Voice of witness

He played with Gandhi in childhood, worked with Vinoba and JP, wrote two standard-reference biographies. Now in his 80s, Narayan Desai refuses to retire and strives to spread the good word

ashishm

Ashish Mehta | March 16, 2015


#Mahatma Gandhi   #Narayan Desai   #vinoba bhave   #total revolution   #peace   #non-violence  


[This profile and interview of Narayan Desai, who passed away on Sunday, was published in Governance Now in the January 1-15, 2011 edition.]

An octogenarian, sitting on a dais close to a banyan tree on the lawns, was narrating Mahatma Gandhi’s life to a not-so-large audience. He might as well have been narrating his own life – not many people today can say they played with Gandhi in their childhood. As Narayan Desai, the only child of the Mahatma’s secretary Mahadev Desai, shared his reminiscences of Gandhi – from how he played with children in the ashrams to how he battled loneliness in his last phase; scholars, activists and students in the audience knew that this was the voice of the witness.

As the chirping birds in the trees went quiet and the voice spoke of the satyagraha in South Africa or the Dandi march or that fateful day of January 30, 1948, the listeners found themselves transformed into observers.

Desai did first Gandhi Katha in Kheda district of Gujarat in June 2004, two years after the communal violence in the state, and completed the 88th edition in New Delhi in November 2010.
“As a citizen, I feel I am responsible for all the social injustice – or if we use a religious term, paap (sin) – taking place around us. If Gandhi were around, he would have said, ‘I am guilty’. I thought: how could this happen in my Gujarat, rather than ‘Gandhi’s Gujarat’,” Desai says in a firm, strong voice that does not belie his age (he turned 86 on December 24, 2010).

“I carried out a peace march, adopted two children (of violence victims). Then I thought of doing some constructive work to repent my paap. The most influential model for constructive work I have seen in my life is Gandhi. Vinoba (Bhave) is also a very influential model, but Gandhi is the most influential. So I try to interpret him as much as I can and put my interpretations before people.”

These “interpretations” were first formulated in a four-volume, 2,300-page biography of the Mahatma that Desai published in 2003 (Gujarati edition: Maru Jivan E ja Mari Vani, Navjivan, Ahmedabad, and English edition, My Life is My Message, translated by Tridip Suhrud, Orient BlackSwan, 2009). Based on largely untapped sources like the legendary diaries of his father, the work has been hailed as one of the best among the 200-odd biographies of the Mahatma.

Of course, Desai’s lifelong practice of Gandhian ideals in a world increasingly challenging for that task was a crucial input to the biography.

“As I was sending the final installment of the manuscript to the press, I thought it had turned out to be a rather large work. How many people would read it? I was looking for a more popular medium to bring the Gandhi story to more and more people. I found that most periodicals and TV channels were directly or indirectly influenced by advertisers. I was looking for a medium which was not controlled by advertisements. I found katha to be such a medium.”

The Gandhi Katha seems to be modeled on the Ramayan and Bhagavat kathas (which is fine as well, given spiritual underpinnings of the Gandhi story), so the narration is interspersed with Gujarati or Hindi songs, some 60 of them written by Desai himself and sung by a team of singers.
The Katha narrates the whole story of Gandhi’s life from the birth to his assassination, and also highlights the moral values he brought to politics.

While most other biographers have focused on Gandhi’s political life, Desai feels his constructive programme and efforts towards spiritual purification have not been highlighted. “I find Gandhi’s satyagraha, constructive work and eleven vows (ekadash vrat – including truth, non-violence and celibacy) not only equally important but incomplete without each other,” he noted in the foreword to the biography. He presents the Gandhi Katha with the same orientation.

Desai aims to do 108 Gandhi Kathas, each lasting usually for three hours over five days. “Sometimes I feel it’s alright if I overexert, it does not matter if all my energy is drained in this process, but it would be better if I can do this more often. Of course, it would be better if I can do so while also taking care of my health. I feel it would be nice if I can do 108 kathas. At the rate of two events in a month, I should be able to achieve the target in 20 months,” Desai says with a smile.

The kathas have taken place in Gujarat (60), elsewhere in the country (23) and also abroad (five).

Though a crowd of less than 100 at the lawns of the India International Centre in New Delhi disappointed him (“In our Dethli village with a population of 5,000, there were more people in audience than here”), he is happy that the average age of the audience is coming down (“I see more and more youngsters now”).

Is that due to the revival of Gandhi as a popular icon among the youth after a series of films on the Mahatma? Desai thinks putting it that way would be very simplistic. “Those who used to encash the name of Gandhi no longer feel any need to do so. The Congress party does not feel so. Foreign leaders coming to India for arms trade no longer need to go to the Rajghat (to pay token obeisance). But the young generation does not have faith in politics; they don’t see a depth in today’s politics. So, some of them are turning to Gandhi.”

He adds, “Given the way people respond to the Gandhi Katha at various places, I have reasons to be satisfied.”

Comments

 

Other News

NTPC adds highest ever capacity; records highest single day generation

  With commissioning of 800 MW unit at Kudgi in Karnataka, 250 MW unit at Bongaigaon in Assam and 20 MW at Bhadla solar in Rajasthan, the total installed capacity of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) group has reached to 49,943 MW.   The 12th plan cap

Why do we need Aadhaar?

 Aadhaar is arguably one of the most convoluted public policy interventions in India’s history. It has been more than eight years, yet there is little clarity on the exact purpose of the biometric-based unique identification project.  Let me take you through an event which I witne

AAI signs MoU with Daman and Diu admin for maintenance of Diu airport

The airports authority of India (AAI), a Miniratna PSU, has undertaken operation, development and maintenance of Diu airport from Diu administration.    A memorandum of understanding demonstrating the responsibilities was inked on March 20 between the union terri

PSU performance: Better than expected

Central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) have done quite well despite facing headwinds, according to the Public Enterprises Survey (2015-16) that was tabled in parliament on March 21. The net worth of all the CPSEs have gone up and the overall net profit has zoomed. Their contribution to the cen

National Health Policy: Old prescription, new date

After much discussion and pondering over for more than two years, the cabinet has approved a new National Health Policy, scrapping the old one which was formulated in 2002. The government aims to increase the public health expenditure to 2.5% of the GDP by 2025. The policy formulated in 2002 aimed

It’s traumatic, says African student

  “We have requested more security from the government of India and the Uttar Pradesh government,” said Abdou Ibrahim, senior adviser, Association of African Students (AASI)  following an attack on four students from Africa in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. &n

Video

यूपी में नकल करने वालों की अब खैर नहीं

Current Issue

Opinion

Facebook    Twitter    Google Plus    Linkedin    Subscribe Newsletter

Twitter