GANDHI: A Way of Life (Gandhian Philosophy)

Satbir Chadha
I never met Gandhi, I was born later in 1950, but Gandhi was everywhere all the time. Everything discussed in our circles had a prefix or suffix of what Gandhi would have said, what he would have believed and how he would have reacted, to the extent that when something went wrong in the public domain, it was said that had Gandhi still been there, he’d have never let it happen. For a long time, he posthumously guided Indian thought, India’s policies and principles, literally ruled our hearts and actions.
I never met Gandhi, and by the time I grew up, India had gone through wars, droughts floods and strife. It was in those post- China war times that I finally met him. Well, I came in touch with ‘Gandhian’ and learnt first-hand, the Gandhian philosophy, Gandhian morality and Gandhian way of life.

I was in college in Bombay, the Sophia College, which was pioneering the introduction of SUPW ‘Socially Useful Productive Work’ in educational institutions, and under the programme, we had adopted an Adivasi village five kilometers from Dahanu Road railway station, a village that lived in abject poverty, had seen no development or education, thriving on meagre agricultural holdings, growing a single crop of paddy in the year, to try and improve their living conditions.

On the first trip, we, a group of fifteen volunteers were introduced to the Block Development Officer, the Bal Sevikas, and one Shri Gangawane, an unassuming man who sat upright wearing a Dhoti-Kurta and a Gandhi cap, and were told that he would be our guide on this project. He had worked with Gandhiji for years and lived his life by Gandhian principles, undiluted.  
Over the weeks that we worked with him, we realized their relevance in every sphere of life. It was evening and we were led to our evening meal, where Gangawane asked us to join him in a thanksgiving prayer before we broke bread, or the ‘Jowar Bhakri’ we were served there. After the meal we all washed our thalis, and retired to the courtyard, where he shared a couple of interesting anecdotes from Gandhiji’s life and his personal experiences. Then he asked us to share some jokes in order to have our share of daily laughter, which was enlightening.
Gandhi lay enough stress on humour too, he was not all sobriety. Important lesson indeed, to go to bed relaxed.
We were told to be up at six o’clock next morning, and assemble at six fifteen, for a half hour of Bhajan singing, and we all had to sing together, “This is Gandhiji’s rule,” he said. Then after a frugal breakfast, again a Gandhian rule, we set out to the fields, where we tried to chat up the locals, and generally introduce ourselves that we had come to help them, and try to befriend them, though they were naturally wary. We showed them the packets of fertilizer that we had taken and tried to demonstrate their use in order to increase the output of rice, but they resisted violently, saying that we will be inviting bad spirits by doing that. Gangawane ji said not to press it much, and amicably turn back. Then before supper he said, “Gandhiji does not give up, nor shall we, be ready four of you volunteers at ten o’çlock at night” and accompanying him we went to three selected fields, and he showed us how to spray the fertilizer accurately over one corner of the fields.
The following week we went back to the fields and showed the farmers how the paddy in that corner was taller, greener and had more flowers, and that no spirits had invaded them. Then they fell at his feet and kissed our hands and were eager to use it, all the villagers were convinced in the next week, and for the first time they saw such a big crop, and showered copious blessings on us young girls.

Next, Gangawane took us to see their huts and how they lived, because he said Gandhi believed in total reform. They were mostly mud houses, two small rooms and a courtyard, with a hole in the wall in each room, for at night they were loath to go in the open to wash their vessels or hands, or even answer the call of nature. He told me to examine the shape of the groove they had dug to let the water out, and as I put in my hand to check, warm liquid flowed on to my fingers, and quickly Gangawane signalled me to not make a sound, explaining, “We are here to help them, we should smile even at their children urinating on us, for that is what it was, remember for these poor people their children are their wealth, and we need to spread only love.”
Back at the base, he explained, “Did you notice, the villagers grow no vegetables, they only eat what grows on trees, naturally, like tamarind, or an occasional mango or guava, none cultivated, So tomorrow we shall plant a sapling of a drumstick tree in every courtyard, for it grows well even unattended, and every part of the tree gives nourishment, so that they learn to eat foods other than rice.”
We had learnt that they mostly ate only rice with or without salt, and often moistened with tamarind water, that their consumption of oil was a measly half litre per year per family. Then he said to me, “You remember where you checked the hole from where they pour out their water from the huts, and also where they urinate, we will dig that hole into a slant and guide it to where we plant the tree, so that the sapling gets watered automatically, and their urine will fertilize it too. “

Well that is the Gandhi I met, one with devotion to the task undertaken, and with foresight, and utter respect to the poor. 
Over weeks we gained the trust and friendship of the farmers. We took vegetable seeds for them, and created patches where they could grow them and planted them. The villagers promised to water the seedlings, but Gangawane did not press them for fertilizer, instead he devised an unusual project for us, saying that this is how Gandhiji would have gone about it. 
We branched out, each one of us counting the family members of the families we visited, and then he explained to the villagers that since, they were loath to go out to defecate, we would build small toilets outside their huts. Spade in hand, we had to dig a rectangular pit, at the edge of their courtyards. He asked us to calculate the dimension of each pit according to the number of people in the family saying, “ Each person passes an average of 300 ml of stool in a day, and we have to make the pit to last at least six months before it fills up, urine anyway will seep through the ground, now Girls, each of you do your calculation and have the pit ready by evening, duly patted with wet mud to give it a clean shape, and don’t forget to put two thick stones on the two sides for them to keep their feet.” The next week we were thanked endlessly. 
But would Gandhi stop there? Never! 
Our next project was to give a roof to the toilet, using natural materials. We were to collect the dried\drying fronds of coconut trees, and lay them criss- crossed over each other, sticking each layer together with a paste of some clayey soil and some sand from the seashore, and put together five layers thus stuck together, then dry them thoroughly in the sun. He told us this was now strong enough, almost like cement. Then we had to fix four logs dug sturdily in the ground, also collected from random trees, and tie the roof to them, and Gangawane taught us the ropes, I mean the types of knots that would withstand the wind and rain.
But that was not all. Then the Gandhian gave us the project for the next week, we had to make another toilet for each home that they could use both alternatively, and while one was used, the other would become natural fertilizer for their vegetable patch.
 I think back and perceive the intensity of each action, from early morning start, the frugal meal before the hard work, the participatory hymn singing, the detailed planning, and above all, the respect due to each human being. Lessons learnt there have stood me well at various stages of life, and I have to think of Ganagwane ji, a true Gandhian, to know at least a small percentage of Gandhiji’s stature, for the same principles applied to nation building, to International relations, and to humanity at large. Unforgettable lessons for me, as much as perseverance and staunch love of peace, have been the value of being with your roots, reverence to the earth and the soil, and love and respect to the poor, and that is what Gandhi taught me, when I met him.

BIO: Satbir Chadha is a writer who lives in Delhi, with her heart in the hills of NainiTal. She thrives on friends visiting her and breaking bread with her.
She is the author of FOR GOD LOVES FOOLISH PEOPLE, a memoir. Her second novel BETRAYED is a medical thriller. BREEZE is her first solo collection of poems. Her second collection is GLASS DOORS, and THE LAST LAMP is the latest.

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