Photo: Arthur Simoes/Shutterstock

Coversations With the Great Grandson of Gandhi

Mumbai Interviews Activism
by Robert Hirschfield Sep 13, 2013

I expected the great grandson of the Mahatma to be thin, to have the beginnings of the old man’s face of saintly collapse. But Tushar Gandhi, who greeted me at the door of his spare ground floor flat in Santa Cruz, near the Mumbai airport, had the beefy, bearded face of a football lineman. A face that looked eager to escape its name.

I thought I’d find looking around a picture of Gandhi somewhere, but found instead a quiet yellow painting of Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife, at her spinning wheel. Symbol of Indian simplicity and self-sufficiency. Hard not to be moved by it after the two-hour crawl of Mumbai traffic.

At one point, Tushar’s slender teenage daughter in hip-hugging blue jeans came in to ask her father for money. He dug into his pocket obediently. I could have been in the home of any ordinary middle-class Indian family.

Tushar Gandhi, in his mid-fifties, was a devotee in his youth of John Wayne. (“I thought the quick draw was the solution to every problem.”) As an adult, he has become one of the family’s most visible proponents of nonviolence.

“My following Gandhi had nothing to do with genetics. My father said, ‘Don’t accept Gandhi because I accept him. Study him and decide for yourself.’ I read everything Gandhi wrote, and came to the conclusion that only through nonviolence do human beings have a future.”

“We have lost our today,” he told me, “but we haven’t lost our tomorrow.”

Arun, Tushar’s father, gave me his son’s email address before I left for India. I had written about Arun’s visit to the West Bank, where large crowds of Palestinians, devout Muslims among them, turned out to hear a Hindu urging them to resist the Israeli occupation with unrelenting nonviolence. It made me think of the enduring mystique of the Gandhi name that has lost much of its significance in today’s India.

Tushar informed me that Gandhi wanted his Congress Party to include adherence to nonviolence in its manifesto.

“Party leaders balked at the idea. For them, nonviolence had been just a convenient method of getting independence. It was like medicine that passed its use-by date.”

I thought that a particularly apt image for this man who travels around India dispensing his great grandfather’s medicine, for which there were few takers. He was undeterred. In 2005, on the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s Salt March, he re-enacted the 235-mile trek from the Mahatma’s Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to the sea at Dandi, where the Indian leader had his marchers make salt in defiance of the British monopoly on Indian salt manufacture.

Tushar wrestled with his generation the way dissidents traditionally do. He hated Congress, but he voted for Congress, fearing the Muslim-baiting nationalist alternative. He conformed, I was sad to discover, to the politics of bad choices, just as we do here in the US.

It energized him, he said, to bring his message to the young. “We have lost our today,” he told me, “but we haven’t lost our tomorrow.”

Young Indians will ask him about terrorism, about nonviolence in the age of terror.

“They will ask me, ‘How do you disarm a suicide bomber nonviolently?’ They don’t ask, ‘What turns a human being into a suicide bomber?’”

He asks them to imagine a reality where death is considered preferable to life. A reality of irreconcilable grievances and irreconcilable resentments.

“I say to them, ‘You can stop a terrorist with a bullet, but you can’t stop terrorism with a bullet.’”

It was the great man’s voice I was hearing.

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