Ramu Gandhi: A solitary thinker in smug, noisy times

By Manish Chand

Not many get to choose the place they die in, but knowing Ramchandra Gandhi, one gets an eerie feeling that this peripatetic thinker would have wanted to breathe his last moments in a place that was his home and yet not his home for so many years, symbolising the eternal homelessness of the modern intellectual.

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Ramu Gandhi, as he was affectionately called by friends and admirers, was a deeply solitary man and a compulsive arguer at the same time who loved the unique blend of privacy and gregarious intellectual chatter that a place like the India International Centre encouraged and nurtured.

But he was not the kind whose relentlessly questing mind and athirst spirit could be confined to one place for long or belong to a particular institution. As the news of Ramu Gandhi's death flashed on TV Wednesday and almost vanished into the deluge of babel that poses as profundity, my mind raced back to those hallowed meetings of Philosophy Society (Philo-Soc, to the initiates) of St. Stephen's College at the residence of R.K. Gupta, the then head of the philosophy department, in the early nineties. Occasionally, one had a glimpse of Ramu Gandhi in his trademark kurta-pyjama at the free-ranging play of ideas that cut through all categories and hierarchies in the pursuit of the secrets of the text under discussion, be it Plato's "Symposium" or Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time".

Ramu Gandhi, the fine listener that he was, mostly kept quiet, following the subtle cadences of thoughts of fellow discussants, but on the rare occasions he paused to make a point, he was all eloquence and gravitas, his words coming from the depths of a mind that has long lived with these ideas and listened intently to what they really had to say.

But it wasn't unrelieved high seriousness all the time; Ramu Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, brought with him not just a mind that delighted in philosophy as a way of dwelling in this world that was all easily seduced by poseurs and impresarios, but a witty tongue as well. It was thus pure delight to converse with him and a tingle of pleasurable anticipation passed over one every time Ramu spoke about his favourite philosophers and seekers like Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sri Aurobindo and Raman Maharishi or his other pet passion: cricket. One invariably emerged richer and wiser from such encounters, his wit and irreverent humour whetting the appetite for the life of the mind he epitomised.

A few years ago, I bumped into him at his favourite haunt and habitat: IIC, the elite club that has now collected a more eclectic bunch of people in its rarefied fold. He had not changed a bit: it looked like he had floated straight from those freeze-frame memories of college days – clad in kurta-pyjama, holding a mineral water bottle in one hand and a book in another. He looked genuinely pleased to be reminded of the Philo-Soc meetings, and spoke about some novel he was writing. He appeared to be in a hurry and promised to speak more about it some other time. I tried to prod him into revealing more about his new offering, but couldn't succeed: it was a surprise to hear about this great thinker and philosopher straying into the temptations of writing fiction, a presumption that would have exiled him in Plato's "Republic".

Then one day, while browsing through a bookshop in Khan Market, I chanced upon "Muniya's Light: A Narrative of Truth and Myth." The author, I peered closer to double-check it, was Ramachandra Gandhi. My curiosity piqued, I immediately bought the book and read it over the next week. Reading it was a transfiguring experience, to say the least. Part autobiography, albeit a disguised one, and part novel, as it claimed to be, the book traced the inner journey of a middle-aged professor as he comes home with his friend's 22-year-old daughter from the US. The book imaginatively intertwines the metaphysical idea of the young female child as the perfect embodiment of the atman's radiance, "the perfect picture of… the self-luminous reality of selfhood" with contemporary evils like female infanticide.

To me it was yet another reaffirmation of the intellectual's vocation, which as Edward Said so memorably, consists of "relentless erudition", always engaging with issues of this world with an other-worldly detachment – something that Ramu Gandhi had already demonstrated in "Sita's Kitchen" which he wrote to express his anguish at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

I last met this habitual loner at the launch of his brother Rajmohan's biography of their beloved grandfather, the father of the nation. He looked slightly unwell, but intellectual passion in his eyes shone undiminished. It was one of the rare occasions where all the surviving Gandhi siblings were present under the same roof and for the same event. Even as Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna Gandhi mingled with the guests and engaged with the powerful (none other than Sonia Gandhi had turned up for the book launch), Ramu Gandhi chose to stay in one quiet corner, nurturing his willed solitude and apartness from the crowd. He looked like "a monk in the world", albeit one who is not averse to camaraderie – not an easy thing in the best of times, as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote so clairvoyantly.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at [email protected])