At the start of September 1997, when I arrived in the United States to begin what unexpectedly became a fifteen-year spell of teaching and research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Princess Diana had just died in a car crash. Many were shocked and sad, and not only in Great Britain.
Trying to portray her legacy, television channels in the US showed shots of her sons, fifteen-year-old William and thirteen-year-old Harry—dignified and photogenic, both of them. Looking at them, I thought of the lecture I was expected to give on the legacy of Gandhi, who had died fifty-two years, or almost two generations, earlier.
Even if I possessed their photographs, which I did not, I knew I could not present his fifteen grandchildren, of whom I was one, or the many more great-grandchildren, and say, “Look, here is Gandhi’s legacy.” That would not have worked, even though, if you ask me, certainly the great-grandchildren, and their children, are quite dignified and photogenic.
Descendants would not fit the bill in part because “family first” was not Gandhi’s motto. Cheated for long by big men who nourished the ambitions of favourite offspring, the people of India honoured Gandhi because his family did not come first with him. Steering Ship India across dangerous waters, Captain Gandhi did not save the best lifeboats for his family.
Saying that in him “divine providence ha[d] given [India] a burning thunderbolt of shakti,” Gandhi’s great friend and occasional critic, the poet Tagore, would add: Gandhi “stopped at the threshold of huts of thousands of the dispossessed, like one of their own…spoke in their own language…and won the heart of India with his love.”
Raised in a privileged family in Rajkot in western India, Mohan had learnt as a boy to recite the family pedigree, of which he was proud. When he was in his seventies, the hugs that Gandhi gave his grandchildren revealed his love for them, the flesh of his flesh.
Yet many thought that the star of destiny that pulled Gandhi like a magnet and drove him to serve the Indian people distanced Gandhi from his biological family while bonding him with countless Indians who seemed to need him even more than his sons and grandchildren.
They thought that the relationship between Gandhi and his sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren was detached, disengaged, perhaps even cold.
This was indicated to me, for example, by the legendary Aruna Asaf Ali, shortly before her death in 1996.
Aruna is a celebrated figure in India’s liberation story, a well-connected Bengali Brahmin whose brother had married Tagore’s daughter, Mira. Aruna herself had married a Muslim lawyer and independence activist from north India, Asaf Ali. She went underground during Quit India, became a hero, and fought until the day she died for equality and human rights.
Not long before her death, Aruna and others, including my brother Ramchandra, better known as Ramu Gandhi the philosopher, all of them concerned about challenges to India’s pluralism, met at the Tees January Marg house in New Delhi where Gandhi had been assassinated fifty years earlier. To those gathered, Ramu, now deceased, spoke feelingly of our grandfather’s last days. Listening to him, Aruna turned to me and said:
“I had no idea Ramu felt so deeply about Bapu’s assassination.”
Well, he did, along with a great many others. Aruna was not alone in thinking that the relationship between Gandhi and his children and grandchildren was exactly like his relationship with every Indian.
It was, and it was not. Blood brought something extra.
We deeply loved our grandfather, because of the kind of person he was, and because, despite the rarity and brevity of our times with him, a rarity and brevity connected to his prison-going and his involvement with countless people, he was an affectionate grandfather.
Since our father, Devadas, Gandhi’s youngest son, was based in Delhi, editing the largest newspaper there, my siblings and I saw a good deal of our grandfather while he spent chunks of his final years in Delhi.
We bantered with him walking to and back from his 5pm prayer meetings in the Dalit settlement where he often stayed, or on the Birla House lawns on what is now Tees January Marg, and on rare occasions we had one-on-one exchanges, as when he mocked a new pair of spectacles I was wearing while visiting him in the Balmiki Colony of Dalits on Mandir Marg.
Aware of his love of thrift, I was hoping he would not notice the new object on my face, but the old man was sharp. “You have something new on your nose,” he said. I was ready to fight back. “You know I have weak eyes,” I told him, “I needed the new spectacles.” “And you also needed a new frame?” he asked.
One-on-one times were rare because in this final phase of his life, when freedom, partition, violence, and migrations descended simultaneously on India, Gandhi’s hours and minutes were above all devoted to victims of violence—Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim victims—some of whom joined his multi-faith prayer meetings.
Being often present at these, I saw how my grandfather responded when, as happened on occasion, an angry Hindu, or more than one, objected to the recitation of the Quran’s short opening chapter, Al-Fatiha.
Surprised at his patience with the protesters, I would also at times wonder whether one day they would physically attack my grandfather, whose chest was barely protected with clothes, and who had no bodyguard.
Though telling myself that I should try to protect him, I was not present on the fateful day, 30 January 1948, when he was killed.
Twelve-and-a-half at the time, I was taking part in a school athletics event.
Gandhi often appears in my dreams. There was a period about twenty years ago, that is, more than forty years after he was gone, when in several consecutive dreams I searched in different parts of Delhi for him, until to my unspeakable joy I found that he was alive, staying with one or two companions in a tiny but clean box-like shack on Panchkuian Road in New Delhi, not far from Paharganj, the sort of shack that refugees from West Punjab had used in 1947 and for some years thereafter.
The dream where I had found him appeared at least twice, felt utterly real, and was hard to shake off.
He loved his grandchildren and we loved him, but there was no question of his belonging only to us. The fact that the people of India possessed him, owned him, was a given. It was accepted. It made no difference to our feeling for him.
That fact greatly weakens any case for identifying Gandhi’s descendants as a major part of his legacy. For that we must go elsewhere. Before leaving the descendants, however, let me say in all fairness that his four sons and four daughters-in-law (there were no daughters, sadly), the fifteen grandchildren, of whom seven are still alive (four females and three males), and more numerous great-grandchildren, have between them contributed well and honourably to the intellectual, social and political life of India, and also of South Africa, Great Britain and the United States.
Excerpted with permission from Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma’s Legacy, Rajmohan Gandhi, Aleph Book Company.
This post first appeared on Scroll.in.