For a change, let’s listen to him

By Nirmala Deshpande, IANS

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I was just six years old when I had the first ‘darshan’ of Mahatma Gandhi. I cannot really say that I talked to him, but it was a rare and unique experience. I belong to Nagpur and Gandhiji’s Sewagram was just 80 km from there. Gandhiji used to travel by train in a third class compartment. That day my mother sent me and my cousin to the railway station to receive my uncle. The train was coming from Mumbai via Nagpur to Howrah.

When we reached the railway station there was a huge crowd. Someone said Gandhiji was coming by that train. I decided to have a glimpse of him and joined the crowd. People started shouting: “See that little girl, save her, otherwise she will be crushed in the crowd.” They started pushing me to the front and I reached near the compartment. Gandhiji was standing there and waving at the crowd. I looked up to him and I cannot explain how I felt. I forgot myself. His personality was so magnetic. That day I decided I would follow that man.

The second time I saw him was in the ashram and the third while in Pune. I was studying in Ferguson College and Gandhiji had come to the city for naturopathy treatment by Dr. Dinshaw K. Mehta. He stayed there for three-four months. I and my friends made use of the opportunity to meet Gandhiji. It was in 1945 and I was 16.

Some years ago when I went to attend the world assembly of religious leaders, delegates came to me to touch my feet and hold my hand. They said, “You were among the lucky ones” who had seen Gandhi. They saw me as a special person. I was completely overwhelmed.

I never faced any problem from my parents – late P.Y. Deshpande and Vimalabai Deshpande – against my decision to follow in the footsteps of Gandhiji. Both my parents were freedom fighters and later my father became a parliamentarian and my mother a minister in the Madhya Pradesh cabinet.

Six decades have passed since Gandhiji became a martyr. But I am sure his life and teachings are more relevant today. The problems the world is facing today – be it violence or terrorism – we want to solve them. We want peace. Because of global warming our environment is in danger and we have to find ways to protect it. The answers to all these problems lie in Gandhiji’s teachings.

The world is becoming one and we have to live together. People belonging to different faiths and ideologies have become neighbours. How will such a world live in peace and harmony? Again, the answer is Gandhiji.

Global warming is a major threat that the world is facing today. One reason for it is our wrong lifestyle and wastage of resources. Mahatmaji called for a simple lifestyle and against increasing our wants. He said: “Earth has enough for everyone’s need; not for everyone’s greed.” Is the consumerist world listening?

Gandhiji’s philosophy has helped India grow to a great extent. The unity of India, its oneness and secularism have a lot to do with it. Yes, we have many problems. It is a part of life. But by and large India is India today because – of course, our culture, civilisation, composite culture all have been there to protect our country – Gandhiji was a major factor.

In the peace marches organised across the world against bombings in Baghdad, millions came out shouting slogans like “say yes to peace, no to war, no war for oil etc”. There were huge gatherings in London, Paris, Rome, New York, Washington and Kolkata too. Gandhiji’s name and his principle of non-violence were referred to at many places. In Kolkata, it was organised by the Left Front activists. There were two huge cut-outs of Gandhi and frontier Gandhi and the message was: “Listen to the two Gandhis.” It was done by young friends. I told them it never occurred to us, the Gandhians, to put out a message like that. This underlines the fact that Gandhiji is never obsolete. He is becoming more and more relevant.

I had the fortune to travel all over the world lecturing on Gandhiji. I find that there is a tremendous interest in Gandhiji all over the world. People want to know more about him. They also understand that his philosophy can find answers to the world’s problems.

Interestingly, I find that more people outside are keen to learn about him than in India. In Pakistan, Gandhiji’s autobiography is a bestseller. Since the book is costly there, whenever we go people ask for Indian editions. Everybody loves peace. That is why I and my fellow workers can move anywhere without any security even in Kashmir as they knew that we were followers of Gandhi.

Various small and big organisations across the world are trying to live by Gandhian principles. A few years ago, I was invited to Kazakhstan to speak on Gandhi. To my surprise, I found people there were more aware of Gandhian principles than Indians. They had read about Gandhiji. The women there had organised a huge march to stop a nuclear installation. They were practicing non-violence to counter violent threats.

Terrorism, violence, poverty, epidemics, calamities, environmental issues, consumerism… the list of problems is too long. And the world is craving for a change. We need to change. Gandhiji used to say ‘be the change yourself.’ Let’s listen. Let’s do it.

(As told to Liz Mathew. Nirmala Deshpande is a well-known disciple of Mahatma Gandhi)