Friday, January 21, 2011

The good grandson

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the hills of Kerala to the Himalayas
From the vale of Kashmir to the Almond Islands
This land was made for you and me

I first heard this Indian version of Woody Guthrie’s patriotic verse from my sister, who like thousands of other young Indians, had come under the spell of the charismatic young man who led the idealistic Moral Re-armament or MRA in India in the 1960s. I was to hear several such inspiratio
nal songs that my sister and her friends brought home from MRA meetings, which centrestaged that unlikely icon with a squeaky clean image and a fan following that threatened to rival that of the Beatles.

Tall, handsome Rajmohan Gandhi—the eldest grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari—of the aquiline nose and aristocratic features and bearing had come under the influence of Frank Buchman, the American who called for 'moral and spiritual re-armament' as the way to build a 'hate-free, fear-free, greed-free world', following World War II.

MRA India came into being on 2 October 1963, when 70 volunteers led by Rajmohan Gandhi marched across India advocating a clean, strong and united nation, covering 4,500 miles in 40 days. It was a programme of moral and spiritual reconstruction to foster change in private and public life based on a change in motivation and character.

Another unlikely hero of the movement was the late West Indies opening batsman Conrad Hunte. Like born again Christians, they had seen the light, but theirs was a message of world peace and moral rectitude that went beyond personal religion; it claimed to be one of transformation of the world that began with the individual.
As a slightly cynical young man, I had been a somewhat amused onlooker of what appeared to me to be a propagandist movement that sought to indoctrinate young people everywhere with grandiose ideas of changing the planet by adopting what Rajmohan Gandhi calls “the moral high ground”. Worse, some of us skeptics suspected ulterior motives, even a CIA plot to wean youth away from Communism, behind the whole movement.

Yet despite my intuitive skepticism, I could not help developing a sneaking admiration for my sister’s idol. When he spoke, he spoke with passion, conviction, a sincere desire to change the corrupt, warring ways of the world.
Soon MRA went out of my world, as my sister grew out of it and moved on to watching cricket and following the fortunes of a certain Nawab of Pataudi. And there, my indirect association with Rajmohan should have ended—but for my discovery of Himmat, the brilliant little weekly magazine he founded in 1964 and edited for the next 17 years. The moral high ground was still the fuel of Rajmohan Gandhi’s spiritual engine, but his splendid prose and the irrepressible courage and optimism of his writings made a huge impact on me and some of my friends. Himmat was a no-frills, monochromatic (literally) magazine which met national and international issues head on. It covered itself with glory during the Emergency declared in June 1975, while most of India’s press “crawled when asked to bend”.

I first met Rajmohan Gandhi many years ago during his mother Lakshmi Devdas Gandhi’s funeral. “Oh, the off spinner,” he said to me when someone introduced us, a flattering acknowledgement that he knew I was a cricketer. When I met him last week, he again talked cricket briefly before we went on to other subjects. “I only know your cricket, not your later incarnations,” he said.

It was a moment for my family to get his latest book A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 & the American Civil War autographed, and inform him that our library included his biographies of his two grandfathers, besides many of his other works. “Must be groaning under the weight,” he said.

A visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Gandhi was visiting Chennai for a brief lecture session for the benefit of visitors from the Netherlands. At 75, he still looks fit and alert physically and mentally, with no loss of the probing honesty that characterises his writings on his illustrious ancestors.

To my pleasant surprise I learnt from Rajmohan that MRA is still alive and kicking—recovering from the downslide caused by rampant materialism post-globalisation—but rechristened Initiatives of Change International. And its conference and training facility, Asia Plateau, a “verdant 64-acre centre of reconciliation, dialogue and introspection,” in the hills of Panchgani, Maharashtra, is still frequented by people from all over the world.

Rajmohan Gandhi is prominent in a number of initiatives to improve relations between Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan and the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. A true inheritor of the moral and intellectual qualities of both Gandhi and Rajaji, he believes, “One step of reconciliation, one step of bridge-building, one honest attempt to restore a divided relationship – and terrorism, extremism, receive a blow.”

And he is convinced that “if we demand rights and equality only for our group and not for all, they are no longer principles but just a political platform.”


VAMANAN said...

Ramnarayan...Thanks for this posting on Rajmohan Gandhi. When I worked in the Indian Express editorial, he was the Resident Editor for a few years. He gave me my first promotion. I learnt a few lessons about life from him then. 'Never think anybody is really happy', he taught me. 'Have you been abroad', he would ask and tell me that I should be a little more organised. He was supposed to be dropped by the office car but sometimes the time-office would play tricks. Rajmohan Gandhi would then take long strides down Clubwala road(?). You can expect that from the grandson of the man who marched to Dandi to pick up a handful of salt (and again the grandson of a man who gave up a life of luxury to live in a hut in Tiruchengode). A man of extreme conscientiousness...(Wow! I got the spelling right). Hats off to you for celebrating this really tall man.

Ramnarayan said...

Fantastic comment. Thank you.