Learning – Its purpose and impact: From the Tamil Sangam Age to the Cyber Age

July 10, 2017

[This is the full text that I had prepared for a speech at IIT Chennai. The actual speech delivered there was shortened due to time constraints. I have broken the text into 3 parts: The first part has a bit of my personal experiences; the second part focuses on references to learning in early Tamil literature, and a look at the situation of education in India in the recent past;  the third part deals with contemporary issues. One may choose to read the whole essay or only the parts that are of interest to you – they can be read together or independent of each other.]

Reading at a Table - Picasso

Reading at a Table – Picasso

“For the learned, every nation and every place is theirs;
why then, doesn’t one keep learning till death,”
– Thirukkural by Thiruvalluvar.


Educators have a pet peeve. They say only a lawyer advises on issues of law, a doctor on medicine, an engineer on his field, an artist on art and so on. But everybody has something to say about learning. That is because everybody learns. While educators may have a major role to play in learning, learning is not the preserve of educators or educational institutions. Learning may happen because of them, it may happen despite them, and it may well happen without them.

How we learn, why we learn and what me must learn are questions crucial to the human civilisation today.

What I intend to speak about learning has a lot to do with how I myself have learnt, and still learn. I have been to premier educational institutions, and have worked in large corporates. But I was continually plagued by the questions, what was I learning, and how was my learning relevant to the society that I lived in. I incidentally started translating Thirukkural, the ancient Tamil text by Thiruvalluvar. I also started to read deeply about Gandhi, and works by Gandhi. My questions didn’t go away – they got deepened. I saw a big mismatch between what we were learning and doing, and the impact of all that on my own inner self, and the society around me. I decided to quit my job, and corporate career. I started training students on leadership – righteous and compassionate leadership – using the tenets of Thirukkural and Gandhi. While my efforts may have helped inspire some students, I still felt a void. I began feeling that sitting inside a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching fancy multimedia slides, and doing pre-designed activities, however absorbing they may be, is not how children, or adults, learn. Learning, I began realising, emerges from and has to be rooted to the society, to its culture and Nature.

Despite rampant urbanisation, a large part of India still resides in its villages, and I too, decided to shift to a village. Along with my wife and daughter, we are now learning farming and various other aspects of life from the village. Yet to forego our vanities, we run a learning centre at our home, which we call ‘Payilagam’. It is a free, open space for the village children to come, read books from our library or play games or do homework or clear doubts, be themselves and do what they want to. It has been an excellent opportunity for me to learn about learning. Our nine year old daughter doesn’t attend formal school, and has been learning naturally from the rich experience she is gaining from her environment, and the people and books around her.

With this little personal background, let me proceed deeper into the subject of interest for us today: learning. Learning, I would like to emphasise again, has to be rooted to the culture, society and nature. The impact of learning is today measured by the exam scores, the entrances that one clears, employability, earning potential and depth of knowledge. But we have reached a point where not many of us really care about the impact of our learning on the society. Cultural continuity has been lost in our learning, which in turn, negatively impacts the societal relevance. ‘Let Nature be your Teacher,’ said William Wordsworth. But much of our modern learning has taken us too far away from nature. In the course of this speech, I shall devote some time to each of these aspects.

Firstly, culture. An understanding of one’s culture, and aligning our learning to our culture, will, one can understand intuitively, enhance learning. However, our education systems, on the one hand, think learning is universal and local culture has nothing to do with it. There has been a disdain towards our learning heritage, and many of us seem to think that our education started with Macaulay. There is no need for us to seek a false sense of superiority, but to have an understanding and rootedness is essential. Being rooted to one’s culture, will give the thrust to embrace all other cultures. Of course, there will be, and has to be points of departure from certain aspects of the cultural past. But an understanding is a must for making those departures too. As a first step, I first seek to understand our culture of learning.

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Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)


There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]


Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.


A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

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Non-violence was not a mere strategy

November 29, 2016

Shashi Tharoor may be right in debunking the rose tinted view of the Empire, but his understanding of Gandhi and non-violence seems suspect (in the interview in The Hindu, 12-Nov-2016). This view, held by many Congressmen even then, of non-violence as a mere strategy was heavily contested by Gandhi. He said that what happened in India was not real Satyagraha. He didn’t feel or claim success. He didn’t wave or hoist flags. Potential of success was not what determined his method. He employed non-violence in Noakhali and Calcutta and Delhi against angry mobs. He advocated non-violence to Jews. He wrote to Hitler. He was prepared to resist the Japanese aggression with non-violence. There is no reason to believe that he could not have done this against Hitler and Pol Pot. He definitely had as much (or more) of a chance of success as somebody with a gun: but the point is, it did not matter.

/You say that Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of non-violence would not have been possible under another colonial power.

Gandhiji was able to shame the British because they were claiming that they were a democracy and, at least for themselves, had a free press. Gandhiji used their own instruments against them; he could have possibly done this against the French, may be not against the British before 1857, but he couldn’t have done it against Hitler or Pol Pot. There was a significant amount of hypocrisy by the British in their advocacy of democratic values, and Gandhiji called them out on it. /

Sarvodaya Day Conference – A few memories

May 30, 2016

Published in Sarvodaya magazine, May 2016.

The death anniversary of the Gandhian leader, Jagannathan, who played a crucial role in the Sarvodaya movement, is commemorated every year (on February 10,11,12), in a way that is refreshingly different. Instead of reducing it to a series of homages to an individual, or tributes to a leader who was indeed loved by all, these three days are converted into an exploration of the social change that he desired. This year, the conference was anchored around education and healthcare. Experts and young students came together to think, converse, exchange ideas and return with renewed enthusiasm.

The first day began with a welcome address by Dr.Bhoomikumar. K.M.Natarajan delivered the inaugural address. He shared his memories of Jagannathan. He spoke of how Jagannathan, when he was a teacher, donated his wrist watch to Mahatma Gandhi for the Harijan Seva Fund. He also pointed out that various Sarvodaya leaders like M.Arunachalam were mentored by him. He further recalled Jagannathan’s educational initiatives in Javvadu Hills.

Dr. Pankajam, ex-Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University, who spoke next, focussed on Basic Education – she declared with pride that she completed her entire education, from school to graduation, through the Nai Talim method. She emphasized that the future educational strategy has to evolve from the students. She listed out the challenges faced in the field of education today: deprivation of education for many, exclusion of quality education for the poor, high drop out rates from schools in the rural areas, unemployment of the educated, drain of skilled manpower and lowering standards of teaching. She charted out the required changes in education: Basic education has to be altered in line with changing times; researches should be solution-oriented and not intended for promotions and degrees; Delhi should not be making the curriculum – it should instead be evolved locally; talent should be identified at an early age; maximum stimulus should be provided at the pre-primary stage; various alternatives should be made available to the students; we need to move towards sustainable development.

The next speaker was Dr.Jennifer Lad, who runs the organization, Class Action, in the USA. She remarked that we have to view education in the context of economic changes happening all over the world, the climate change, the over dependence on and exhaustion  of fossil fuels, and raised the question on how we can create resilient communities. She identified six foundations for education: (i) Light is in each of us, and the objective of education is bring out that light;  (ii) Adaptability to the times and conditions; (iii) Systems thinking that will encompass family, community and history, health, food and transportation; (iv) Education has to be transformative, and make us think out of the box; (v) Sustainability should be at the core of our thinking, and all our decisions should be assessed based on the impact 7 generations down;  (vi) Courage and strength of heart.

Jennifer went on to facilitate a discussion with me and my wife, Nedya, which turned out to be a surprising and pleasant experience for us. She focussed on our move to quit the corporate-urban life, and shift to the village to take up farming and teaching the village children, and our experiences around home schooling our daughter.

Later, all the participants broke up into smaller sub-groups, to discuss within themselves and present their views on education. The deliberations could be summarized as follows:

Education should be decentralized.
On the lines of Nai Talim, education should be centered around crafts ad physical work.
Morals and values have to be inculcated.
Students should not be assessed only based on marks.
Equal educational opportunities should be available for everyone.
Mother tongue should be the medium of instruction.
Teachers training and evaluation should undergo significant changes.
Quality of education in government schools has to be improved.
All Children should learn without fear.

The theme for the second day was healthcare, and Dr.Sathya coordinated the events. Dr.Nachiar, one of the co-founders of Aravind Eyecare Hospital, narrated the social journey of her organization. She opined that blindness has afflicted 39 million people globally and 12 million in India, and 80% of it is treatable. She mentioned that Aravind Hospitals reaches the people directly through the 56 primary care centres in villages. The village centers are more important than the large hospitals in cities and locals have to be trained and employed in those primary care centres; even if healthcare is offered free, it is not free for the patient who has to bear certain direct and indirect costs to avail that free treatment. This challenged my perspective on freebies.

Dr.Ramasubramanian, founder of M.S.Chellamuthu Trust, shared his experiences in community psychiatry. He lamented that mental disorders are viewed by the society as a curse or as black magic; it is not just the individual but the entire family that is affected. A vast majority don’t seek medical help from psychiatrists because of ignorance, fear of stigma and high cost. However, all mental illnesses, if detected early enough, are curable, he said. He gave the background behind starting a mental care hospital at Musundagiripatti village, through his Trust. Initially, cooperation from the villagers was not forthcoming; but after he managed to cure a local patient, and employed the same person, the villagers started trusting him. After the fire accident at Yervadi, he tied up with the religious institutions there, and made them refer the patients to qualified psychiatrists. This seemed to be an excellent strategy to use when social initiatives are in conflict with religious faith.

Jone Schanche Olsen, a psychiatrist with Stavenger University Hospital’s Transcultural Centre in Norway, shared his harrowing experiences with refugees affected by war. Refugees have been streaming into Norway from African countries, such as Eritrea, for many years. Now there is a sudden influx from Syria. These refugees have to cross many countries on land and by water. Many of them are children and teenagers. Due to the many gory sights that they have seen, and sexual exploitation, they experience severe mental trauma. Nurses and social activists are trained to work with them. Group therapy is provided for them.

David Albert has been a regular visitor to India for the last 40 years. He has had a long association with the Krishnammal-Jagannathan couple.  He has written important books on Homeschooling. He has been engaged in efforts to bring hygienic drinking water to African countries and India, through his organization, Friendly Water for the World. He spoke about the relationship between education, health and water. In India, the quality of water is worse than it was 40 years ago. The ground water level has gone down. 48% babies are stunted at birth due to malnutrition. Children are damaged the most due to water. Even in the United States, malnutrition among black children is at the same level of India; their mortality rate is similar to that of India. Our educational institutions have failed to impart the knowledge about water filtering and water management. Every teacher should be seen to be cleaning toilets; every child should be taught about clean water and cleaning hands; Gandhi’s experiments with latrines were experiments with truth; Corruption and acceptance of unsanitary conditions are mental illnesses. David touched upon many disparate topics and established their connection with water.

The third day (February 12) was the death anniversary of Jagannathan. It is celebrated as Sarvodaya Day. This is a day that brings together many Gandhian workers. Many villagers from Nagapattinam region, who have benefitted through the works of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, had also come. Dr. M.P.Gurusamy, Dr. Padamuthu, Dr. Markandan and Dr.Jeevanantham spoke. Inamul Hasan and Rajendran narrated their experiences during flood relief operations in Chennai and Cuddalore. Dr.Kausalya Devi, who has been rendering great service in the medical field, and Vengayyan who has, through his stirring songs, played an active role in Sarovodaya movements, were honoured with Sarvodaya Awards. Dr.Natarajan, Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University spoke about Dr.Kausalya Devi and K.M.Natarajan about Vengayyan.

These three days gave fresh impetus to our current efforts, and motivation to take up more. The incident that capped the three memorable days happened on the last day, when the morning session was coming to a close. After hearing many delegates speak, and with the lunch time approaching, the attentiveness of the group had started sagging. It was time for Krishnammal Jagannathan to speak. She rose from the stage, and started walking ahead; she rushed to centre of the hall, sang a small prayer and started speaking emotively in colloquial Tamil. She brushed aside the mike that was offered to her, and someone had to insist on holding it. The American friend, next to me, who out of respect for the speakers was sitting patiently and diligently, though she couldn’t understand the language, was up on her feet, exclaiming, “This is the way to do it.” Krishnammal recounted how, during 1948, in the same location, she was a warden in a hostel for poor women, and helped them to become nurses; of how, many years later, at the same place, she heard of the massacre at Keezha Venmani and rushed there, stayed there and started off the initiative to procure land for landless Dalits. “I saw in newspapers – on the eve of Pongal, rice, jaggery and piece of sugarcane was distributed for all…have you all become so despondent, that you queue up to get rice, jaggery and sugarcane for 10 rupees? What work have those who were in power for 60 years done? Did they give land to the people, did they build them houses, or educate them? Whatever left is the tag, ‘lower caste’,” she stopped abruptly and turned back. The stillness of the room stretched out for a few more seconds, and then dissolved in the applause. For those few moments, the atmosphere there was electric.

Narayan Desai: A Journey in the radiance of Gandhi

June 4, 2015

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

Narayan Desai – A Tribute

March 15, 2015

Narayan Desai has passed away – he was a truly noble Gandhian. It is not easy to explain the impact he has made on our lives. Forever, I will cherish the day I interviewed him, the day when we received him at the Egmore railway station to drive him down to Thakkar Baba Vidhyalaya, and later, the days when we stayed with him at Vedchhi. As someone who had made a handsome living out of analyzing data, I felt a deep mark left on me, by what he told me about poverty line and GDP: ‘They don’t see. That is why, they measure.’

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

His lovely, loving smile, his clear and measured words, his fond childhood memories of Gandhi, his persistence in continuing to spin at his age, his total belief in non-violent resistance and constructive work, the energy with which he spoke during Gandhi Katha and his prayer meetings, the personal affection that he showered on the three of us, his exclusive live translation for me of an article on Thiruvalluvar in a Gujarati magazine – there is much to remember and recollect about him. 

But this day, the memories that bubble up to the top are of two incidents during our stay with him at Vedchchi.

When we were talking about his biography on Gandhi, Narayanbhai observed with his typical smile – I can’t say if there was a tinge of regret – “It has been a few years since the English translation has been published. I haven’t seen a single review yet.” Apart from an article by his translator, the only one I had found on the internet was a small note. I was also guilty of not having read the 4-volume biography then (‘My Life is my message’, published by Orient Blackswan). Last month, I bought the full set, with a strong intent to read and write about the book, while he was alive.

The only time when I saw him mildly annoyed was when one of the foreign students, who had been staying with him to do a course on Gandhian thoughts, wanted to take a photo with him on the last day of their stay. I was, initially, a bit surprised, since he had willingly obliged all requests for photos till then. 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.

A Bridge to the times of Gandhi – An interview with Narayan Desai

December 11, 2014

This is an account of my interview with Narayan Desai in September, 2012. The Tamil version of the interview was posted in GandhiToday.in – the links can be found here. Sarvodaya Ilakkiya Pannai, Madurai has published this interview in print form, both in English and Tamil.


“I am Gandhi’s friend. He used to swim with me.” This was how Narayan Desai, who was on his way from Madurai to Vedchchi, introduced himself to my 4-year old daughter when we met him at Chennai, last year.

The previous week, the moment I heard that Narayan Desai was delivering his Gandhi Katha at Madurai, I decided to go there from Chennai. I had been wishing to meet him for a couple of years and had enquired a Gandhian friend about his whereabouts only a few days earlier. Narayan Desai is one of the few amongst us, who have interacted closely with Gandhi.

Narayan Desai has captured and presented a historical hero through the eyes of a child. He is Mahadev Desai’s son. He grew up in Gandhi’s ashrams. Later, he was an active co-worker with Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. He played a leading role in the Sarvodaya movements like Bhoomidhan and Shanti Sena. Now he runs the Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya. He is the Chancellor for Gujarat Vidyapeeth, started by Gandhi during non-cooperation movement. He has written the biographies of Gandhi and Mahadev Desai. Along with Kanti Shah, he has also edited an important work on JP, in Gujarati, ‘Jayaprakash’.

After the first day of Gandhi Katha, I met Narayan Desai.  “Have you come from Chennai only for this?”, he looked elated. He introduced me to a colleague, ‘He has come from Chennai to hear us.” I requested for a personal meeting with him. He agreed immediately.

The next day morning, at 10 o’clock, I visited him at the guest house in Gandhi Museum. He was a tall man, thinly built. He wore a Khadi dress. His eyes were glowing with grace. For an 88-year old, he was quite fit. He sat upright on the bed, without resting his back, for the next 2.5 hours. He spoke slowly and deliberately. His speech was very clear, despite a mild shiver in the voice. Though he delivered Gandhi Katha in Hindi, he spoke impeccable English. Every word spurted out with energy. He was speaking continuously if I didn’t interrupt him. Sometimes, he continued to speak without noticing my interruptions. He completely ignored and remained unhampered by his occasional coughs. I was the one who worried that he would have to speak again for 3 hours in the evening. Since his Gandhi Katha speech was being translated sentence by sentence, he said, he got sufficient breaks in-between.

I told him that though I can’t speak Hindi fluently, I could understand his Hindi clearly during the Gandhi Katha. There is a lot that is lost during translation. He, too, was upset that the translator could not comprehend immediately, who ‘Jayaprakash’ was.

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