Hindi: chhoti haziri, vulg. hazri, 'little breakfast'; refreshment taken in the early morning, before or after the morning exercise. (Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, 1994 )
24 October 2012
Post Facto: His Story - Narayanbhai’s katha brings Gandhi to life
The thin old man in a white kurta is seated on an elevated platform with a white sheet stretched over it. Behind him is a single white bolster; in front of him sprouts a bunch of microphones. He is reading, but in a marvellous informal manner that makes it seem he is speaking extempore. His voice is comforting, but thin. It is, after all, the voice of an 87-year-old. But it does not quiver. When he pauses for breath between passages, the small mandli to his left begins to sing. Now his lips are pursed gently in concentration, eyes closed beneath his spectacles. He sways gently to the music, and his narrow, bald head gleams when it catches the light. To his right, in a large wooden frame, is the familiar painted image of another old man: also bald, and with his eyes closed behind his round spectacles.
The resonance is unintended, but unmistakeable.
Narayanbhai Desai is the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's longtime
personal secretary. He spent the first 23 years of his life at Sabarmati
and Sewagram, both ashrams established by Gandhi. For the last few
years, he has been the Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the
university started by Gandhi in 1920. The highly respected Gandhi
scholar Tridip Suhrud considers Desai's four volume work Maru Jivan Ej Mari Vani the most complete biography of Gandhi in Gujarati, and translated it into English under the title My Life is My Message.
At the age of 77, having published a four-volume work of repute, one
might think that a man would feel he had done the work he had to. And it
is possible that Narayanbhai would have settled into quiet retirement
if Godhra had not happened. But Godhra happened, and Narayanbhai felt
that he had to do something in response. His sense of what he should do
was clear: to recharge the memory of Gandhi's message in a Gujarat which
seemed to have turned sharply away from it. This was also his aim in
writing the biography, but he had come to recognise that most people
would not pick up a four volume work. It was then that he arrived at the
idea of storytelling.
He held his first Gandhi Katha in 2004. Since then, he has travelled
with it across 12 Indian states, as well as Canada, the USA and the UK.
The katha I attended was the 106th, held from 4th to 8th October 2012 at
Birla House in Delhi, the site of Gandhi's assassination. The 107th
katha will be held at Vadodara Central Jail. The 108th, with which he
plans to bring the process to a close in January 2013, will be at Sadra,
a village in Gandhinagar district of Gujarat, where the Mahadev Desai
College of Social Work, run by Gujarat Vidyapeeth, is located.
Each katha is held over five days, with Narayanbhai speaking for
three hours every evening, recounting the events of Gandhi's life,
broadly in chronological sequence. His anecdotes give the audience the
privilege of hearing directly from someone who knew the Mahatma – of
hearing history live. He does not leave out anything that would be
considered major in the history books – so everything from Champaran to
Direct Action Day gets its due. But it is his ability to weave in the
smallest of incidents and characters that makes his katha come alive. It
is ordinary people who are at the centre of this narrative – ordinary
people who made Gandhi what he was.
So we hear the story of Kasturba's encounter with a family in an
Andhra village who refused to open the door of their hut, finally
agreeing to speak to her from inside. Aren't you coming to the sabha,
she asked? Don't you want to hear Bapu? We would come, they answered,
but there are three of us and only one proper dhoti between us. "Bapu
did not say anything when Kasturba told him this story," says
Narayanbhai. "But later he took to wearing just a dhoti. He said, 'How
can I speak, wearing all these clothes, to people who don't even have a
single garment to call their own?'"
When we hear how lawyers who came to assist him in Champaran with
their individual caste cooks were persuaded to eat from a common rasoi,
or how the potential rioter in pre-Partition Calcutta laid down his
grenade at Gandhi's feet because his ginni (wife) was refusing
to eat until Gandhi did, perhaps we are hearing the kind of exemplary
moral tale that might usually be told about an epic hero, like Ram. The
portrait with a garland around it, the large brass diya, the musicians'
yellow saris and white kurtas: these certainly have all the familiarity
of our Hindu style of national ritual. The stage is decorated, as stages
are, with strings of marigold.
But there is a simplicity here, a quiet refusal of plushness. The
marigolds from the first day remain until the fifth, transforming slowly
from fiery goldenness to a muted ochre. Desai has taken a traditional
form of subcontinental storytelling and made of it an informative,
affecting form of remembrance, a form that perfectly fits the man at its
centre. The final evening, after a brief reference to Gandhi's death,
ends with a song, followed by a request for silence and no jaijaikaar. One wishes we had more rituals like these.