Friday, December 6, 2013

The meaning of Mandela to a Mahatma fan

Nelson Mandela was many things to many people. What the man and his message meant to South Africa and the rest of the world doesn't need repeating. As a citizen of the world I too reveled in his greatness, his capacity to spread cheer and hope with his very presence, his innate serenity that seemed infectious. But as an Indian and a lifelong fan of a man Mandela himself drew inspiration from, Madiba also gave me a distant glimpse into the persona of the Mahatma.

I am a privileged Indian born in a free country. But I came into this world a quarter century after Mahatma Gandhi had left it. Annual commemorations, history books and cinema kept bringing that great Indian harbinger of hope to life for me through my childhood, and I became a devoted fan. The strength that radiated from his small, frail frame was enough to rally an entire nation and bring an occupying empire to its knees. It still seems unfathomable that the force of the Mahatma's personality was enough to spread his message of peaceful resistance across a large country before the era of rapid transit, 24-hour news and instant messaging.

Whenever I watched interviews of people who had known or met the Mahatma, I was puzzled by their slightly mesmeric recollections. They weren't just recounting memories - it was as if they still felt his forceful presence. That bafflement and slight skepticism were put to rest when I stepped into Gandhi's small, sparsely furnished office at the famous ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. I can't explain the depth of the feeling of serenity that descended into my person as I stood gazing at his floor-level scribe's desk with a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched atop. Never until then - nor since - had I felt so calm, so humble. And visiting the mansion in New Delhi where the Mahatma was assassinated left me inexplicably agitated. For me at least, the Mahatma's aura transcended time.

Curious about what it might have been like for people who were blessed enough to be in the presence of India's great soul, I closely watched the faces of people who shook hands with the South African Mahatma of my time. Even on television I could see the pure joy on their faces and the instant relaxing of tense muscles. It was as if being in Mandela's orbit made them all want to be more humane, more forgiving, more resolute.

Mahatma Gandhi's legacy for India is uncontested. Without his stewardship our struggle for independence would have been a lot more bloody and devastating. But history is beginning to be a little more harsh in judging him as time goes by. There are now murmurings about some of his human failings. I, however, remain a staunch fan. Flaws and vices are part of being human. But how many of us had/have the fortitude to lead teeming millions to freedom from a brutal oppressor without much bloodshed?

Madiba and the Mahatma were remarkable human beings. They both chose the more difficult, morally sound path. Just apply their principles to your life if you still need proof of their fortitude. Isn't is easier to bear a grudge than forgive? Isn't it easier to be blinded by rage than be guided by calm objectivity? Isn't it easier to cower with fear than to stare your bully down? Aren't more of us increasingly opting for retribution over reconciliation? Can you imagine being locked away for a third of your life and coming out of it smiling, hopeful, forgiving and strong as Mandela did? You'd think it would take superhuman capabilities to do that. But these men were human, like you and me. If they can do so much, can't we do at least a little to be better and more humane?

Perhaps the next Mandela or Gandhi is already among us. I hope I get to meet him/her this time.

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