“ONE OF OUR BIGGEST PROBLEMS IS THE MONKEYS,” Anant Joshi said. We were standing on the grounds of Sewagram Ashram, to the side of the cottage that Madeleine Slade, aka Mirabehn, built for herself and then ceded to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as she did everything else in her life during their time together.
“The monkeys come in troupes. They run all over the rooftops and break up the tiles. These tiles are not so easy to find now. It is expensive to replace them all the time. We never had this problem before, but the forest all around has been cut down and the only trees left are at the ashram, so the monkeys come here. What can we do ?”
Joshi, who is the chairman of the Center of Science for Villages, a Gandhian organisation dedicated to bringing appropriate technology such as biogas and low-cost housing to local villages, strikes me as a patient man with many responsibilities. I am conscious that these have not diminished because I have been put in his charge. He has been deputed to show me around Sewagram by Minal Bajaj, the director of the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, and a great granddaughter-in-law of Jamnalal Bajaj—one of the many wealthy industrialists, including Ambalal Sarabhai and KK Birla, on whose largesse Gandhi and his movement depended.
Jamnalal Bajaj not only donated the land for the ashram, a small part of his extensive holdings as the area’s biggest zamindar, he also embraced Gandhi’s efforts to eradicate untouchability and Gandhi’s conviction that the way to bend India to his vision was to work from the meanest village up. In 1928, the Bajaj family’s Laxminarayan Temple in nearby Wardha was one of the first Hindu temples to admit Dalits into its sanctum. To this day, the deities are clothed in khadi. At the end of his life, Jamnalal dedicated himself to goseva, cow welfare, an activity of which Gandhi heartily approved. The Bajaj Foundation, nearly 70 years after Jamnalal’s sudden death in 1942, continues to support a slew of Gandhian initiatives and institutions and to underwrite most of the ashram’s operating budget.
As I follow Joshi around, he fields a constant stream of calls in Hindi and Marathi on his mobile phone. He wears a handkerchief on his head, knotted under his chin. Each time one of his mobile conversations drags on a bit, he searches out a patch of shade, and I follow him to it. I check the weather app on my phone. Though it is only late February, the temperature is 36 degrees Celsius.
By June, the temperatures will climb into the 40s. When Louis Fischer, the American author whose 1950 biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, served as the basis for Richard Attenborough’s 1982 blockbuster film, visited Sewagram for a week in 1942, the only way he could summon the energy to type up his daily notes was to sit naked in a tub on a crate with a towel folded under him, his typewriter perched on another crate nearby. “At intervals of a few minutes, when I began to perspire, I dipped a bronze bowl into the tub and poured the water over my neck, back and legs. By that method, I was able to type a whole hour without feeling exhausted,” he wrote. In addition to the sweltering heat, Sewagram was built on low ground, in an area that became a malaria-infested swamp during the monsoon and that was overrun with poisonous snakes and scorpions. It was near no road, and had no post office and no shops. For Gandhi, it was perfect.
When Gandhi came to Wardha in 1933, he wanted to retreat to a place that had none of the amenities India’s poor citizens lacked. He was by then an international celebrity. In 1931, he had travelled to Europe, where he was mobbed by eager crowds and hounded by journalists, and where he met a roster of the powerful and the famous that included the King of England, Benito Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin and Romain Rolland. Gandhi wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj that he wanted to live alone in a small hut in a small village. But his presence alone was enough to draw scores of acolytes as well as visitors from around the world and across India—Nehru came several times—to even the remotest and most inhospitable outpost. Soon there was a road. One hut became several. The British sent a telephone so that they could communicate with the Mahatma when they wanted. Gandhi’s attempt to disconnect from the world and to change India from outside the quickening course of its trajectory toward independence failed.
I HAD LONG WANTED TO VISIT SEWAGRAM. I wanted to see with my own eyes the place where Gandhi made his last stand for his vision of a self-reliant and self-ruling India. It was the vision he articulated so passionately in his seminal 1909 work Hind Swaraj, a vision he never relinquished. Written furiously in a trance-like state on his way back by ship from London to South Africa, inspired by his experiences in England and South Africa and by his reading of Ruskin and Tolstoy, Hind Swaraj laid out Gandhi’s dream of how India could escape not merely British imperial rule but the suicidal path of Western modernity, of which British imperialism was only a voracious manifestation. For Gandhi, Western modernity’s curse was its pitiless drive to increase consumption as a means of generating and amassing wealth. Violation and violence toward fellow human beings and to the environment were part and parcel of it. It was to be free of this, Gandhi argued, that India had to do better than merely achieve a transfer of power over the system. Gandhi had warned India’s elite in Hind Swaraj : “You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger ; that is to say, you would make India English, and when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. This is not the Swaraj I want.”
Gandhi never gave up on his alternative vision for India : a nation of enlightened but simple and self-sufficient villages, where all citizens were equal and everyone contributed a portion of his or her labour to produce the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—out of local, renewable materials. He clung to it stubbornly, long after it became clear that the Congress party and the Indian elite were not interested. Having failed to win over the elite, Gandhi took his efforts, with Jamnalal Bajaj’s help, directly to the rural poor. In village after village around Wardha, and finally at Segaon (which Gandhi renamed Sewagram), he applied his efforts to transforming India’s villages from cesspits of ignorance and rigid social hierarchy into beacons of order, cleanliness and brotherly love. He delegated his disciples, especially Mirabehn, to this task.
They were to start with what to Gandhi was the most basic issue : teaching villagers to take responsibility for their waste, the most elemental of which was their own excrement, a task either delegated to Dalits or simply avoided. The tactic he recommended to his disciples : enter a village and look for stray human waste—near footpaths was a good place to start, he advised—and remove it to a remote spot and bury it. Eventually, Gandhi argued, startled villagers would get the message. They didn’t.
The villagers were not adverse to having Gandhi’s acolytes come around and clean up their waste but they showed no inclination to take over the activity themselves. In a 1936 speech, Gandhi lamented, “They are not interested in their own welfare. They don’t appreciate modern sanitary methods. They don’t want to exert themselves beyond scratching their farms and doing such labour as they are used to.” When Mirabehn arrived at one village where she’d hoped to settle down and work at Gandhi’s behest, her acceptance of water from the hands of a Dalit got her immediately banned from taking water from the village well. One can almost hear Gandhi sigh when he wrote : “We must be patient with the people.”
Many of the peasant farmers in eastern Maharashtra today still live in dire poverty. As I recounted in my book, Planet India, after a roadtrip through the region in 2006 with Mumbai-based journalist Dilip D’Souza, their distress is eloquently expressed in the epidemic of farmer suicides that have claimed the lives of thousands in Maharashtra alone, and of more than 250,000 across India since the early 1990s. The widows I met worked as day labourers on neighbouring farms for as little as 25 per day. A biogas plant here or a solar water-heater there have not changed the savage inequalities that haunt the region and the nation, nor slowed the advance of predatory global capital, industrial expansion and a consumerist society into India’s heartland. I have visited village after village in the region near Sewagram, where the lanes are just as filthy as those described by Gandhi, but where televisions now beam the lifestyle of India’s urban elite into huts that haven’t changed since Gandhi’s day.
Gandhians soldier on. Beyond the Bajaj family, legions of dedicated individuals across India continue to work, many in relative obscurity, according to the basic tenets of Gandhi’s project to improve the lives of India’s rural poor. And there are hundreds of examples of villages where real improvement has been made in the quality of life through natural farming techniques, cooperative efforts to build sustainable infrastructure to assure common facilities such as a steady supply of water, or reforestation, and where the divisiveness of caste and religion that still haunts so much of India has been calmed.
None of these islands in the raging torrent of India’s high-growth development has achieved the systemic change of which Gandhi dreamt. None has stopped the emergence of a spectacularly corrupt oligarchic government that has aided and abetted big business in raping the country’s land and resources, pushing its peasants into contract labour on industrial farms owned by agribusiness giants or onto construction crews putting up luxury residential towers in the rapidly expanding cities. None has prevented the creation of the world’s fourth-largest aggregation of dollar billionaires in a country which also boasts the greatest number of people suffering from undernourishment on earth.
Despite this, the legacy of Gandhi’s vision of simple, equitable living refuses also to go away. In fact, its allure is increasing. Faced as we are with a looming environmental catastrophe, a severe food and water crisis, a widening wealth gap with only the relentless seductions of a consumerist society to console us, Gandhi’s argument in Hind Swaraj against the suicidal lure of Western modernity seems prescient. His dedication to the local, the sustainable, the small-scale and the equitable seems not only apt but urgent.
THIS IS WHY I WANTED TO VISIT SEWAGRAM. I wanted, in particular, to see Bapu Kuti, the simple mud-walled cottage with which Gandhi provided one of the earliest blueprints for green building in India, and a symbol of Gandhi’s dedication to a mode of living that treads lightly on the land and is within everyone’s grasp, even the poorest. When he put Mirabehn in charge of constructing the first dwelling at Sewagram—despite his desire to isolate himself in a hut, Gandhi was not able to stop travelling the length and breadth of India on various political missions—he gave her specific instructions about what he wanted. Housing at Sewagram was to be built strictly from local, renewable materials. Nothing should come from beyond a five-kilometre radius. The structures should be simple enough that a small group of ordinary people could build and maintain them. The house was to be open on all sides, in order to let air and visitors freely circulate. The building, though inspired by traditional village houses, was idealised by Gandhi’s village “in my mind”, as he wrote in his famous exchange of letters with Nehru in 1945.
The result of Gandhi’s dictates was Adi Niwas, the first lodging built at Sewagram and the one that comes closest to Gandhi’s ideal abode. It is a single rectangular room with a couple of niches in the walls and a clothesline from which residents could hang up their belongings. The men slept on one side, the women on the other, everyone on the floor. To enter it, I had to stoop, and coming out I hit my head on a roof beam, even though I am, at 5 feet 7 inches, only two inches taller than Gandhi was.
The modest scale of this one-room lodging stunned me. As everywhere in Sewagram, the aura of Gandhi’s presence seemed more palpable to me here than in any of the other places where the great man once lived. To stand in the room and imagine Gandhi asleep on a simple mat, one among a row of prone figures all swathed in plain, white khadi is a humbling experience. All the more so as I myself would not want to live in a hut like Adi Niwas for more than a couple of nights. Most people, given the choice, wouldn’t.
Even Gandhi knew that. His very political point was that the poor don’t have a choice, and so long as they don’t, those who do should choose to live with less. More radically, for Gandhi the ethical basis of choosing to live with less was based on the real limitations of the earth’s resources and what it could support if everyone was to enjoy them equally. The profound truth of this Gandhian insight in light of our current plight, caught as we are between the rock of global warming and the very hard place of the Fukushima disaster, is striking. “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed,” Gandhi famously, if probably apocryphally, observed.
P ERHAPS BECAUSE THERE WERE SO FEW VISITORS, or because it was lunchtime, or because it was already hot, the Sewagram Ashram was profoundly peaceful. After the hours of travelling by plane and car to reach the ashram, I was enchanted by the calm. A breeze ruffled the leaves of the vast trees in front of the main cottages under which a group of high school students on a field trip sat crosslegged taking notes. A few sparrows hopped around chirping cutely, as they do. I sat for a few minutes on the veranda of Gandhi’s cottage soaking up the place, letting it seep into my consciousness.
But the peace was bittersweet. Sewagram’s calm was, in fact, due to the absence of any real, living activity. The ashram is preserved in time, in the manner of an old sepia photograph. What it documents is dead. Like a ghost town in the American West, and just as dusty and sere, Sewagram is no longer a bustling place inhabited by the indefatigable Gandhi and his devoted disciples. It is a shell of what it was, a time capsule lovingly preserved but emptied of its living inhabitants and shorn of its original pertinence.
Next door, in one of the last existing Nai Talim schools in India based on Gandhi’s educational model, the bright chaos of children running around during their recreation break was a relief. I watched them have a music class in a room filled with light and gaily decorated with their artwork. I saw the garden where they help grow some of the food they eat at lunch and where they learn about the cycles of planting and harvesting and the roles insects play in plants’ lives. I found it all quite wonderful, and a refreshing contrast to the regimented, rote learning that I’d seen at so many other Indian schools. The director, a fiercely dedicated woman who spoke excellent English as well as Hindi and Marathi, told me, however, that they had a lot of trouble convincing local parents to send the children to Nai Talim. “This is a Marathi-medium school and they all want their children to learn English,” she lamented. At the height of India’s independence movement during World War II, she said, there had been about 50,000 Nai Talim schools. Now, she told me, there were only about 50 left.
A few kilometres from Sewagram Ashram, in this area so haunted by Gandhi’s legacy and the Bajaj family’s support of it, is the Brahma Vidya Mandir Ashram at Paunar. Founded by Vinoba Bhave, whom Gandhi himself called the “most Gandhian” of his disciples, it is still a functioning community. “All of our food except for rice and sugar we grow ourselves,” Gautam Bajaj tells me. He explained to me how easy it was for an individual to spin and weave all the cotton yarn required to clothe himself or herself. He told me about the non-hierarchical, rotating governing structure the ashram practices to prevent any one individual from exercising power over the others. He showed me the native breed of cows they raised for their milk, and explained the work the ashram inmates did to improve lives in neighbouring villages. All of it was in harmony with Gandhi’s core concepts of swaraj, self-rule, and sarvodaya, community service. Gautam joined Vinoba’s 1951 padayatra to get landowners to donate land to landless peasants as a 13-year-old, thinking that it would last a few months. It lasted 13 years, and Gautam Bajaj never left. I met some of the residents of the ashram, like sweet, smiling Usha who has lived there for more than 50 years. In fact, most of the residents are women, most of who are elderly. Paunar Ashram seemed to me to resemble as closely as possible what Sewagram Ashram might have been like when it was a living place. But I wondered, as I listened to the constant snarl of trucks and cars on the road hard against the side of the property and watched the old women bent here and there to the tasks of weeding and picking vegetables, how much longer Paunar Ashram would survive.
Back at Sewagram, looking sidelong down the long verandah under the overhanging roof of tiles the monkeys like to break, I thought of Louis Fischer’s description of the same verandah when he sat here. He wrote : “There were about thirty diners. Women sat apart. Several bright-eyed, brown-faced youngsters, between the ages of three and eight, were opposite me. Everyone had a thin straw mat under him and a brass tray in front of him on the ground. … A number of pots and pans were placed near Gandhi’s legs. He handed me a bronze bowl filled with a vegetable mush in which I thought I discerned chopped spinach leaves and pieces of squash.” Fischer didn’t like the mush, and on the third day, he declined to eat any more of it. The food at Sewagram was, apparently, precisely what ashram food was supposed to be according to Rule #4 of Gandhi’s [Sabarmati] Ashram Rules. For Gandhi the first step to controlling sexual appetite—essential, Gandhi believed, for curbing one’s impulse to consume selfishly—was to eliminate the pleasure of eating : “Food must therefore be taken, like medicine, under proper restraint.”
I asked myself which was less appetising in the food-for-the-masses category : a bland mush of locally grown vegetables purposely made as tasteless as possible and eaten in sex-segregated restraint, or a supersized meal of genetically modified soy and corn fed to factory-farmed animals from an American fast-food chain ? The first, no doubt, is ecologically sounder and a way to feed far more people with far less violence to the environment and other sentient beings than the second, but that hardly makes it attractive.
GANDHI WAS QUITE HAPPY to have Jamnalal Bajaj, Ambalal Sarabhai and KK Birla engage in business and make money. The more successful they were, after all, the more they could afford to support Gandhi’s work. He called his notion of the proper relationship between the capitalist and the worker, between the rich and the poor, “trusteeship”. Similarly, and bizarrely, Gandhi theorised that workers were also wealthy, their labour being of considerable value to their bosses, and that workers also held their wealth—that is, their labour—in trust. Gandhi was despised for his theory of trusteeship by leftists around the world, who thought the idea that the rich would voluntarily give their money away to the poor was cracked.
Getting India’s rich to pledge more of their money was the reason for a recent visit to India by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Philanthropy is not a new concept in India. The old family business houses—the Birlas, the Tatas, the Bajajs, the Sarabhais—had no problem supporting Gandhi and a slew of other social causes. Like Gates and Buffett, they generally saw no contradiction between doing so and their business activities, even when the latter directly involved supporting the British. Louis Fischer reported from his visit with JRD Tata : “On his desk stood several brightly polished two-inch anti-tank shells which a Tata mill was making for the British—and a plastic plaque of Mahatma Gandhi.” The fact is that billionaire philanthropy, like ‘corporate social responsibility’, is often little more than an alibi to continue predatory business practices that exacerbate economic divisions and accelerate the destruction of the environment. They can also be a means of advancing corporate interests in the form of what have popularly become known as “win-win” solutions, in which business gets to make a buck even as it does, or appears to do, some good.
Billionaire philanthropy is also a good way to further erode democratic control of public goods and spaces, as well as of decisions about who is best served and how, by what appear to be the best-intended efforts. The Gates Foundation’s active partnership with Monsanto, a company in which the foundation has taken an investment position, to propagate the genetically modified seeds of a few engineered varieties of soy, wheat and rice over indigenous seeds and crop varieties in Africa and India is a case in point. This effort has the active support of the US State Department, with USAID earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars aggressively to expand Gates and Monsanto’s efforts in the developing world. In India, the big business groups, Tata first among them, have also leapt on the biotech bandwagon, with its concomitant push for privatisation, deregulated markets, and industrial, large-scale farming linked to big-box retail stores. Theirs is a vision of the world where citizens have been fully transformed into consumers. The supermarket and the shopping mall, filled with mass-produced products from production chains entirely controlled by a handful of monopoly corporations, is the logical end of the very path Gandhi railed against in Hind Swaraj.
The Bajaj Group has tried to maintain a corporate philosophy inspired by Gandhi and the allegiance of the company’s founder to him. Their ubiquitous autorickshaws are truly India’s version of the people’s car. At the entrance to the company’s Mumbai headquarters, Bajaj Bhavan at Nariman Point, there is a mural of Gandhi. The Bajaj Foundation is committed to preserving Gandhi’s legacy in and around Wardha, and to supporting the work of people still dedicated to Gandhi’s principles. Jamnalal Bajaj himself embraced a Gandhian lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, forgoing his car to walk instead, dressing in khadi and, at one point, living in a simple hut. His was a commitment to a personal and business Gandhian ethics that is hard to find among the newer lot of Indian captains of industry. It is difficult to imagine Mukesh Ambani leaving his 27-story personal residence for a hut in Wardha. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, is the new mantra in a country where more people live in absolute poverty than did in Gandhi’s time.
THE UTTAM GALVA METALLICS MILL, built in defiance of rules preventing industries from being set within 10 kilometres of Sewagram Ashram, boasts a perversely ironic sign at the entrance bearing a quote from Gandhi : “You must be the change you want to be.” Gandhi is a favourite cloak for those engaged in the most anti-Gandhian activities. Narendra Modi has no monopoly on representing himself as a righteous defender of Gandhi’s sainted person, as he did in the recent tamasha over the publication of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, Great Soul : Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, even as he has turned “Vibrant Gujarat” into the exact opposite of everything Gandhi dreamed of for India. Gandhi is also back in fashion on India’s political scene, with Anna Hazare engaging in a fast at Jantar Mantar to protest the rot in the country’s government and Mamata Banerjee embarking on a padyatra before West Bengal’s elections, cleverly associating herself with that most famous padayatra ever, Gandhi’s Salt March. Despite the media fanfare, these seem unlikely to transform India’s degenerated political system. However, they are signs of the power that Gandhi and his tactics still have to get the attention of the masses and of government.
Gandhi was the first to admit he had many faults. As I sat at Sewagram Ashram, it occurred to me that Gandhi’s greatest fault, the one that doomed the viability of his movement, was his puritanical asceticism. Gandhi was so fanatical about avoiding all physical pleasure that he warned married couples who contemplated producing a child, and who therefore might be forced to have sexual relations, to guard against taking any pleasure in the act lest they inflict upon their unborn baby the curse of desire. He placed the denial of physical pleasure at the heart of both his personal and his political ethics. Women, especially, needed to make sure they never “played the temptress”, which, as Gandhi boasted in his Autobiography, Kasturba never did. No adornment, no makeup, shorn hair for young girls at Durban’s Phoenix Farm who caught the fancy of young boys, and for Mirabehn.
What, after all, do the soulless, American-copied shopping malls, the chirpy television advertisements beamed now into nearly every Indian household, offer if not pleasure ? Buy something, and feel great. Feel that sinfully delicious chocolate or that throbbing car engine. Be beautiful, loved, envied. The pleasure may be fleeting and superficial ; but it works like an itch you scratch that only itches more, but there is so much pleasure in the scratching that you can’t stop until the wound begins to bleed.
It is bleeding now. It is bleeding radiation-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. It is bleeding pesticides into farmers’ veins in India. It is bleeding in the streets of Egypt, of Yemen, of Syria, of Libya. Around the world, people have had enough. Those who can consume are overstuffed and overextended. Those who can’t, watch the spectacle of increasingly vulgar conspicuous consumption, heedless of the headlong destruction of our planet, and rage.
Gandhi at least offered a way to stop the rage and the bleeding. But he couldn’t stop the itch. People around the world are searching for a more satisfying way to experience the pleasures of life than the mindless consumerism proposed by the reigning global system, and be able to do so in a way that stops destroying what is left of the environment. They are looking for an ethics of pleasure.
It’s the pleasure I saw on the face of a little boy at the Nai Talim school at Sewagram, running out of the garden where he feels the warm soil, touches the tender plant shoots, sees the insects busy pollinating the crops and understands the connection between his own life’s impulse and the earth beneath his feet.