Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Gandhi, King, Lewis and others who lit an eternal flame of valour

The crashing monsoon rain beyond the shut windows and the hushed tones is as alive as this morning. Blurting out my defiance of insufferable oppression with all the might of a seven-year-old is also vivid. So is the cutting glare from my Mausi (aunt), my best friend, barely having entered college then, and her whispered warning, “You will also be jailed and so will all of us." All this in the dining room of my Nana’s (maternal grandfather’s) bungalow in Bhopal, back in 1975.

Then they went back to talking about “JP, George and Dharia" in low voices. At some point, I heard Nana mention a king, and that had he been alive, he would have come, to struggle in solidarity, for the freedom of the people who gave him Gandhi.

These days, about once a year, I run past that house—as all the others I have lived in—and their memories in that city which is home. Remembrances of that distant a time, form as they did in a child’s head, must be jumbled. But not in mine. I asked Nana who this king of ours was, who could not come to save us. That is how I first heard of him— when Nana said, “Not the king, but Martin Luther King, Junior." Since then, King and Gandhi have lived together in my head. Even when I have playfully jostled with who was the better of the two, they were inseparable.

By the time the Emergency was lifted, I was soaking up books, which, even to me now, seems totally incongruous with my age then. The number was also abnormal. Almost a book a day. So, I just cannot recollect where I read of the young man who stayed up one night in Nashville, writing a list of non-violent ‘do’s and don’ts’ to help his fellow students if they got arrested. The last point in that list was: “Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr". That this line was not a figment of my childhood imagination got settled only recently, when I read one of my most treasured gifts, Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, in which the incident is described as I remembered it.

I can’t recollect whether I read first about Dharasana or Selma. They are fused in my head. And into Webb Miller’s wrenching words that were first read by millions in mid-May 1930: “Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood, I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls."

The first skull to be cracked open on 7 March 1965 in Selma was that of the young man who led the 600 protesters across that bridge. And he was the same young man who prayed to the flame that passed from Jesus to King, through Gandhi and Thoreau.

Thus, John Lewis became muddled in my head with Gandhi and King and Thoreau. When I saw the terrifying Dharasana scene in Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982, I saw Lewis fall. I read more about him. Never methodically, but just along the way in my chaotic but copious reading. His preaching to chickens as a child because he wanted to be a priest, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, leading the March on Washington in August 1963, and more. Forever in good trouble—as King had advised him.

While my heroes are muddled in my head, my memories of events are clear all the way back to the age of three, when sirens would blare at night during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. Lying on the floor in my Mausi’s room, in the usual scorching summer afternoon of Raipur, I remember picking up a book with a green cover. It was 1979, and by then my Nana had moved from Bhopal to Raipur. I didn’t drop it till I finished it late that night. The back-flap listed the author’s other books. The next morning, I went with Nana, who dropped me at his university’s library, which by then was used to the odd requests of a kid. They searched for the other books, and got me Under the Sea Wind and The Edge of the Sea.

Mausi and I fought the next two nights. She wanted me to switch off the lights, and I would not, lost as I was in Rachel Carson’s lyrical conjuring of the wonder of nature, magical enough to vanquish the atrocities of the Raipur summer. Ever since, a copy of Silent Spring has been with me, like the Gita or the Bible. And Rachel (she can’t be called Carson) is among my heroes.

Some years ago, I started going regularly to Washington DC. On every visit, I would think of trying to meet Lewis. And then my courage would fail. I was afraid that I would start crying when I saw him. He was himself and that was enough. But he was also King and Gandhi, and Selma and Dharasana. Not only because he crossed that bridge in 1963, but because he had kept crossing the bridge to good trouble, every day, since.

On 16 July 2020, I read one of Rachel’s countless resplendent lines again: “Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change." The next day, the 80-year-old Lewis passed away. And it dawned on me how completely wrong my hero Rachel was.

The life of Lewis and Rachel’s own life are no brief interludes. But eternal flames of moral clarity and courage. When I fail to carry that fire, you and others still will. Because they lived.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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