Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gandhi and Gender

Mohandas K. Gandhi is still a major presence in India. His face appears on the front of all the currency and on stamps; his quotations appear on walls.

His title, "Mahatma," means Great Soul, "maha" (great), "atman"(soul).

During our walks and talks with Dr. Nita Kumar, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, she seemed to me like a living embodiment of the Mahatma--at least as close as I will ever get.

She admires Gandhi greatly, and at a dinner on our next to last night in India, we begged her to talk about him.

She told us much that is widely known: he lived 1869-1948, worked for many years in South Africa as a human rights lawyer, became dogmatically vegetarian (no cow's milk, eggs, butter), led India's struggle for independence from the British.

"He was a little mouse of a person," she said, known for his food fads.

But he had an instinctive sense of strategy and in meetings about how to achieve independence, one day said, "Let's have a strike." It became the key tool.

"People called Gandhi 'my mother,'" she said. "He was known for his fasting, his nonstitched clothes--like women's clothes. In fact, he was very effeminate."

Men in the British government stressed masculinity, sports, good sportsmanship. "The British saw Indians as effeminate," she said.

But Gandhi was very pro-woman and pro-India. His nonviolence, seamless non-Western dress, vegetarianism, and other practices amounted to a "delibate effeminization of India," she said.

Some of the other things she said about him, taken from his autobiography:

He was powerful, radical, innovative.

He did not appreciate pleasures: meat, wine, good food, good music, good art. He was all about denial and sacrifice; he probably would not have walked around the Taj Mahal as we did today.

"I see this as problematic!" Nita said.

In his twenties, however, he did love pleasures: dance, violin. He was quite a dandy.

The youngest child in an elite family, he didn't like school. In fact, he was very moralistic as a child and learned from his mistakes. In his autobiography he makes a point of confessing his follies, including a visit to a prostitute as a young man. He presents his life as a series of mistakes followed by repenting.

Married at 13 to a girl of 13, he says that at that time all he had on his mind was sex.

Later he became very much against child marriage, the caste system, and colonial education.

He had a son by age 19 or 20, went to England for his education, and became a lawyer. He was very shy and couldn't get a job in India, eventually securing a position as a lawyer in South Africa.

In South Africa he learned that both Africans and Indians were discriminated against by the British and German Afrikaaners. His encounter with racism in South Africa led him to decide, "I am a coloured person. I will fight for my rights and defend the legal rights of others."

Non-Christians marriages were not honored there; all Muslim and Hindu children were considered bastards.

After 20-25 years in South Africa (approximately 1890-1920), he returned to India. He set up an ashram, founded two newspapers, tried to raise funds--but met with failure in these and many other enterprises. If something failed, he didn't care. He tried something else.

He grew increasingly vegetarian at a time when very few other people chose that lifestyle. He refused to eat even cereal grains--only fruits or vegetables, raw or very lightly cooked, with dried fruits and nuts. He also ate sugar and chocolates.

"I've been so close to Gandhi that I'd go for a week at a time without cereals," Nita admitted. "It's very healthy, but I decided that was not for me."

"He was not seen as weird or shutting out people," Nita said.

His wife and he agreed to celibacy from a certain point on, but they were closely devoted to each other all their lives.

On January 30, 1948, he was assassinated.

From the I Love India website:

Gandhiji worked ceaselessly to promote unity between Hindus and Muslims. This angered some Hindu fundamentalists and on January 30, 1948 Gandhiji was shot dead by one such fundamentalist Nathu Ram Godse while he was going for his evening prayers. The last words on the lips of Gandhiji were Hey Ram.

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