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Two Gandhis, an emulator and newsmongers

Maithreyi Karnoor | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

Tall order: The freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan unwittingly lent his famous title to Adnad Gandhi, a resident of a town in the Deccan Plateau   -  PIB/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The idea of what constitutes freedom is still unclear in independent India

‘Adnad Gandhi’ is a term that’s thrown around a lot in my home: An esoteric, light-hearted insult for anyone who does contradictory things. I used to take it for a random adjective-noun pairing like Buddhu Ram or Than-Than Gopal. Turns out it is the name of a specific person from several generations ago back in my home town in northern Karnataka. He was a man who wanted to emulate Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — even if in very frivolous ways. He consumed peanuts and goat’s milk in the mornings, and wore only a loincloth in the first half of the day. His home being a village in sultry Deccan Plateau made his sartorial choice a comfortable one. He was a contemporary of the Gandhi whose iconic image was acquired by many with patriotic pride in various ways.

Pitch a yarn: ‘Adnad’ Gandhi adopted MK Gandhi’s sartorial choices and wore a loincloth, but only during the daytime   -  VV KRISHNAN

 

The sleepy town lifted its head up from quiet navel-gazing every once in a while to make note of an event happening in a distant land that spoke in strange tongues — a land that had been forged with it to form a nation through bewildering interventions. News travelled slowly and clumsily and was absorbed with boredom and resignation in equal parts and was mostly milked for little more than mirth and Socratic arguments by the leisurely class in post-siesta sessions. This of course is in sharp contrast to the present times where news is as much the medium as the message.

It was through such a trickle of treacle-flow-like information that someone in this town had heard of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun freedom fighter who was nicknamed ‘Frontier Gandhi’, which translated as ‘Gadinad’ Gandhi in Kannada. They listened only long enough to make a play on it to label the silly doppelganger in town as Adnad (corrupt) Gandhi.

Perhaps the leisurely class discussed why a movement for “freedom” would culminate in “independence” as if colonialism was little more than benevolent hand-holding for countries to emerge as modern nations: The ending of administrative ‘dependency’ on European training wheels, and not a revolution against economic exploitation and political slavery. But the class that might have had the time and the cultural capital to ponder over such linguistic nuances of history-in-the-making was more distracted with dreams of political musical chairs — occupying positions about to be vacated by a foreign power in order to maintain and sustain the lopsided social status quo — and threw this debate into an etymological abyss, and concentrated on nicknaming its prodigal sons.

Adnad Gandhi was also a proud Maratha and believed in being battle-ready at a moment’s notice, which he endeavoured to do by eating mutton in the evenings. Talk of freedom of a certain kind was in the air and anyone worth his British-taxed salt wanted a piece of the credit when it would be doled out. So, he straddled two spheres: One of breakfast Gandhiness and the other, a dinner warriorness, and poised with food for thought on which way to swing in the ongoing freedom movement. His attire also changed to the respectability of the dhoti-kurta when he went about his business — of starting quarrels. He was known to be followed by the green-eyed monster, which he took with him to start feuds of fidelity and property between married couples and brothers. He then egged the beleaguered families into filing litigations and made a living by the cuts he received from lawyers. But in that sepia-hued time, society was halved into haves and have-nots, and Adnad Gandhi rarely had access to the haves while the warring have-nots sweated little more than small money. The townspeople tolerated him with mild amusement as they were not a humourless bunch, and were known to be more accommodating of idiosyncrasies than we now are.

It was the age of satyagraha, which people adopted for causes far and wide. Adnad Gandhi came into his own during one such satyagraha that was to take place to usher in rains during a drought. The main man, a Brahmin priest, who was supposed to sit on a fast until it rained, withdrew from the scheduled event at the last moment because he had to stay home and cook in place of his menstruating wife. The pandal had been raised, groups of bhajan singers summoned to keep a musical vigil and the event couldn’t be called off. The organisers were in a fix. But seeing this as an opportunity to be finally taken seriously, Adnad Gandhi volunteered to fast. He sat on the stage, initially enjoying the respect and attention that came his way. But three days into the fast with well-fed singers for company, he began wondering if being Gandhi was his cup of goat’s milk after all. On the fourth night, when the last of the singers had put his harmonium away and called it a day, Adnad Gandhi quietly stole away into the dark and escaped. But a couple of hours later, it suddenly began raining. Not wanting to miss out on the gratitude and glory that was rightfully his, he decided to head back. But weakened by hunger, he couldn’t reach the satyagraha site on time while the townsfolk reached the spot with garlands and gifts to felicitate their saviour. Upon finding him missing they quickly turned from grateful gathering to angry mob. But mobs in those days stopped to ask questions before attacking people. Confronted by this sudden investigation, Adnad Gandhi gave the first excuse that popped in his head: That he had gone to answer the call of nature. But the villagers knew that nature which abhors a vacuum doesn’t summon people who haven’t eaten in days. They proceeded to thrash him but let him off since lynching wasn’t yet so much as a glint in a nationalist’s eye. Perhaps because there was still no ‘independent’ nation.

Adnad Gandhi sought security from the police but the police laughed him away. They did, however, warn the locals to leave him alone henceforth. This man lived out his days in relative bliss, subject to little more than an occasional jibe or a taunt from a compatriot.

***

Who’s the loudest of them all: With high-decibel information oozing out of every pore, the independent nation thumps its chest like King Kong on shore leave   -  REUTERS/ FRANCIS MASCARENHAS

 

Cut to 2020, the world is one in disease but identity wars continue ceaselessly in newsrooms that are sites of hate-filled rhetoric. Armies of news warriors jab an unarmed young woman with long microphones accusing her of every crime in the world for loving without marrying a man who died. The same army accosts a postman who merely happens to be outside a damaged building. This construction belongs to another young woman who had straddled two possibilities: A superficial claim at an emancipatory ideology before abandoning it for post-truth populism. She assumes a self-righteous demeanour as she fights the underdog with the bravado of a street brawler. She plants herself firmly on the side of the powerful and endeavours to throw everyone whose face she didn’t like under the Shivneri Volvo. But unlike Adnad Gandhi, she is given gun-toting security.

Back then, the ill-informed world was a kinder place. People made what they could of what they knew and dealt with aberrations with amusement and mockery. Now, with high-decibel information oozing out of every pore, the independent nation thumps its chest like King Kong on shore leave.

In the novel A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, the protagonist Vasudevachar, shocked and disturbed by Gandhi’s assassination and the violence that follows, suggests to his son that he write a postcard to the ‘Badshah’ of Britain saying we are unable to manage our new nation and request him to kindly come back and reclaim it. The innocence of that thought when juxtaposed with the following scene from the Kannada film Thaayi Saheba by Girish Kasaravalli may make a moot point for the abstraction between independence and freedom:

A wealthy landowner who is a freedom fighter assembles the village people before his manor on the midnight of August 15, 1947, and dressed in silk for ritual purity raises the tricolour and sings the national anthem in a loud and off-key voice. The peasants are baffled by this ritual and one of them remarks to the other, “The desai seemed all right until yesterday. What has gotten into him now?”

Equivocal as it was, perhaps the event was one of independence after all, where the dependency was on blissful ignorance. From there, upon reaching a place where, charged by the chaos of news bites, we chase the postman — metaphoric and real — like a pack of dogs, real freedom seems like a long way away.

Maithreyi Karnoor is a writer based in Hubli. Her novel Sylvia will be published in 2021

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Published on September 25, 2020
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