'Remember, remember Gandhi’

Karnataka litterateurs from Kuvempu to Karanth and Raja Rao to Anthamurthy have not stopped wondering at the ability of a frail, toothless-old man to bring about unsettling changes in a traditional society

Mahatma Gandhi.

In a pivotal scene from H S Nagaveni’s Gandhi Banda, a classic of modern Kannada fiction, Mahatma Gandhi arrives in Mangaluru for a public meeting. Some volunteers bring him to Draupadi, the Brahmin widow of a Muslim man, Adrama. Gandhi asks the women to deck her up with gold ornaments, put the vermilion mark on her forehead and himself adorns her hair with a flower, symbolically restoring her wifehood and womanhood.

In the novel, Gandhi ‘with less than three ounce of flesh’ becomes the epicentre of far-reaching changes in a hierarchical, caste-bound society and the icon of the aspirations of many Dalit communities.

As the novel shows, societal change occurs due to many factors, but Gandhi is the fountainhead of its desire for change. Most debates, and even quarrels, about gender and caste inequality, have Gandhi as their reference point.

Like Kannada prose, its poetry too has not stopped wondering at the miracle of a frail, toothless-old man with hardly ‘a few spoons of blood’ in his body and his capacity to bring about such unsettling changes in a traditional society. T P Kailasam, the bohemian intellectual playwright who re-formed Kannada theatre by making it realistic and contemporary in spirit and themes, wrote a witty English poem titled, Recipe, in which gives the method of ‘making’ Gandhi. All you need is a few ounces of flesh, a few spoonfuls of blood, a toothless baby smile, two large elephant ears, and a whole ocean of love and compassion. The poem was translated into Kannada by G P Rajaratnam and Channaveera Kanavi.

But not all eminent works about Gandhi waited to be translated. In fact, the first great Kannada novel about Gandhi, Kanthapura (1938), was written by Raja Rao in English! Several decades before Salman Rushdie, Raja Rao had accomplished the ‘chutnification’ of English to represent the speech rhythms and unique structures of Kannada in the celebrated work.

Kuvempu wrote a remarkable poem on Gandhi when the latter visited Mysuru as part of his Harijan upliftment campaign. Tens of thousands had come to listen to Gandhi. Kuvempu wonders what drew them to him who was

‘Neither handsome nor young

He is old, with a toothless mouth.

Nor is he lotus eyed…

He has not performed miracles

of turning stone into bread

Certainly not a great orator

His frail voice does not reach far,

His speech is shorn of rhetoric and charm

His subject – sweepers cleaning the street!

In his characteristic radical egalitarian style, Kuvempu says humanity had waited for three aeons (yugas) for Kaliyuga for people to look for godliness, not in avatars, but in compassionate saints like Gandhi.

Shivaram Karanth gave up his studies to become a Gandhian social worker. With his intimate knowledge of the socio-political turmoil in coastal Karnataka, in novels such as Oudaryada Urulalli, Jaruva Dariyalli and Marali Mannige Karanth delineates the moral conflict of young men who had jumped headlong into the freedom struggle only to return to the poverty and the orthodoxy of their villages. Ever the realist, he refuses to write a hagiography of Gandhi. Instead, he writes with a sombre, undeceived vision in which Gandhi is an absent presence, as a symbol of deep social conscience and of the writer’s idea of one’s ‘debt’ to society.

Goruru Ramaswamy Iyengar (Meravanige), Ta Ra Su (Rakta Tarpana) and A Na Kru (Amara August) also eschew sentimental eulogies to the Gandhian movement and write about the deep crisis it created in the young generation. By the time we enter the 1960s, Gandhi has been transformed into a reference point from which satire and critique emerge on societal hypocrisy and corruption and the turn away from Gandhian ideals. In U R Ananthamurthy’s Bharathipura, Gandhianism is already effete and without the historical energy it possessed.

In two great short stories by Besagarahalli Ramanna, Gandhi returns to an absurd, cruel bureaucratised world only to unsettle and unmask it. In the story ‘Gandhi’ a terminally-ill young boy is ridiculed in the government hospital because he is named Gandhi. By the time his grandfather returns with money having sold his land, the boy is dead. The powerful story makes the reader wonder what if Gandhi himself were to return to this dead world.

Gopala Krishna Adiga whose manifesto of Kannada literary modernity critiqued the Gandhian freedom struggle for its amorphous idealism and advocated a return to the ‘smell of the soil’, that is, to a critical, self-conscious modernist view, wrote many poems on Gandhi.

Boluvaru Mahamed Kunhi’s Papu Gandhi Gandhi Bapu Adaddu translated into English as From Monu to Mahatma won him the Sahitya Akademi’s Balasahitya Puraskar. It is an attractive and sensitive work celebrating the child in Gandhi and making children discover the Gandhi in themselves.

A haunting portrait of Gandhi in a poem by G S Shivarudrappa is as follows.

“A lone old man walks, leaning on his stick,

All the way on his path

Are ruined gardens, smoke from still smouldering fires

Muddy blood squelching under the feet

Amidst the night sounds of the city

The sound of his walk leaning on a stick

The sound banging on our doors

….Someone switching on a torchlight

On our inner, hidden worlds."

P Lankesh, in his brilliant afterword to Chandrashekhar Patil’s Gandhi Smarane, a collection of poems written during the Emergency, offers an extraordinary analysis of Gandhi’s secularism and openness. He admires Chandrashekhar Patil’s poem on Gandhi in which the poet admonishes himself (or his mind) for not remembering Gandhi, with his characteristic irony.

‘Remember, remember Gandhi’.

(Do not ask, you fool, which Gandhi).

(The author is Director, Manasa Centre for Cultural Studies, Shivamogga. He is a literary and cultural critic and a bilingual writer and activist)

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