For five days from October 2, Narayanbhai Desai kept the audience that filled Gandhi Sewa Mandir Hall in Bandra glued to their seats with his narration of Gandhi Katha. It was a story that most people knew in broad strokes, but had never heard told in quite this intimate, passionate and engrossing fashion.Gandhi knew me before I knew him, Narayanbhai began.
Son of Gandhi’s secretary Mahadevbhai, he based his quizzical claim on the fact that Gandhi had held him as a baby when he didn’t know who Gandhi was. As every teacher who has ever stepped before a crowded class knows, if he is to turn diverse ears into a single focused ear, he needs to be a performer.
Narayanbhai was precisely that a skilled performer straight out of India’s old Hari Katha tradition. Using perfectly timed pauses and eloquent gestures to make his narration effective, he spoke extempore for he knew his script well.
And why would he not? It was a story whose every detail had gone into his extensive, four-volume biography of the Mahatma, Maru Jeevan Ej Mari Vani (My Life is My Message), published not too long ago. Narayanbhai, 89, sat ramrod straight for three hours every day, six to nine.
His voice, a little muffled to begin with, warmed up as he went along. His narration was carefully structured and punctuated every 20 minutes or so with musical interludes, when a group of musicians, sitting to one side of the stage sang songs that he had written and composed specially for the katha. In the course of five days we heard many stories.
We heard of the mammoth crowd that greeted Gandhi at Ballard Pier on his return from the Round Table Conference. It was perhaps the first time, as Narayanbhai pointed out, that a hero’s welcome was being given to one who had returned home empty-handed! We heard of the belief Gandhi arrived at in his later years, that intermarriage between the so-called high and low castes was the only way to destroy caste divisions in our society.
Once convinced of this, he refused to attend intra-caste marriages. Gandhi did not relent even in Narayanbhai’s case. However, a postcard with his blessings was the first to reach him on the day of his wedding. Gandhi was fearless and expected his followers to be so too.
He defined fearlessness as not fearing anybody and not being the cause of fear in anybody. He expected fearlessness of himself even in the face of bullets, which had become a distinct threat after several attempts on his life had been made before the final one that succeeded.
If someone fires bullets at me and I die without a groan and with God’s name on my lips, he said, only then should you say here was a real Mahatma. When Nathuram Godse pumped three bullets into his chest, he sighed, Hey Ram and became a Mahatma by his own definition. When violence erupted in 2002 on the very soil of Gandhi’s Gujarat, Narayanbhai decided that the only way to counter its senseless ness was through constructive action.
He started narrating his Gandhi Katha in 2004, pledging to complete 108, which he did in January this year. Fortunately for Mumbai, he agreed to extend his pledge to hold his 109th katha here at the invitation of the Sarvodaya Mandal and Mahatma Gandhi Seva Mandir.
It ended on Sunday, with Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a fascist, filling us once again with the shock and sorrow we had felt then. For five days Narayanbhai spoke of a vision of India that has confronted that other vision which has persisted from his time up to ours — the vision of a strong India, which translates as aggressive India.
Its most prominent voice, and the flavour of today, expresses itself in flamboyantly macho language that has produced frenzied excitement in many. In the midst of its self-obsessed din, it was healing to return to a man who propagated, not a cult of himself, but a cult of humanity.
Gandhi’s cry, Let geography be divided, not hearts, and has reverberated around the world each time people have grown war-weary. Make love, not war said the hippies and peaceniks of the ‘60s opposed to the Vietnam war.
Nearer home, Aung San Suu Kyi won her battle against her country’s military regime non-violently, proving once again that moral strength was more powerful than muscular strength. This was the truth that Narayanbhai’s five-day Gandhi Katha underlined.