This short fictional account co-authored by Prathik Murali Revanth Ukkalam visualises the Mahatma in 2022, doing what he does best, fighting for those who have no voice. This time it is those whose houses are being demolished at Jahangirpuri. He travels the metro to engage with the state machinery, represented by the bulldozer. Read on....
Slums of Kaushambi, 09.00 am
4-year-old Asima had dirtied her already dull frock by playing in the mud. She folded her tiny hands and lowered her head as she entered the hut, imitating the elders she saw. "Nana-ji, what are you doing?" she asked the frail, old man seated cross-legged with a slipper in his hand. Bapu had reduced the length of dhoti further that day, it was becoming unbearably hot even as the summers began. "I am re-stitching my torn slipper, dear young lady, come, let us learn to do it, hold nana's hand," said Bapu as he lifted the child and placed her on his lap. "Subramaniyam, bring your notepad, I have a letter to write" he called out. The dhoti-kurta-clad young Tamil boy, a doctorate from the Americas who felt the need to be with Bapu at this hour sat beside his father figure. "Listen, send this letter this very day, do not delay it like last time. Take money for the stamps and envelopes from 'Lok Kalyan Nidhi' and give your accounts to Rahul on time." He spoke sternly as he was patting the child and swayed her up and down with the movement of his legs. She looked up to her nana-ji as he looked down at her. Looking at his toothless smile, Asima's smile grew into a laughter. "Bapu, we do not need a stamp. I shall send it as an Email " said Subbu. Though Bapu did not find Emails comfortable, the money they saved, he thought, could be used to help another Dalit woman gain a livelihood.
"Dear Putin," Bapu started his dictation "It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war that may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price....."
"Bapu! Bapu!" came shouting a Muslim boy around 17 years of age. The boy panted and had a weak sense of balance. With his long unsteady arms waving in the air, at a distance from the man, he screamed – "they are here, they are here! Where do we go now?" The grin of the ever-smiling man (a smile that was delirious to some) turned stern. Well, was it not he who believed that historical occurrences and unsatisfactory results were only symptoms of an immoral soul and an insufficiently-hard worked body. The boy neared Bapu and said that several bulldozers were in his locality of Jahangirpuri – a little India, for hosting scraggy Bihari rag pickers, Muslim hawkers, and poor Delhiites pushed out of the city that was made for the rich and by the rich. These demographics of course do not make Bapu shudder. After all, he sat on their damp floors, ate off their old plates, and at other times, simply fasted in their houses.
"Subbu, how long does it take to reach this area?" Mahatma, the man of action asked.
"By car, it might take an hour and a half, it is on the other side of the city. We could take the metro and reach in lesser time" said Subbu.
"Bapu, the station is cordoned off, we can get off at Adarsh Nagar and walk down the streets, but there is a heavy police presence". said the boy
"You narrate the events as we move, let us leave now" Bapu got up to leave. As he wore his semi-stitched slippers, he gave Asima in the hands of Sudhaben who stood by the side holding a glass of milk. Bapu shook his head signalling that he did not have the time to drink it.
As Bapu walked with his hands around the boy's shoulders, out of the slum, past the huts of people of the Bhangi community, Muslim refugees from the 70's war, migrant labourers from West Bengal and Bihar, commotion set in the area. Women came out as word spread that Bapu is urgently leaving elsewhere. Every household had its members gather on the lanes damp with wastewater and mud, many of them tried to touch Bapu's feet but his pace was tough to match. The corner house on the street that led to the main road was Ahmad's. He was reprimanded the previous day by Bapu for speaking against the Hindus and for beating his wife. In a fix of anger, Ahmad had spoken ill of the Mahatma to his face. An innocent Ahmad assumed that Bapu was leaving the colony hurt by his words. He came close, bowing to Bapu with tear swollen eyes. Bapu stopped for a moment to pat him on the back and said, "I knew you would change Ahmad, I will come back and speak to you for I have no time now, We need to help our brothers at Jahangirpuri." Ahmad joined the retinue and started singing "Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram" behind the Mahatma. He knew that the Mahatma valued action more than words and that taking Ram's name would be a better apology. Bapu turned his face to smile at Ahmad, not compromising his swift pace of walk towards Vaishali metro station.
After all, this was the man who grimly said, “I am not aiming at destroying railways or hospitals, though I would certainly welcome their natural destruction. Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation,” with his typical dark humour. But little does he consider this act hypocritical. Sure Ends do not justify the Means but Means are as much as birthed by their Ends. And in every possible way, the marcher, now commuter is about the word ‘fast’. And this cause too ought to be tended to with briskness. And as he stood in the train, he was surrounded everywhere by livelihoods being made, not broken by that wretched thing, technology. Perhaps, it was time to be reconciled with novelty, just as he had given sometimes, second chances to the radio.
Inside the train, he stood, while young boys and girls sat. He reminded his younger friends – work maketh man. Attentively he looked around as life had been as if carefully assembled, placed inside these eight boxes running on the tracks overhead. Someone reading newspapers – saying mostly stories of rape and murder, hate and intrigue, bruising temperatures, and the madness of the stock market, and well, the market. Someone else eating biryani from a steel box. Some young students flirting; where has gone Brahmacharya, he might have wondered. And the blue sticker on the top edges of the coach lined up the stations, somewhat like a timeline. For Gandhi, history, as a frame of thought was entirely passe, it was only amusing that space had to be frozen this way. The sticker was a series of one human tragedy after another. Anand Vihar still reeked from the sin of sorrow – men and women pleading to leave home as a lethal virus spread its legs. Pleading from a dispassionate state. Was the state really theirs if they had had to plead?
Gandhi’s frail body rapidly trotted out to walk to another platform at some place called ‘Yamuna Bank’; he could not help but watch with awe the river fed millions in the Northern Plains, nurtured his hero Krishna, and a stream with which his body had been fused. Now of course a feast to crows and vultures. Then again the train let him stare at the visage of this city – that he so loved for being the home of friends and adversaries. The one that gave him the greatest reward of all. He saw from a distance at the dome of the Supreme Court – the same one that batted not an eye-lid to keep hundreds of anti-nationals and protestors like him behind bars, and turned away as a share of India’s pie was turned second class. And he thought once again, like in the old days, Courts ought to be abolished too! Before he had cosied into the coach, he was told to move out once again into a crammed up a vista underground. This too was a railway station apparently; what have you people named this he asked? ‘Rajiv Chowk’ was the answer. Ah, the man who carried his own name by sheer coincidence and lent his name in turn to institution after institution and received the same honour as this ugly old man. Now once again he was pushed by the bustle of commuters into a train car. It was too dark now and could feel the swiftness of the train. This time the sticker was yellow. The world that he passed by this time he knew like the back of his hand. Was it not exactly the region that was vivisected by the daggers of partition? He was reminded of that rare moment in ’48 when communal parties met at Prasad’s house to promise that Mussalman brothers will be allowed to walk freely, as humans. At Pahargunj, at ‘Subzeemundy’, and at Karol Bagh. At the moment he was under them. And O! Now comes Old Delhi – how could Gandhi forget the prophetic words of Maulana Bhai that crawled up the imposing minarets at “Shahjahan’s historic mosque”: “I do not ask you to seek certificates from the new echelons of power. I do not want you to lead a life of sycophancy as you did during the foreign rule. I want you to remind you that these bright etchings which you see all around you, are relics of processions of your forefathers.”
Gandhi scratched his left eyebrow as his pupils turned damp in the air-conditioned car. This AC is a queer thing, as your throat dries, it makes time also freeze. And so far the one fifty year old man, until a rush of people left the car. For Kashmere Gate. Gandhi chuckled at how it used to remind everyone of the arduous time of the Great Mutiny and how still, people had hoped for its restaging. And then another rush. ‘Vishwavidyalaya’ it was announced. Since Gandhi knew exactly where and that was, like a child that he sincerely was, he began smiling. There was a touch of moral purity in this locality according to Gandhi – for it was here, at the prestigious premises of St. Stephen’s College, that his dearest friend CF Andrews taught? Where would Gandhi’s long Indian struggle be had this beautiful Christian man not relieved him during his battle in South Africa? How gifted were the children who could listen to him lecture for hours?
As the Mahatma wrapped his memories, the train shook his already frail figure and proceeded to the next station, the boy from Jahangirpuri started to narrate the events that led to government's action and continued saying "Abdul's soda shop was brought down this morning. As soon as that happened, we all went to show the papers of our shops. Many people were locked up inside a grill gate. I somehow managed to escape, As I left, I heard rumours that the target was a mosque's entrance. Even Gupta-ji was worried as the bulldozers were nearing his juice shop. He asked me to rush to you, he said "Listen Latif, the government might pull down a couple of shops like mine and Sharma-ji's just to say that they also tore down Hindu shops in addition to yours". The Mahatma shook his head in disbelief. 'Adarsh Nagar, doors open on the left' declared the recorded voice. Bapu wrapped his hand around the boy again and stood in a queue to get out. He curiously stared at the gates that opened automatically as he walked out. He took a leap to jump off the train onto the platform. A wave of the summer heat hit everyone's face, contrasting the cold AC from inside the coach. The Mahatma remarked "the guilt of our 'Sukha' during the journey--we must remember-- was at the expense of a labourer's toil in the hot sun". Latif, not paying heed to what he'd been saying, suggested that they take the escalator or the elevator as media had crammed the staircase. Bapu smiled again and said "Ram walked for 14 years to face the demon Ravana. If we truly believe that the state machinery is no less demonic and that the bulldozer is a symbol of it, we shall walk, at least as a measure to prepare ourselves to face it".
The media's clutter became audible to Bapu's retinue. The mridanga and Kartal that accompanied the Ramdhun had stopped as a woman in her 40s with a mic in her hand neared the Mahatma to shout into her microphone "The anti-national brigade of the former nationalist Gandhi is here. The leader of many anti-Indian movements since independence and an inspiration to those generally called 'Urban-Naxals' has now arrived to steal the spotlight and show his face, just as he did in the 1940s.". She turned to Bapu as he stood smiling at her to ask "what do you plan to do now? Ask the Muslims to further damage India?" Bapu smiled as more cameras gathered around him. He started to speak
"We must end the Satanic way of the Government either by being more Satanic than it is or by eschewing such ways altogether. Sin and injustice can never exist by themselves. They always require something behind which to shield themselves. Hence the injunction in all religions is that it is one’s highest dharma to non-co-operate with a sinful policy and get it abandoned; we must reflect on every moment of our life and save it from sin so that the evil policy will collapse of itself. We shall strive to do that today as well"
As a few men prepared to huddle around the man to buttress him, he only subtly raised his arm to reject such an effort. Shaking his shrivelled head, he inched closer to the bulldozer. He dropped his stick aside and extended his arms and looked into the eyes of its driver. He said with his famous screeching and uncharismatic tone: “The truest Child of God feels the plight of the other, seeks not to inflict harm upon them, does good on to those suffering, and is not consumed by his own self. In him is the power to talk well of the World and the shunning of ill. And his mind is pure, untainted, and tender.”
Amidst the chaos unfolding, he thought about the plight of the marginalised. India has attained a state wherein there was not a single politician who would come to raise their voice or be seen with the marginalised because their vote bank was affected by such sightings. He shook his head in disbelief and looked behind to Subramaniyam and Altaf to start singing bhajan songs. As his retinue sat on the road blocking the path of the bulldozer, the loud roar of the machine was calmed as the frail man neared it. The ram-dhun was now clearer to ears. The Mahatma tried to balance his body and climb onto the huge machine to try and reason with the driver. Seeing this from above, the driver-- a plump dark-skinned man with a towel wrapped around his head-- quickly hurried down the railing shouting 'Bapu, I'm coming down, please don't struggle'. He swiftly reached the ground with a big jump from above and fell on the feet of the Mahatma. Wrapping his hand on the driver's shoulder, Bapu said "At times, non-co-operation becomes as much a duty as co-operation. No one is bound to co-operate in one's own undoing or slavery." Pointing at the women and children who stood at the gateway of the masjid crying, and the men who were aghast and devastated by looking at their shops crushed to the ground, Bapu continued "These children and women are no different from you. You are them, they are you. By continuing to co-operate with tyranny, you are harming yourself. There is no guarantee that for a crime in your area, that has nothing to do with you, your house would not be demolished by another machine in days to come. If it is them today, it would be you tomorrow." The man fell to Bapu's feet crying and went on to join the bhajan. "Jai Shri Ram" a tumultuous, aggressive shout of many men brandishing swords and wearing saffron 'Pagdis' mellowed the sound of Bapu's bhajan. They arrived with a battalion of men, who shouted slogans that demanded the extermination of Muslims in India. Just as they entered, the police arrested the Mahatma and his followers. Bapu turned around to speak "No Satyagrahi must resist arrest. Wear this as a badge of honour and walk to the courts with me."
A media anchor walked with Bapu with her mic and face close to him, as she started to speak, a saffron-clad man with a sword put his face next to hers and shouted into the mic "Gandhi ka raam bechaara hai, asli raam hamaara hai" (Gandhi's Ram is pitiful, our Ram is the true one). Bapu shook his head again saying "Tch tch..Ram Ram" he said.
Both Bapu and the men took the name of the same God, one called for peace another for the extermination of 20% of the country. The anchor started her account "These are the scenes that are unfolding here", she spoke to her viewers, "The Andolanjivis, as our honourable prime minister describes them, are being arrested for doing what they usually do, stopping the law from taking its course. The bulldozers are now being driven by the Ram Sena members into the houses of Jahangirpuri".
Just as she finished her sentence, a strong thud interrupted her from speaking the next. It was followed by the wail of a woman with a kid on her hip. The wall of justice that protected the innocent had fallen just as mother India wailed, still trying to hold onto her marginalised children with a tight clasp.