K.M.Natarajan : The Gift of Friendship

June 27, 2021

(A Tribute to K.M.Natarajan, to be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine, for which he was the editor. Translated from the Tamil essay written for the Tamil edition, சர்வோதயம் மலர்கிறது.)

In the year 2012, when I heard that the ‘Gandhi Katha’ lectures by Narayan Desai were to be held in Madurai, I went there immediately from Chennai. Narayan Desai was the son of Mahadev Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s beloved secretary. He had recorded his experiences of growing up under the eyes of Gandhi. Hence, I was intent on attending that event. I met K.M.Natarajan for the first time there. He was the person who had organized the five day story telling series. I sought permission from him for conducting an interview with Narayan Desai. But I had not then known anything about Natarajan, who was fondly called by his acquaintances as KMN Annachi. I did not know at that time about how a beautiful long relationship was about to commence. The interview first appeared on the Gandhi-Today website. Later, my friends, Suneel Krishnan and Rattai Raghu, had met Natarajan with a copy of the interview; he immediately published it in print form in English and Tamil. It was then that my association with him began formally. In a way, this experience gave me an understanding of the kind of person he was. I realized he would never let go of a chance to integrate Gandhian enthusiasts into the Sarvodaya movement. I also knew he would actively pursue every opportunity to do Gandhian work. Narayan Desai’s talks were originally planned by the organisers of the Kudankulam anti-nuclear protests. But when the situation there deteriorated and the plan had to be shelved, Natarajan seized the opportunity and moved the programme to Madurai Gandhi Museum at short notice. In many ways, the contacts that I made during this event and the resultant experiences overturned my life and changed its direction. During this productive overhaul, Natarajan remained a constant supporter and mentor for me. He further invited me to take part in the Sarvodaya Day celebrations held in memory of Jegannathan. I met the family of Krishnammal Jegannathan there and her extended family of Gandhian workers from across the world. This gave further inspiration to pursue our new way of life. In his long social life, spanning over seven decades, there must be countless such incidents which each of us could recollect.

K.M.Natarajan was a great social activist and also an erudite scholar. We failed to introduce him well enough to the world outside the Gandhian fraternity and celebrate him sufficiently. But he was at the forefront of transporting Gandhi and Gandhian thoughts to the many generations who came after the death of Gandhi.

It was a rare achievement to preside over many Sarvodaya organisations and be the editor of three different magazines. He was doing these roles unrelentingly till his death at the age of 88. It showed his fervent attachment to Gandhian thoughts, his firm belief that his work was not over even after leading a long fruitful life, and his confidence that he continued to have something more to offer to the welfare of the world.

He had an undiminished interest in bringing new people into the Sarvodaya fold. Once anybody came under his touch, he would grasp them firmly with his loving hands. He remaining in touch with everyone he knew. I realized it during the meetings held to pay tributes to him. Almost everyone spoke of a recent phone call with him and the special affection he had for them. He made everyone feel they had an essential role to play.

I too think I had a special and unique relationship with him. Over the last few years, not a week went by with an hour-long telephonic discussion with him. He was twice my age and had many times my experience. Yet he moved with me as an equal and a friend. In recent times, there is no one else who has spoken more with me than him. My wife even felt slightly envious about this. During the last year of lockdown, he was very particular about helping me keep my spirits high. He asked if I have Kabasurakudineer (a Siddha medicine for Covid), and when I said no, he sent it along with other preventive medicines from Madurai to my vilage.

Natarajan took me along for various events. He made me record my experiences. He introduced me to various people who came to those events. He used to rue that I was not in Madurai and could not do more work with him. If I tell him about any book I read, he would immediately urge me to write an essay on it and publish it.

He told my wife that she translated better than me and encouraged her to write. He made her do live translation of others’ speeches. He had great love for our daughter too. Whenever she sang a song he knew, he would immediately tell her about his connections to the song.

Two years ago, I had introduced writer Paavannan to him. Later Natarajan was instrumental in getting Paavannan to write a series of essays on various unsung Gandhians. He arranged relevant books and contacts. Whenever he spoke to me, he would thank me for introducing Paavannan to him. Similarly, he kept saying we should continue to get essays from other mutual friends like Chithra Balasubramanian or Balasubramanium Muthusamy.

If I got distracted by other activities and delayed the completion of an essay which I had committed to write, he would gently and patiently remind me of it without ever sounding irked. He had a talent for identifying good books. When I told him about the book, Revolutionary Gandhi by Pannalal Dasgupta, he immediately ordered it from Kolkatta and sent it to me. I had deferred writing an introduction to the book for a long time. He ceaselessly urged me to write about the book. The book was written about Gandhi from a Marxist perspective and hence he thought it to be important. Later, when Dr.Jeeva read my essay and expressed his interest in reading the book, he got another copy for him. He published my long essay in Tamil on Tolstoy, splitting it across many issues. When he realized that The Kingdom of God is Within You, which was the basis was that essay, had not yet been translated into Tamil, he requested Dr.Jeeva to take it up. Dr.Jeeva apparently asked his sister, who knew Russian, to translate the book. When KMN came to know of Dr.Jeeva’s death, he felt shattered. He asked me to compile all the tributes written on Dr.Jeeva. He published some of them and paid a great tribute to him through his magazines. Today KMN Annachi is also no more with us.

While he was appreciative of my style of writing in English, he was a bit critical of my Tamil style. He found it to be too flowery and scholarly. He impressed on me that I should write in a simple language and ensure it is understood by all readers. Yet he continued to publish my essays without too many changes.

He used to say he didn’t have much time to indulge in literature since he was too involved in social activities. Though he felt attracted by Tamil writers like Jayakanthan, he said he was repelled by his views on drinking. He was of the opinion that literary writers should be righteous as well. Though he did not read literature to his satisfaction, he was well versed in both Tamil and English. He was adept at expressing his opinions, whether verbally or in writing, in a simple, clear and interesting manner.

He had something unique to say about everyone. He had personal experiences with Kumarappa, Vinoba, JP, Keithan, Jegannathan, Kamaraj, Kakkan and others. He had the opportunity to interact with scholars like Ivan Illich, E.F.Schumacher, Mark Lindley, Ramachandra Guha and others at various points of time. He had friendly relations with those who held opposing views too. N.Dharmarajan and S.N.Nagarajan, both with Communist affiliations, were his close friends.

Though Natarajan was a leading figure in the Sarvodaya movement, he never promoted himself. During private conversations and public speeches, he always shared countless experiences. But during such sharing, only the personality and achievements of others were highlighted and never his own contributions. When the Sarvodaya-Jegannathan Award was presented to him this year, he accepted it with shyness, since he was usually the deciding authority for choosing the awardees. However, he considered it to be a honour to be accepting the award in the name of his mentor, Jegannathan. I had written in detail about the speech he delivered on that day. He immediately called me up and asked, “Why do you to write so much about what I spoke?” He was clearly moved.

Natarajan was a great repository of the history of the past 70 years. He was a witness to its unfolding and he played an active part in it. We did not record his experiences and memories fully and it will remain one of our failings. Whenever I asked him for a time when I can do a long interview with him, he always asked, what was hurry, and directed me to do some other work. My wish to be with him for a few days and record all that he had to say has remained unfulfilled.

Recently, in a meeting with friends from foreign countries, Krishnammal Jegannathan spoke in memory of KNM Annachi. She was in tears throughout that meeting. More than any words, those tears bore witness to their long association and his indispensability to their activities. Though my acquaintance with him is much shorter, I feel the same emptiness that she seems to feel. The vacuum he has left behind in the Sarvodaya Movement is not easy to fill.

Gandhi and Thirukkural

August 24, 2019

[The revised and expanded English version of the Tamil essay published in Gandhi Today website.]

Is it possible for a huge mass of people to shower immense love on a work of literature? The emotional attachment of Tamils to Thirukkural is a case in point. It is astonishing that a book which is largely perceived to be a moral treatise (though, it is, in fact, not only a book of moral codes) has become such an object of love for the Tamils. If we make a list of those who lived a life that was close to the moral code of Thirukkural, the name of Gandhi, though he was not a Tamil, has to come on top. There are a lot of myths concerning Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thirukkural. We cannot ascertain the direct impact of Kural on Gandhi. But, we can see that Gandhi was quite aware of Thirukkural through his writings.         

It is unlikely that Gandhi would have heard about Thirukkural before his acquaintance with the Tamils in South Africa. There can be no doubt that he would have been drawn towards it, had he heard about it. He cites two precepts as his guiding principles during his childhood – truth and returning good for evil. (1) Both are key tenets of Thirukkural. He mentions a Gujarati didactic stanza in his Autobiography, which ‘gripped his mind and heart’, when he was a boy. He recollects the same song by Shamal Bhatt, when he was in London too, and was reading the New Testament, ‘especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to his heart.’ 

For a bowl of water give a goodly meal: 

For a kindly greeting bow thou down with zeal: 

For a simple penny pay thou back with gold: 

If thy life be rescued, life do not withhold. 

Thus the words and actions of the wise regard;

Every little service tenfold they reward. 

But the truly noble know all men as one, 

And return with gladness good for evil done.

We can see parallels between this song and many Kurals. (2)

Those who know the true value of a favour, will see

for the quantum of the favour, a tree, where there was a grain. [104]

A timely favour, however trivial

its material value is, is invaluable. [102]

Of what use is being noble

If one can’t do good unto those who did evil. [987]

Though there are traces of Kural imprinted in many works of Gandhi and those that impacted him, this song which attracted Gandhi during his growing years is significant. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Vinoba Bhave: through the eyes of critics and admirers

March 11, 2018

Even though it is now seen as a ‘failure, albeit a spectacular one’ (in the words of Ramachandra Guha), I consider Bhoodan Movement to be one of the strongest demonstrations of the potential of non-violence. I cannot imagine myself persuading someone to part with a square foot of land. Bhoodan movement succeeded in getting people to donate 44 lakh acres (‘the size of Scotland’ says Hallom Tennyson). The movement’s failure lay in not being able to convert the donations to title deed transfers, and the blame for that cannot be placed on the initiator and force behind the movement, Vinoba Bhave, alone. Even if only 13 lakh acres was actually distributed, it was still quite a remarkable feat.

I hope an unbiased and dispassionate study of the overall achievements and impact of the movement is made. (If anything already exists, I would love to go through it.)

Though the ideals of Gramdan were loftier than Bhoodan, and it is incredible that Gramdan also happened at many places, I feel Bhoodan had the right mixture of idealism and pragmatism. The shifting of focus away from Bhoodan to Gramdan could have negatively affected the overall success and focus of the movement.


In ‘India After Gandhi’, Ramachandra Guha rushes past Bhoodan Movement in a single paragraph.

Guha titled his essay on Vinoba Bhave in his ‘ An Anthropologist among the Marxists and other essays’ as “What Gandhi Was Not: Vinoba Bhave”. And, he had not a singe word of praise for him.

“To mark this event (Vinoba’s centenary, which he observes also coincided with the 20th anniversary of emergency), Bhave’s memoirs, Moved by Love, were published in English translation. They show him to be a pious, puritan, and self-righteous man, devoid of humour and the capacity for self-criticism. The book could more appropriately have been called Moved by Myself. It is littered with anecdotes showing Bhave as more virtuous than the people around him – as a glutton for hard work (at the spinning wheel or with the broom), as a master of self-denial (of food and sex), and as exceptionally adept at picking up new tricks. Here is a typical example of the way in which the author gives himself not merely pats but thumps on his own back. ‘Someone asked me why I was studying four languages,’ he writes, ‘and I replied – because I couldn’t find a fifth.’ “

Guha may be justified in being bitter about Vinoba for his passive, alleged ‘Sarkari Sant’ role during emergency. But as a historian and an anthropologist, he must have noticed that the ‘author’ of this particular book was not Vinoba himself (though the words may have been Vinoba’s, said/written at various points in time). It was compiled and edited by Kalindi, and translated by Marjorie Sykes. It is unfair to contrast this work by Vinoba’s devout disciples with the brutal honesty of the autobiography of Gandhi.

Guha says Vinoba is devoid of humour, and in the last line of the same paragraph, he seems to deride him for his humour. [In this case, Vinoba was talking about learning the four major South Indian languages together during his prison term. In fact, after this light-hearted but inaccurate quip, he goes on to explain the benefit of learning them together.]

Guha also says, “Bhave seems never to have broken out of his roots. As a Maharashtrian Brahmin, he acknowledges only Hindu influences on this thought: the Vedas, the Gita, the Vishnusahasranama.” By using the term ‘Maharashtrian Brahmin’, he not so subtly brackets him with those who were behind his master’s assassination, and their philosophy. This is about the man who coined the slogan ‘Jai Jagat’, walked through East Pakistan, and wrote the iconic inter-religious hymn ‘Om dat sat’. Vinoba has written books on ‘The essence of Christian teachings’ and Koran (after learning Arabic to study it in original).

Guha terms Vinoba as a ‘Sanskrit scholar and dialectician but an utterly shallow thinker’. He makes no mention of the fact that Vinoba had learnt over 20 languages, and had enough command in many of them to be able to read and remember the best spiritual literature in those languages. I have heard personal accounts from different people of how he cited (in Tamil) selections from Kural and other Tamil literary texts. Our daughter sang 3 Thevaaram songs this year at Jagannathan’s anniversary, and Krishnammal Jaganathan observed that all 3 happened to be personal favourites of Vinoba (அம்மையே அப்பா, முக்திநெறி அறியாத, மாதர்பிறை கண்ணியானை).

Guha quotes this line from Hallam Tennyson’s foreword, “many villages developed factions and disagreements leading to disillusion and the rapid flickering out of the Bhoodan spirit which Vinoba had inspired.” But he conveniently ignores the next passage:
“When I walked with Vinoba I found this aspect distressing, even heart-breaking. But today, reading the extracts translated by Marjorie Sykes, I see the situation in a different light. Vinoba was a true embodiment of the spirit of the Gita: ‘In every age I come back, to deliver the holy, to destroy the sin of the sinner, to establish righteousness,’ Krishna said. He did not promise permanent solutions; he redirected our gaze to the universal good and rekindled faith in human capacities.”

Guha also cites a scathing passage of Naipaul in his essay, ‘that measured the distance between Vinoba and the Mahatma’. No doubt, Gandhi was a peerless giant, but Vinoba was no midget.


Elsewhere, Naipaul calls Vinoba Bhave ‘a foolish parody of Gandhi’, and worse:
“He had lived for so long as a parasite, and away from the world, that he had become a kind of half-man, and he thought that Gandhi had been like that too…

There was, happily, a later career for Vinoba, not as a reformer, not as a wise man, but as a kind of holy fool, someone politicians at the very top wished to be photographed with and whose bless­ing they wished to have….”

[As an aside, Guha on Naipaul’s ‘A Writer’s People’:
There is far too much in this little book of what Walcott once called “the peevish sixth-grader still contained in an almost great writer”.]


He has come not like others to be blessed but to bless, not to receive but to give.
– Gandhi on Vinoba.


The two other tallest Gandhian contemporaries of Vinoba – Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan, both with modern mindsets, treated him with respect and affection. Though JP fell out with Vinoba later on, he sacrificed his leadership position in politics, and potential Prime Ministership after Nehru, to be a follower of Vinoba for nearly two decades in the prime of his life.

Vinoba and Nehru

Despite the bitter days of emergency, a few associates of JP (and naturally Vinoba’s as well) whom I’ve personally met, held nothing but nostalgic warmth towards Vinoba.

Narayan Desai had this to say about the man ‘devoid of humour’.

Desai : I was in Paunar, talking to some of the inmates of the Vinoba ashram. And I made a statement that gave them a jolt. I said, our movement, the Sarvodaya movement, has two leaders – one of them is the saint and the other, the politician. And Jayaprakash is the saint.
Kannan : Haha
Desai : So Deshpande, who was listening, got so excited, immediately ran to the room where Vinoba was staying and said, ‘Bhaba you know what Narayan is saying’. And Vinoba had this habit : whenever he likes something, he would stand up from his seat and start clapping. He stood up and (claps)…”It is true what he said…our movement has two leaders, one a saint and the other the politician. Jayaprakash is the saint. And I am the politician!”. After this, in public meetings he started saying this. That is because of this man’s absolutely crystal-clear honesty. Absolutely. After working with him for 20 years, it was a great experience of life.

Desai also said this about his meeting with Vinoba before he parted ways:
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 is that, ‘You are doing the right thing for you. It is absolutely right for you.’ That is the kind of freedom he gave.
I said, ‘Well, I am doing it because of what I learnt from you: that one has to work as per one’s conscience. Not from Gandhi, but from you. My conscience tells me to go to Jayaprakash.’ There was not, for one minute, any kind of bad blood between us. Nothing like that.

Perhaps, while we have come to terms with the spirituality of Gandhi, Vinoba’s even more overtly saintly inclinations and looks doesn’t allow the modern historians to evaluate him unbiasedly and give him his due. I sense that unease in what Guha says here:

“Even in their appearance, master and disciple made a study in contrast. Gandhi, clean-shaven with spectacles planted on his nose, looked like Everyman (only uglier), whereas Vinoba sported a long white beard and an absurd black head scarf – he wanted to be a baba, and look like one.”

Well, this baba refused to enter temples that didn’t allow entry to Dalits or people of other religions; this baba did scavenging in a village every day for over an year from 1946. This is the baba of whom Gandhi said, “Every hour of his is scheduled for his work and he would regard it as sacrilege to take a single moment therefrom for writing a shastra (on ahimsa).” This is the baba who chose to walk down to Delhi from Wardha, when the Prime Minister, Nehru, invited him to a discussion with members of the Planning Commission.

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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