Some months ago, my mother-in-law brought home an old issue of a Gujarati magazine that contained a letter written by Harilal Gandhi to his father, Mahatma Gandhi. It was a painful note, full of the sorrow of a lost relationship caused by what the son believed was an overbearing father.
Soon, the evening was consumed by the tantalizing subject of Gandhi. We were a motley group of old, middle-aged and young—but all middle-class urban Indians. Almost inevitably, debates about his family life resulted in rising temperatures.
At one point, Swati (my wife) posed a question: “What if you were Gandhi’s closest adviser, and his choices were to either work for independence or be a great father and husband—he could only do justice to one of these. What advice would you give him?”
An obvious question is: “Why can’t he do both?” But she deliberately left only two options to push the debate, and underscore the challenges in our choices.
Most of the advice veered towards telling Gandhi to fight for independence, for differing reasons. One said that large-scale results demanded personal sacrifice; another said that this was the price of greatness, not all of us can lead the country.
A few were of the opinion, quite emphatically, that family came first. “If each of us took care of our families, that is enough, isn’t it?” But we would not be an independent country, and millions of lives would still not be free.
It is a difficult question to answer. But the debate opened up a different seam in the conversation, about the mind of the middle class.
It is only human to think of our own needs, especially those of our family. After all, we choose to have children, and, therefore, have an obligation to them. But it is also important to see the links to society at large.
Imagine if we were living in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Palestine. Almost nobody there has any control over their personal lives. Children cannot go to schools. Often girls cannot step out of houses. Boys get shot at, sometimes not coming home. In many cases, they fight back, making tragic choices in the process. Women get raped, law and order is missing. The social fabric is torn. In this situation, thinking only about one’s family is a utopian dream.
If a society has to function, it requires millions of selfless acts. It is like a never-ending carpet that is being woven, with each successive generation picking up the threads and doing their bit. Some societies are at an advanced stage, where the carpet is well-woven already; others like Afghanistan have had their social carpets shredded, and have to start over again. This work is not the responsibility of government, it begins with the people first taking responsibility. If we admire other societies, we are admiring the work of millions of people, over scores of generations. We are admiring their social carpets.
Despite all the weaknesses, our own carpet in India is far from threadbare. We are lucky to be living in a society that is shaped by thousands of large-hearted people. I have personally met many, both inside government and outside it. They are everywhere, and yet they are invisible. Helping street children, fighting for women’s issues, standing for hours at the traffic lights in the dust and smoke directing vehicles, taking burn victims to hospital, and so on. The list is endless.
The problem is that this is hard to do, with all the responsibilities that we already have. And it gets harder in a fast-paced, market-driven economy. Everyone needs more money for the necessary things in life, children need to study harder to get ahead, there are parents and in-laws to take care of, the home, the help… The list is endless. It is hard to find time to do all this, and simultaneously pick up a thread to weave the fabric of society!
While this argument is legitimate, I am reminded of Boniface Prabhu, a disabled Bangalore sportsman who, in a wheelchair, not only goes on to win the world special tennis championship, but also finds time and energy to start an academy for others like him.
So the issue is one of “problem definition”, of starting points. The starting point has to change—that improving society is indeed a personal responsibility, not meant only for “other” people, whatever the source of their “other-ness” may be. If this starting point moves, and each of us begins to see our empty space at the carpet, with the loose thread, we make a beginning. Motivating ourselves to get there and start weaving requires discipline and dedication, like everything else in life.
There are still so many empty spaces at the Indian carpet. Going back to Gandhi, it strikes me that our debates are not really about him, but about each of us. The question, therefore, should be: “Why can’t we do both?”
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at email@example.com