandhi said, “If I am to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling.... God must be in my heart and on my lips.” (His last words were, “He ram!” (“My God!”) – so he got that bit right.) The assassin’s not honoured by so much as the mention of his name, in the museum, nor does it say, after three floors of non-violence and passivity, that he was executed for his troubles. Monu tells me – or rather, mimes me – in the car, on the way home.

When Gandhi died, the whole of India came to a standstill, plunged into the traditional Hindu thirteen days’ mourning. Sixty years on, his birthday’s still a national holiday, here. His ashes were immersed finally into the Arabian Sea, this January.

It’s the sandalwood, which moves me to tears, at last.

-- Out shopping for souvenirs, we find a small elephant-in-an-elephant, no bigger than a matchbox, but handsome, priced the wrong side of £40. In whitewood, the salesman says, it would be a tenth of the price. Apprentice carvers aren’t allowed to touch sandalwood, until they’ve had a chisel in their hand for more than four years, because sandalwood’s precious. Finer grained, for finer carving – and the fragrance, the exquisite fragrance, which lasts for ever. --

Sandalwood’s what they choose, for Gandhi’s funeral pyre. Love’s last gift.