Saturday 16 June 2018

Sevagram: A reminder of Gandhi’s forgotten ideals

Despite all my issues with parts of Gandhi’s politics . . . despite being aware that it is not in vogue today to admire something related to him, today when invariably I notice that bookstands have put My Experiments with Truth on the back shelves to make way for Godse's Why I Killed Gandhi, I am sharing my memories of Sevagram that have stayed with me over the years, whose temporary peace I have sought in many places since. I believe trouble occurs when we make heroes out of people whose work we admire. We start worshipping them, and the minute they make a mistake they fall from our grace. It is so much simpler to put our faith in the word done and in the ideals followed, for their significance goes much beyond the people who espoused them. If a leader, for example, fights against corruption, and is then caught in a corrupt act himself, it is not as if the idea of fighting against corruption is to be let go of (unless we are looking for an excuse to be corrupt ourselves).
A visit to Sevagram (Wardha, Maharashtra), where Gandhi moved in 1936, is like coming back to the very best of what the people’s leader had come to represent. Being in Sevagram was a complete antidote to how I felt living in Delhi: the capital city that triggered feelings of stress, anxiety and inadequacy. Sevagram, on the contrary, calmly signifies that less is more and reminds one of the power of determined marches over frantic runs. Originally a village brought to prominence due to Gandhi’s stay there, Sevagram is still making up its mind about whether to behave as a town or a village. Luckily for tourists, this perplexity offers them the best of both worlds. It has the quiet of a village and yet manages to provide the amenities of a town, from varying modes of conveyance to cyber cafes. As I disembarked at the Sevagram railway station and stopped at a bookshop to buy some (now rarely found) books in Hindi, the bookseller shared his guilt about not having visited Gandhi’s ashram and made me promise that I would not follow him in his sin.
It is true that the most rewarding treat of staying at Sevagram is a visit to Bapu Kuti. One does not have to be a Gandhi devotee to be able to appreciate the austere beauty of the ashram’s premises. Gandhi is said to have shared these thoughts about who should consider residing in the ashram: “He alone deserves to be called an inmate of the Ashram who has ceased to have any worldly relation - a relation involving monetary interests-- with his parents or other relatives, who has no other needs save those of food and clothing and who is ever watchful in the observance of the eleven cardinal vows. Therefore he who needs to make savings, should never be regarded as an Ashram inmate.”

The hut which welcomed Gandhi and his many visitors is nothing short of a museum. A quaint bath, an elderly, dignified telephone box and neat little alcoves shyly peeping from the walls, all serve to create an inexplicable nostalgia for a past that we were not even a part of. The kitchen contains the flour grinder Gandhi put to use occasionally. His cot and massage table have also been retained. The sacredness of the place is defended by the several sombre trees that have themselves withstood the many ravages of time. The practice of daily prayers in the open continues till date. The campus has all the humility carried in the name of the village ('a village for service').

In fact, the last bit is true of all the places I have visited associated with Gandhi (including Gandhi Smriti in Delhi) where he lived or worked. There is no splendour or grandeur usually expected of heritage sites. There is a bare, undecorated beauty in these places, one that accepts itself and all its visitors unconditionally. It is this all-embracing calmness that humbles and overwhelms me each time, leaving me moved and inspired.

In 1982, a yatri nivas (where I had the good fortune of staying) was built across the road by the government so visitors could stay or organisations engaged in socially productive work could use the venue for their meetings and retreats.

But for all its austerity, Sevagram does not suggest that we slip into primeval times. It boasts of housing the first rural medical college, along with an engineering institute. The road down Bapu Kuti leads to many small cooperative societies named after the legend and doing good business. All of this makes one reconsider whether the only way to meet development is to cartwheel into it headlong. And it makes visitors have second thoughts about slotting people as heroes and villains, instead of finding the good that we can in them, learning from it, and moving on.

First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 2 May 2018.

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