Narayan Desai: A Journey in the radiance of Gandhi

My essay on Narayan Desai in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.

Sarvodaya Talisman cover

March 15, 2015. Narayan Desai, one of the last few close associates of Gandhi, who lived amongst us, passed away. “For a generation that had never seen Gandhi, he made us realize how Gandhi would have been,” said my friend Suneel Krishnan, who runs the Tamil website Gandhi Today, when he called up to share his grief. He echoed the words that were in my mind. Both of us had met him, for the first time, when Narayan Desai had visited Madurai, for delivering his ‘Gandhi Katha’ series. Later, I seized an opportunity to interview Narayan Desai. The interview, ‘A Bridge to the times of Gandhi”, was published as a book, by Madurai Sarvodaya Ilakkiya Pannai. That meeting with Narayan Desai opened the doors to a new world for me; it brought me into contact with many Gandhi enthusiasts. I met him again, twice. I spent a few days with him, along with my family, in his ashram at Vedchhi. His loss bears on me, more as that of a family elder, than of a Gandhian leader. This is also the time, when I can reflect, and explain, why Narayanbhai was held so high, and close, in the hearts of many, including me.

From the time he was born in 1924, Narayan grew up in the proximity of Gandhi. He was the son of Mahadev Desai and Durgabehn. Mahadev Desai was Gandhi’s secretary, friend, and was like another son. He was a relentless worker. During the 25 years, he was with Gandhi, he had taken a holiday only twice. There was never a weekend or a festival day for him. A significant portion of the thousands of pages of Gandhi’s writings were scribed by Mahadev’s pen. He could even write what Gandhi would write, as well as him. Many essays of Mahadev, were endorsed and signed by Gandhi, and published in his name in Harijan, without a change. Mahadev was the voice and pen of Gandhi, to such extent. He shone light on the wonderful everyday life of the Mahatma, through his diaries. Since Narayan was born to such a man, Gandhi’s tender shadow and radiance fell on him, right from his childhood. It stayed on him, after Mahadev, and later Gandhi, passed away. “It has been a blissful experience for me to have spent one-third of my life in Gandhi’s physical presence, and the rest in his spiritual presence,” said Narayan, about the permanent existence of Gandhi in his life.

The chance to grow up on Gandhi’s lap led Narayan along the right path. He wrote about the Gandhi he knew, from different angles. Thousands of books have been, and are being, penned about Gandhi. But Narayan got a vantage point denied to almost all others. “He was Bapu (Father) for the whole of the Ashram, leader of the nation; Mahatma for the people. But for us, above all, he was simply a friend. He never seemed to us as anyone other than a friend. When he went for his walk, he used to play with us. When we were doing our morning exercises, he will come and encourage us. While being in a state of deep meditation during the prayers, or while having discussions over important issues with national leaders at Hriday Kunj, he always appeared to be a friend for us,” was how Narayan introduced Gandhi to the world through the eyes of a child. While the Gandhi we knew was a political leader, Father of the nation, pioneer of non-violent resistance, social reformer, originator of a new economic thought, educator, the Mahatma, and more, Narayan showed us the Gandhi who was the friend of children. His book, Gandhi through a Child’s Eyes: An Intimate Memoir,  was a wonderful and rare work, written with humor and emotion. “Most of Gandhi’s biographers deal with his political life in far greater detail. In doing so, some of them often neglect the other dimensions of his life. Gandhi cannot be properly understood in parts. He must be studied in totality. One cannot comprehend Satyagraha without connecting it with Constructive Work or the Ashram observances. Gandhi, the statesman and the fighter for freedom, could not have been like what he was, had he not been Gandhi, the social reformer, and Gandhi the saint. In this book I try to trace the common thread between these four seemingly diverse dimensions of Gandhi’s life. It is the quest for truth in all its glory that creates Gandhi, the man,” says Narayan Desai in the preface to his biography on Gandhi, My life is my Message. One can observe this aspect of painting a complete picture of Gandhi by connecting all his dimensions, in all activities of Narayan Desai – be it his writing or Gandhi Katha speeches or personal conversations. This biography was originally written in Gujarati, and later, translated into English, by Tridip Suhrud (published by Orient Blackswan in 4 volumes).

Narayanbhai, once, observed – I can’t say if there was a tinge of regret, “It has been a few years since the English translation of my Gandhi biography has been published. I haven’t seen a single review, yet.” I was also guilty of not having read his massive work. Only recently, I had bought the full set, with a strong intent to read and write about the book, while he was alive. It was not to be. It is a bitter truth that we have lent only negligence even for the greatest of men, who had lived with us. It was through the tributes for him, published in mainstream newspapers and magazines, that many came to know about him. Some who had read my essay on him in the Tamil Hindu, expressed this to me. I am writing this piece, with the satisfaction that, however late, at least now, the limelight has fallen where it should. Be it on stage, or in person, Narayan Desai was an excellent storyteller. His Gandhi Katha was his attempt to take Gandhi to the next generation through the traditional Indian Katha form, revitalising it with his own flavour. When religious riots and massacres broke out in 2002 in Gujarat – the Gujarat, where he and Gandhi were born, he felt the need to reintroduce Gandhi with a renewed vigour, and took up Gandhi Katha. He started with the intent of doing 108 events, and eventually went beyond it. Those who have attended his Gandhi Katha would be able to appreciate how well, through music and his emotional narration, he was able to create a sense of seeing Gandhi from close quarters.

My conversations with him helped me sharpen my views about Gandhi. For instance, I had my doubts over whether Gandhi really intended to make Jinnah the Prime Minister to avoid partition, or if it was a superficial, diplomatic gesture. Narayanbhai wiped out my doubt when he elucidated, “I call it the Judgement of Solomon. When 2 women came to Price Solomon, quarreling over a child and claiming the child to be theirs, Solomon said, ‘alright, let us divide the child into two and give half to each one’. But the real mother said, ‘Oh no, let the child live. Give it to the other women.’ My god! That is what Gandhi offered, ‘leave it to Jinnah and keep the country united.’” He also explained how this suggestion was shot down by Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel. He went on to add, in the words of Jayaprakash Narayan, how Gandhi was ready to enter the battlefield again to halt partition but no support came from any quarters: “We developed cold feet. Gandhi said, if you are willing to join, I am willing to give them a fight.”

Gandhi was initially against inter-caste marriages. It is this stance that is being latched on to, and criticized by many, today. But, later, he came to the emphatic realization that, to eradicate untouchability, inter-caste marriages were a must. He announced that he would attend only those weddings where at least one of the couple was a Harijan. Narayan Desai married outside his caste. His wife Uttara was the daughter of Nabakrushna Chaudhury, who, later, became the Chief Minister of Odisha. Though the couple belonged to different castes and languages, neither of them was a Dalit. Hence, Gandhi refused to attend the wedding of the son of his beloved Mahadev. However, Narayan Desai said with glee, since it was an inter-caste wedding, he accorded it the status of a ‘Second Class Wedding’, and blessed the newly-wed couple. When Narayan Desai was put in a school at Wardha, he felt repulsed by the anglicized culture there, and decided to drop out. His father directed him to take the advice of Gandhi. Ariyanayakam, who had recently taken charge as the HeadMaster there, argued with Gandhi against this decision. But Gandhi could empathize with the sentiments of Narayan, and supported him wholeheartedly. Not yet satisfied, he proceeded to persuade the Ariyanayakam couple to quit that school and join the Nai Taleem movement.

Narayan believed that in many ways, this incident helped sharpen Gandhi’s views on Basic Education. Narayan, himself, started his career in social work, as a teacher at a Basic Education school. He, then, started one, on his own. Till the end, he continued to encourage experiments in Nai Taleem. That, someone who had not completed his formal education, went on to rise to be the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, is an apt testimony for the spirit of Gandhian education. Though he had dropped out from school, what better school could have been there for Narayan than the Sevagram Ashram? Who could have taught him better than the great people with whom he resided and interacted? What better could he have learnt than from his enriching everyday life? When we had visited Gujarat Vidyapith, hundreds of students and teachers had assembled quietly for paying tributes to Nelson Mandela, who had then recently passed away; many of them were spinning on their charkas, while attentively listening to Narayan Desai’s speech. It was a memorable experience. Narayan Desai, too, used to spin for about an hour every evening. He asserted that if everyone in India, bought at least one Khadi dress every year, two crore people will have work through the year. It was an unforgettable sight to watch the tall octogenarian, nearing ninety, sit still on his cot, gather all his concentration, and spin on the charka in a meditative state. It was inspiring to see photographs of him striving to spin at the hospital, after briefly recovering from coma.

After Gandhi lighted up his childhood and teenage, two more imposing personalities influenced the next stages of his life : Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. Who else were better suited to take the place of Gandhi in Narayan Desai’s life? Narayan joined Vinoba’s Bhoodan movement and travelled to various parts of the country. He got large tracts of land as gift through his walking tours in Gujarat. Narayan concurred that the impact of the remarkable Bhoodan campaign could have been much larger. Apathy, corruption and other organizational issues impeded it. I asked him, “If the Bhoodan movement had remained as such, involving only individual contributions, and not expanded to Gram Dhan, could it have been more successful?” He replied, “Vinoba did not view this merely as land reorganization. He wished to see this evolve into something that will alter the societal fabric and framework, and lead to true Sarvodaya. That state could only have been made possible through Gram Dhan.”

A revolutionary idea, which emerged from Gandhi, but went largely unnoticed, and then became one of most important experiments in ahimsa, in independent India, was ‘Shanti Sena’. Shanti Sena was started by Vinoba, and later, led by J.P. Narayan Desai played a critical role in it as the National Secretary. When social, religious and caste conflicts occur, the intervention of armed police tend to cause huge human and material losses, or enforces an unnatural, transient calm. The primary aims of Shanti Sena were to create volunteer forces, drawn locally, which forge communal harmony through continuous constructive work, prevent riots, and when riots do break out, resolve the conflicts in a peaceful manner. Gandhi dreamt of making such a peace force operational in all villages and towns.

Though Shanti Sena didn’t grow to such a large scale, it has played crucial roles in many places. When riots occurred in the 1960s in places like Surat in Gujarat, I’ve heard Narayan Desai talk about how Shanti Sena interacted with the police and all concerned parties, to make valuable contributions. Many were trained in Ahimsa through the Tarun Shanti Sena camps that were held annually. Some of them are still doing important social work; some have even become Chief Ministers. “Unfortunately they also became like others…that is what they copied from the other people,” said Desai with a wry smile. Shanti Sena, under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and Narayan Desai, has rendered an invaluable service in ushering in peace in the Northeast India, during the tumultuous period following independence. The Shanti Sena leaders had enough conviction and courage to be able to say they could offer non-violent resistance to the Chinese forces, during the Indo-China clashes. Narayan Desai mentioned what Nehru told him, “I don’t believe you will be able to do anything big. I don’t believe non-violence can work that way. But I don’t want to stop you from trying to do that. And you have, not only my permission, but all kind of help that you need.” Desai appreciated the democratic spirit of Nehru, who encouraged them to do something, even when he didn’t fully agree with it. Though, they could secure Nehru’s support, the situation was not conducive for Shanti Sena to function at its full potential, due to the lethargy of the bureaucracy. When Jayaprakash Narayan launched his movement against Indira Gandhi, the operations of Shanti Sena in the Northeast came under strain. Narayan Desai narrated with a heavy heart, “We were all thrown out of the area where we were working. There the distance is measured not by kilometres but by number of days of walk…our centre was some 45 days walk from Dibrugarh…we had to walk some days until we got a train. Whole villages followed us because we were leaving…we were all leaving….’Who will work with us?’…they were weeping all the time.”

It was an agonizing time for Narayan Desai, when Vinoba and Jayaprakash parted ways. He was very close to both of them. He chose the harder path of following JP. He spoke movingly about that moment when he parted from Vinoba : “‘I am afraid, this is the parting of ways. And I am going to be on the other side.’ I was weeping all the time…putting my head on his lap. He never encourages any kind of touching of the body…he is like, namashkar,….he put his hand on my head for half an hour..and everytime…the only sentence he said was, ‘You are doing the right thing for you. It is absolutely right for you.’ That is the kind of freedom he gave.” The experiences with Jayaprakash and Vinoba that Narayan Desai recounted, illuminated the scarcely known sides of their personalities. Once, Narayan had quipped in jest, “The Sarvodaya movement, has two leaders – one of them is the saint and the other, the politician. And Jayaprakash is the saint.” When these words reached the ears of Vinoba – Narayan continued his fascinating tale, “Vinoba had this habit: whenever he likes something, he would stand up from his seat and start clapping. He stood up and clapped…’It is true what he said…Jayaprakash is the saint, and I am the politician!’. After this, he started saying this in public meetings. That is because of this man’s absolutely crystal-clear honesty.”

Narayan held Jayaprakash in high esteem and the reason was evident through another poignant episode. “Jayaprakash was the first to visit Indira, after she was defeated in the Parliament elections. All his colleagues complained, ‘Are you going to visit her? She was your main rival.’ ‘Whatever. She is Indu. She is Kamala’s daughter.’ Not even Jawaharlal. Kamala’s daughter. Kamala and Prabhavati were very close. They were like two sisters. She is Kamala’s daughter. “Having been defeated, she must be feeling very isolated and sorry. I must go and see her.” He went to see her. And she wept.” In memory of the movement led by JP, Narayan Desai founded Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) Vidyalaya at Vedchhi in Gujarat, for training volunteers involved in non-violent movements and constructive work.

Narayan Desai was trained in many languages. On his eighty-ninth birthday, we watched him sing a Bengali song, written by Tagore, with delightful gestures. One of the key tasks, that he wanted to be accomplished at the Gujarat Vidyapeet, was to have major literary works in all Indian languages to be translated, directly, into Gujarati. On the last day of our stay with him at Vedchchi, he was scheduled to travel to Ahmedabad, and he had offered to take us with him. The car was delayed. While we were waiting, he noticed that there was an article about the Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar, in a Gujarati literary magazine. He knew about my involvement with Thirukkural, and started instantly translating aloud, the Gujarati essay into Hindi and English. It was another unforgettable experience.

Narayan Desai was amongst the pioneers who had understood the imminent danger of nuclear powerplants, and opposed them. When a nuclear plant was planned in Gujarat, he mobilized people to fight against it. He had to encounter the full force of the government machinery. I found it ridiculous when I heard from his family that like many sincere activists before and after him, he, too, earned the epithet of anti-national. Narayan Desai, too, had touched upon the role of media and government, possibly because of such experiences: “They have all the centralized information agencies in their hand – in spite of many TV channels etc, they are just repeating what the Government tells. There is no independent information coming across. And nuclear energy cannot be discussed in the parliament. Because it is part of defense. You can’t discuss that. I think it is absolutely foolish to think of that.”

Many international students sought out Narayan Desai to get trained in Gandhian methods. When we were at Vedchhi, around 25 students from across the world were staying there for 2 weeks for a course on Gandhism, conducted by Gujarat Vidyapith. Two of them, were from South Sudan. While they were there, there was an intense war happening in their region. Narayan Desai explained to them how ahimsa can function even in such dire situations. “First, pay attention to constructive work. That is the only way to gain the trust of people. Only then will they start paying heed to you,” was his core message for them. That the foreign students could stay there with minimal comfort, and by eagerly taking on manual work, made us realize the respect that they had for Narayan Desai and the sway that Gandhi held over them still. One of them, wrote to me later, that he had setup a school on Gandhi in Brazil. Such was the impact of Narayan Desai on those who came in touch with him. During the prayer meetings that he held in the early mornings, he shared a lot of information about Gandhi and Shanti Sena. We could sense, how Gandhi’s prayer meetings would have been. Once, while in the car, he made a sharp observation about poverty line and GDP: ‘They don’t see. That is why,they measure.’ As someone who had made a handsome living out of analyzing data, this loaded remark left a deep mark on me.

The only time when I saw him mildly annoyed was when one of the foreign students, wanted to take a photo with him on the last day of their stay. He had willingly obliged all requests for photos till then. But he refused this time. I was a bit surprised, till the explanation that he gave later pricked my heart. Though, he relented and posed, his usual smile was missing. He told the lady, “For 2 weeks you never asked me any questions. Now you want this photo just as a token memento. What purpose will it serve?” I saw him as a bridge to the Gandhian times. He carried the message of Gandhi, Vinoba and JP to our generation. His own life was a powerful message as well. I wish to hold on to his message as much as, if not more strongly than, the personal memories of the few days with him. That is the fitting tribute that we could pay to such a man.

 May-June 2015 Sarvodaya Talisman


One Response to Narayan Desai: A Journey in the radiance of Gandhi

  1. Anita Balasubramanian says:

    Finally read this. Thanks for sharing your experiences with Narayan bhai. Although I never met him, his eyes, and smile in photographs convey a power and energy that comes out of a deep spiritual practice. Indeed, his passing away is a deep loss. Would like to talk to you more on your experiences at Vedchi, I always wanted to visited, but never did. Some day!

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