This is actually going to be a quick-ish post because my hand is in serious pain. Why? Because I spent all evening writing, by hand, using one of those Mitsubishi dot pens that I hoarded for writing exam papers. They still do write with lovely smoothness although all the writing probably felt lovelier because I settled down with pen and paper at 6pm, and the next time I looked up, it was 9.45pm. I could see the ink level was lower, there was no dinner since I’d been writing when I should have been cooking, but I had the beginning of a book. Yay! Down side: my fingers had turned into talons and were painfully stuff. I can’t remember how many pages an average exam meant back in the day, but I’m reasonably sure I could write 20-odd pages, cheerfully and painlessly at that. Now, after precisely 10 pages of scrappy notes, my digits are dying. But the fact that I have some sort of structure going for a book — one that has, gasp and double gasp, no brown people or India in it — is immensely satisfying. At the moment, anyway. I bet I’ll want to burn it all tomorrow.
However, I digress.
I finished reading Joseph Lelyveld’s “Great Soul” recently. Yes, the one where it is suggested that M.K. Gandhi may have made the beast with two backs with an architect Hermann Kallenbach during his South Africa years. I honestly don’t get why anyone’s got stroppy about those few pages. First, Lelyveld’s book is not about Gandhi’s sexuality. The Kallenbach affair is a tangent, a juicy tangent perhaps but it’s just a few pages of a reasonably fat book. Second, it’s amazing to me that Gandhi having a homosexual relationship is more problematic to Indians than him cuddling in the nude with his niece. But I digress, again.
The point is that from the bits Lelyveld has quoted of Gandhi’s writings recording his impressions of India once he came back after some 12 years in South Africa, Bapu-ji sounds pretty much like today’s expat or NRI (Non Resident Indian, or more accurately someone who is a Temporary Resident of Indian Origin). Of course, the fact is Gandhi was an NRI but I hadn’t noticed before how similar his observations are to stuff said by NRIs about India even today. Gandhi is disgusted about how dirty the country is; he complains about the crowds, the lack of infrastructure, the disorderliness and the absence of modernity. To my experience (which, courtesy the fact that I live in expat-heaven Bandra, is pretty substantial) these are precisely the points that every other NRI whines about when asked about India. And yet, like today’s NRI, Gandhi had a great sense of enthusiasm about India too. It eventually was tinged with much bitterness and the feeling that he was beating his head against a brick wall. The frustration that comes with the latter is something that I’ve seen in several NRIs and expats but many, like Gandhi, want to stay here all the same. Something else struck me. A lot of NRIs try to underline their Indian-ness when they’re here or in their little diaspora communities. For example, many speckle their English with Hindi/Punjabi/Bengali or insist on speaking in their “mother tongue”. Gandhi was doing the same when he decided to abandon the suits he’d worn in South Africa and wear the dhoti, even though none of his colleagues or contemporaries dressed like that. It’s not so much making an exhibition of one’s Indianness as emphasising it with extra gung-ho-ness.
You wouldn’t think the Father of the Nation thought like a contemporary NRI, but there you have it. M.K. Gandhi and the spiky-haired desi boy who works out of one of those damned hipster coffee places, hold mirrors to one another’s souls. Who’d have thunk…