Noted Assamese poet Nabakanta Barua wrote a famous poem decades ago, with the title that translates into English as ‘There was a river here’. It describes in pretty ominous and disturbing words how the desert creeps in with slow invincibility.I used to nurse a feeling of dislike and disdain for it as it seemed to bracket out human agency. But I must admit that the social and political processes around me seem to reflect exactly the same kind of slow horror.
Recently one much younger in age awakened me to the significance not only in the current brazen re-writing,but also in the monstrous re-writing of history. I had read the news about the atrocious scheme to re-build Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram as a grand monument with a scornful shrug,thinking,’So they would stop at nothing’.But one younger to me by more than three decades shot through my wall of indifference by pointing out that the same architect designing the Central Vista has been assigned the task of reconstructing the historic ‘ashram’. This is indeed likely to be a project to re-make history.The response to it has not been as massive as it should have been,partly for people like me not getting its real sense.
The essence of Gandhijee’s life and teaching, reflected in the Ashram,was its simplicity.I do think it recalls us to a sense of futility of artificial grandeur of power and pomp.So much in the world today is engaged in distracting us from simple things.Like for instance the basic dignity and value of a human life.(I deliberately refrain from using the word ‘self’).
Progressives often dismiss Gandhijee as an unpractical or hypocritical idealist.But as Ramachandra Guha’s painstaking research documents in GANDHI,THE YEARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, Gandhijee had taken the first ever concrete political step to address the woes of the oppressed farmers of colonial India at Champaran, Bihar.That is what made him a household name among the peasantry in North India.At Sabarmati he not only enforced caste equality by making all members from Brahmins to ‘untouchables’ to share every kind of work from cooking to cleaning latrines but engage in a community of lived equality.Those who glibly accuse Gandhijee of hypocrisey should ponder on its significance.It brought home to all members that no work is actually mean or lowly in itself.That during the freedom struggle he had not made it the main plank of his programme did not mean that he had ignored or underestimated it.Perhaps he overestimated the power of moral imagination,but that was his mission and he paid for it with his life.
The greatness and nobility of it remain a threat to gross minds drunk with an exaggerated vision of power of man over fellow-humans.That appears to be the driving force behind the urge to monumentalise his vision.This is on a par with other designs to drown everything under a downpour of sham grandeur.Few realise the full horror of this project.Perhaps commerce,by soaring to the position of dominant element in life,has vulgarized us all and made us believe fervently in tinsel grandeur in all spheres of life.Modern communicative technology,serving as its instrument,has acted like the creeping desert in the poem.As human beings we ought to cherish life in its basic simplicity and not worship false gods that deny human warmth and fellowship.
Before I end I would like to refer in passing to the wholesale reversal of curriculum of history which should help ,in however changing ways,in making sense of social life.As T.S.Eliot wrote with memorable pithiness:”History may be servitude/History may be freedom’.By making the rising generations oblivious of the role of Akbar the great,whom we have since our childhood been asked to venerate along with Ram,the way is being built to invite hordes of Hindu Talibans into the inmost sanctuary of our souls.Re-making of the Mahatma seems to belong to the same species of banal but deadly evil.
Hiren Gohain is a social scientist and literary critic