Maverick: The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Aug 7, 2007
Bluntly put, Mahatma Gandhi was afraid of his son Harilal. “To the people he was a father…To his son he was the father he never had” says the subtitle of the new film Gandhi My Father. This is itself a misnomer. Gandhi was never the father of the people; he was the father of the nation. To the people he was the Mahatma, a greater soul.
Like many fathers in the subcontinent, Gandhi was in competition with his son for the potential of him taking over as man of the house and his wife’s attention. To handle the first threat he denied him conventional education and for the second he adopted celibacy as a means of giving Kasturba the position of his mother. The son, denied his Oedipal attachment, sought out prostitutes.
Put sexual self-denial/destruction in the context of the family unit and you will see how universal the story is. The normal person here is the son and not the father.
Gandhi was at an age when he should have felt settled. He was not. When he talked extensively about his battle with lust, it would be easy to classify it as frustration. Harilal was mirroring it all the time and that must have been disturbing.
Individual angst is a microcosm of the dysfunctional nature of society and even larger political issues. When the son converted to Islam at the age of 50, it again brought to the fore Gandhi’s assumption that he was still a child who would go to the “highest bidder”. As he wrote, “Harilal's apostasy is no loss to Hinduism and his admission to Islam a source of weakness to it, as I apprehend, he remains the same wreck that he was before.”
The fact is that the father was struggling with his own spiritual moorings. He was trying to base a fight for freedom on the foundation of morality gleaned from epics. His political arena was an ashram. The son turning to a religion which would in effect brand the father a kafir was a blow not to his paternal instinct but to the idea of his own godliness.
Gandhi was essentially the Nowhere Man suddenly trapped in the standards of the new world, which his ostensibly simple sensibilities could not grasp. If you care to look out of your window and spot a man who is either smiling too much, or walking far too purposefully or getting more restless than is necessary, then this is the man who has no answers as to what went wrong, and how and why.
So, he regresses, hoping to unveil today’s revolution by using yesterday’s bravado. He starts at home with the new arsenal in his battle against an imagined opponent – his spouse. The only way he can assert that he is in charge is by making rules. Some lines need to be drawn for him not to break inside.
Kasturba became a caricature of a housewife forced into becoming an ideological sidekick. She was expected to get everything right, and be in control not only of external situations but of her emotions. She had the constantly pained look and fake smile of somebody who had to hold back.
Harilal was seeking a role-model and instead found parents prone to Kodak moments of lobotomised bliss. He naturally became obsessive, but there was clarity in his thinking. As he did not fit into a mould, he could fashion himself the way he wished. It is to his credit that his rebelliousness was positive in that he did not worry about playing to the gallery. It is here that a political statement comes out with the greatest force. Do we have to remain outsiders to be truly contented? Does being snubbed act as a spur to freedom?
In the devious little trick film Lage Raho Munnabhai, that is now considered a contemporary classic, the protagonist buffers the ‘spirit’ of Gandhi. Interestingly, we have a goon without a family lecturing a bunch of old men deserted by their families. All the subjects for the Gandhigiri experiment are what society deems to be dysfunctional people.
Therefore, let us forget whether he was a good father or not. Was Gandhi, the statesman without a state, a good father of the nation? His aphorisms amount to the inheritance of candyfloss that gets sticky after a while. In a nation that was to be created as a secular republic he was pushing the idea of god. When there was talk of an honourable settlement between the Hindus and Muslims almost a decade before Partition, he had said, “My faith in unity is as bright as ever; only I see no daylight but impenetrable darkness and in such distress I cry out to god for light.”
His idea of Ram Rajya has today become cause for an acrimonious second, albeit mental, partition. And what has happened to the Harijans, children of god? Don’t we realise that this whole toilet-bowl existence he sanctified as dignity of labour has left millions of people still in the Grade 4 category of jobs? It took an Ambedkar to truly empower them as Dalits. Non-violence? Is there such a movement today? We have a South African, Nelson Mandela, speaking up for it after having been branded a terrorist in the past.
Let us get real. We don’t need a Harilal to tell us that the Gandhi bubble had burst long ago and become a mere ghost along one more M.G.Road.