The Time: 5.30a.m on 20th July, 1979.
The Place: Gandhi Statue on the Marina, Chennai.
A wee looking crow alighted on the bald top of Gandhi. After a moment's ponder the crow released the remains of the earliest worm caught by this very early bird. The warm substance caught Gandhi ' napping' as the cricket commentators on the radio, speak of butter fingered fielders. This awoke Gandhi with a start from a deep slumber caused by staying awake late in the night after having been unable to sleep as was the case every night due to the roaring of the waves.
It was natural for Gandhi to be in a irritable mood. The little hair, which the sculptor of that statue had created on the bald wicket to add majesty to the statue bristled in irritation (any further levels of anger were prohibited by the principles of Ahimsa). The bird sensing danger flew away,
" High time I left my pedestal and had a walk around," he muttered to himself. "A walk would remove the ache from my stiff limbs", he thought. With a sprightly jump, which would make any budding athlete lay off athletics for good Gandhi got of his pedestal and holding his cane firmly began his brisk walk which you can very well imagine.
Gandhi walked towards the sea making lonely impressions on the soft sand, which had been cleaned and swept by the tide of the night before. When Gandhi arrived at the waves, he was thrilled like a child by the magnificent glory of the Bay of Bengal and the rising ball of flame a.k.a.'The Surya Baghwan'. After performing “Surya Namaskhar” also known as obeisance to the Sun God, Gandhi was possessed by a sudden a desire to wet his feet in the water.
When Gandhi walked into the never failing waves he had the sudden notion that an early morning dip would be wonderful and invigorating since he had not had a bath for quite some time due to the monsoon forgetting it's date with Chennai. With this in mind Gandhi walked out further into the sea until the water came up to the level of his waist. Standing there and scrubbing vigorously, Gandhi was moved by a deep spiritual feeling and began to render a solo, of 'Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram' to the winds. After a long interval Gandhi came out of the water. He glanced to his right and found a jet-black man at the edge of the waves washing away remnants of his morning's ablutions - What the kids call number two.
Gandhi was dazed. He felt faint. The spirit in him drained out. However, Gandhi gathered himself in to control. When he began to use his mental faculties he felt it was quite alright. "When a few naturalists drink their own urine and feel fine why can't I bathe in my fellow man's waste matter?” he thought.
Gandhi removed his eyes from this unclean view and probed to his left. He could see a fisherman just arriving on his catamaran with his early morning catch. As Gandhi stood there waiting for his dhoti to dry, he watched the fisherman selling his catch. This sight reminded Gandhi of his early days in Gujarat. There was a loud argument between the retailer who would sell it at the market and the fisherman. Finally an agreement was reached and the fish changed hands for a few hundred-rupee notes. Gandhi was thrilled to see the poor fisherman receive such a huge sum for indeed in his days a man could take four annas (One anna was equal to six paise) to the market, buy provisions for the day and return with an annas change. Little did he know that currently even one hundred rupees was not sufficient to buy a day's provisions.
The fisherman walked hurriedly along the sands. Gandhi being curious to know where the fisherman was headed, followed him. The fisherman reached the main road and walked along it. A little distance away the fisherman charged into a dirty alley. Gandhi reached the alley a few seconds later and was shocked to find the man hurriedly gulping down dirty coloured water. As Gandhi stood staring a dark hefty looking individual approached him and grunted, “ten bucks for a glass of dynamite, twenty five bucks for three glasses of heaven". Not being dim-witted Gandhi could comprehend that this was illicit sharab and the destroyer of life, family and society. The dark thug further muttered, “This is not an exhibition. If you don't want to drink get lost or the cops will get ya". “Ram, Ram “exclaimed Gandhi as he hurriedly hobbled away. As Gandhi walked back to the beach he could see in his mind's eye the family of the fisherman waiting for their daily bread while the aforementioned fisherman drank his way to oblivion.
As Gandhi returned to the beach he could see the last of the health freaks disappearing in their six and seven figure vehicles. As he approached the empty pedestal where he had been standing all these years he saw a crowd gathered around it. This was the same type of crowd, which would gather to witness a snake charmer or the apprehension of a thief, anywhere in Chennai. “What’s up?" he questioned one of the urchins in the crowd. The young lad looked at him scornfully and said, "Some of these idol snatchers seem to have stolen that old man Gandhi". Like Christ when he confided his identity to the Roman soldiers Gandhi announced, “I that speak am he." The boy gave vent to a braying laugh. “You!" he exclaimed and turning to his friends and co-spectators he cried, "Hey Gang, come look at this mad old nut who has escaped from Kilpauk and claims to be Gandhi".
The crowd forgot the entertainment offered by the empty pedestal and turned on Gandhi for entertainment. A dark lanky youth who was evidently the leader of the gang came through the crowd and slapped Gandhi on the face. Gandhi fell backwards on to the floor and the crowd taking this as a cue began to pelt stones on the hapless Gandhi. With a muttered cry of 'Ram Ram' Gandhi picked himself up and mustering up his thread bare dignity galloped away from the reach of the stones where he slowed down and began to walk away .
After dusting himself in a dignified manner Gandhi muttered to himself “no respect for elders these days". As Gandhi headed North along the Beach road - sorry Kamarajar Salai - he came across lots of boys and girls loitering around a near by college. Many more were joining them by the minute as buses dumped them outside the campus. Gandhi stood silently watching the future citizens and leaders of India in action. Near Gandhi were two boys sitting astride their motorbikes. Gandhi approached these boys cautiously, due to the experience with the stone pelting hooligans and asked them " Don’t you have classes today?" one of the boys who looked like a Martian with his riding helmet perched on top, assumed that Gandhi was the worried parent of a student and replied, " Sir, today the student union is observing a token strike to protest against the lack of ceiling fans in the toilets. Today being a Friday the strike has also been called so that we can view any one of the new movies being released today. But sir", continued the boy "if your son or daughter comes back late today and tells you he has attended a special class you can be assured that this is the truth and that your son or daughter has not been to a matinee”. Gandhi finding this very abstruse replied, "All of you are my sons and daughters if you will accept me as the father of your nation".
Gandhi then turned to the other boy who was bespectacled and resembled a night owl caught outside in day light and asked him, “Son, have you read the Gita?". The boy stared at Gandhi for a minute as if trying to make out what was wrong with this old man, took out a pack of cigarettes offered one to Gandhi who politely refused, lit up, exhaled a thick stream of smoke and replied, " Oh sir! What sort of a question is this that you ask me? This is a question for the Gurukal (Pandit) of the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple. Now if you were to ask me about my classmate Gita, I could tell you a lot of spicy news which would excite even your old heart, since I have read her like a book ". Gandhi was thunder struck and stood with his mouth wide open like a gold fish, which had jumped out of water.
At that juncture an emaciated looking youth came panting like a steam engine run out of coal, to where the boys were gathered and cried out to the bespectacled smoker, "Hey Toady! That fat son of a… Ramesh has taken out your girl Gita to the movies. They were last seen at the bus stop waiting for a bus". At this the so called Toady let out an exasperated howl, kicked his mechanised steed to life and roared away towards the bus stop like a modern day knight bent on rescuing his damsel. The helmeted martian let out an yell as if he were one of Bruce Lee's brethren, started his vehicle and was gone hot in pursuit resembling one of those knight's squires. Gandhi was left choking and coughing in the trail of smoke left by the thoroughbred vehicles. The emaciated youth stared at the back of the fast disappearing bike and with a phlegmatic shrug walked off in the opposite direction just as if he were Narada, smug with the satisfaction of having started a war.
Gandhi walked further North on the same road. As he trudged on, he came to a multi-storeyed building in which many government offices were situated. Gandhi stood near the entrance to the building and watched the bee hive like activity inside. Many men and women were gathered around a particular spot and talking heatedly. Gandhi feeling that some government crisis was being resolved there, was curious to be in the know of things.
Gandhi soft footed to the group and stood on the outer periphery of the human mass. Peering over the shoulder of the man in front of him Gandhi found a water cooler in the middle and near it a betel chewing man who was using the water cooler as a lectern to explain his views on the causes of the Indian defeat at the hands of Australia in the recently concluded one day series in India.
Presently the man refreshed himself with a glass of ice-cold water and the conversation turned to a more pleasant vista, the film industry. In this the women folk joined in and gave out the latest on who was living with whom, who has had an illegitimate baby etc., etc. With disillusionment writ large over his face Gandhi walked out onto the road. Outside, a little distance away, the labour statue stood in frozen motion, as if to sympathise with the labour of all these esteemed government servants around the water cooler.
Gandhi began to walk back South towards his pedestal. Now the Sun was at its zenith and as Gandhi was tired due to his morning explorations and adventures, he decided to find a shady spot to rest his eyes and feet. Having chosen a nice medium sized tree with broad leaves on the lawn, which runs parallel to the beach, Gandhi stretched himself out on the wonderful lawn beneath the tree and settled down to the business of a well-earned nap. Before you could say "Satyagraha" Gandhi was fast asleep in the only land of bliss i.e., the land of dreams. Gandhi dream't of a new India, an India where there was reverence for all and everything good. An India where corruption, vice, arrogance and laziness could not be found even if searched for with a magnifying glass. Presently Gandhi began to emit a contented snore.
When Gandhi woke up from his dream he found that the day had progressed well into its last quarter and the shadows had lengthened. Filled with a drowsy laziness, Gandhi was content to remain stretched out on the lawn and tried his best to shut out reality for as long as possible. Gandhi faintly heard whispered sounds coming from the bushy hedge nearby. A few minutes later a youth of about twenty-five years, walked out from behind the bushes, looked furtively to left and right and walked away hurriedly.
Gandhi wanted to know what this fellow had been upto and raised himself up to investigate his sly behaviour. Gandhi went behind the bushes to find a woman in disheveled clothing counting a few rupee notes. On seeing Gandhi she tucked the money into her blouse, looked up at him and asked “Oh, Old man! Aren’t you a bit too old for this sort of fun?" At that instant a bulb lit up in Gandhi's brain and he realised that this woman was a practitioner of the oldest profession in the world. With a heavy heart Gandhi turned around cursing this sordid world, which made women live without self-respect.
Gandhi decided that it was his duty as an upright citizen to do something about it. He walked across the lawn and encountered a policeman who was patrolling the far side of the lawn. He walked up to him, "Constable, there is a woman behind those bushes who is behaving in a very dirty fashion and soliciting young men who pass by" he reported. The cop looked at Gandhi pitifully, “Don’t worry Sir, I shall do the needful" and with this he walked towards the bushes with his best parade walk.
Gandhi waited for the policeman to do his duty. Seconds passed and turned into minutes but still there was no sign of the policeman. Long minutes later the cop returned straightening his clothes. From his pocket peeped a few rupee notes. Gandhi was disgusted and realised the mistake he had made in thinking that all policemen were honest. The cop looked very happy and satiated. “Thanks for the tip sir", said the constable, "Can I get you a cup of coffee, Sir". Gandhi pulled a long face and walked away without replying to the cop.
Gandhi was depressed. The evening breeze had made its cool appearance along with many groups of people who had arrived for an evening on the beach. Gandhi espied a young couple sitting a few metres away. They were such a beautiful match that Gandhi decided that they were an incarnation of that holy pair, Rama and Sita. Gandhi was reminded of a cigarette advertisement caption, which he had seen during his days atop his pedestal - " Made for each other" - well, he thought they certainly were made for each other, though this man wasn't smoking but his wife certainly was - not a cigarette mind you but through her ears.
Gandhi craned his neck forward and could catch faint strains of their conversation as it floated through the air. The lady was holding court and the man was trying to pacify her. "You always take your mother's side. You don't bother whether I live or die. Your mother calls me all sorts of names and she talks of my family in such low terms that I feel I can kill myself ".
"Well dear, mother is old and we must respect her. Of course, I shall tell her not to call you or your family names".
"Oh! As if I don’t know you. Every time you take me out you are so heroic but once you go back and face your mother you curl up like a charmed snake. Now look at my cousin Sudha. Her husband does all that she asks him to. That good man gets her sarees and jewels every other day".
"Now look dear, I am fed up with your petty complaints and nagging. Why don't you let a man who comes back tired from office rest for a while? You and mother have nothing to do the whole day but fight. Why don't you women learn to live with each other instead of fighting each other…”
At this stage a small boy with a tin box and aluminium vessel in each hand, intruded upon their twosome, "Sir, sundal, murukku, melagu adai" he cooed. The man looked at the boy suspiciously hoping that he had not overheard their quarell. "Sir, sundal, murukku, melagu adai" , the boy repeated. The man looked at his wife inquiringly. She turned her face away from him and looked out at the waves. The sundal - boy realising that this was no time for him to hang around moved away letting his eyes rove around for prospective customers. He spotted Gandhi who had been watching him and made a beeline towards him.
"Sir, sundal, murukku, melagu adai?" queried the boy. Gandhi looked into the boy’s face and was shocked to see so tender a face looking back at him. The soft skinned cheeks, the luminous eyes like black pools, made Gandhi realise that the boy could be hardly ten years of age.
"How old are you, little one?" he asked. " Ten this ammavaasai sir" came the lisped reply. "Would you like to have sundal, murukku or melagu adai, sir?”
The boy was bent on business and did not desire any idle chatter. "Don't you go to school?" questioned Gandhi.
"How is that possible for a poor boy like me sir, moreover my Boss would not allow it sir” replied the boy. “Sundal sir?" he persisted.
“Your Boss?" exclaimed Gandhi. "Yes sir, I come from a village in the South. During the last drought my family had nothing to eat. Rather than starve, my parents sent me to the city with my boss when he came to recruit boys for this job. At least now I get three meals every day. There are 25 boys like me who work for my Boss and are patrolling the beach. If I don't sell this sundal before I go back, I will not be given supper sir" finished the boy. “Please buy some sundal sir" the boy pleaded.
Gandhi was visibly moved, “if only I had some money, I would buy the whole tin of sundal. But unfortunately I do not have a single paisa" he replied with a catch in his throat.
Like a bee, which is attracted by the bright colour of a flower only to find no nectar there, the boy buzzed off. Gandhi sat staring at the back of the boy as he weaved through the crowd peddling his wares.
A little distance away the boy stopped near a family of three, a man, his wife and their boy child. The lady purchased sundal, which the boy eagerly packed in paper. Meanwhile Gandhi was attracted by the behaviour of the head of that family. The man was letting his eyes rove around. Whenever he spotted a beautiful lady he leched at her with a literally drooling mouth. Gandhi could not understand the behaviour of this man. His beautiful wife being oblivious of her husbands ‘X-ray eyes’ was calmly playing with the kid. “One of those who does not realise that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" Gandhi mused.
Gandhi was closely observing the behaviour of this man that he was not aware of the passage of time or anything else, for that matter. The short tropical twilight had set in and streaks of pink and dirty yellow hues mingled with the greyish blue of the twilight sky to give it an unworldly beauty. Suddenly, Gandhi heard some one from behind call him “aiyah!” With a start Gandhi turned around to find himself confronted at close quarters by a ghastly looking beggar woman and his heart stopped beating for a moment.
The faint light played tricks with his eyes and the woman appeared to him like a ghost; her wild unkempt hair, and face full of boils with pus oozing out of them further heightened her ghostly appearance. The panic drained out of Gandhi when he realised that it was just an ordinary beggar woman. Gandhi waved her away as he had nothing to give her.
At that moment a leper came towards the part of the beach where this woman was begging. The old hag turned on him and began to pour abuse and hit out at the poor leper. "You moth eaten dummy. Why don't you beg in your part of the beach" she raved, " why do you. ……invade my stretch of the beach." She shouted. Gandhi burst out laughing for in this world even beggars possessed kingdoms and territories, had border disputes and invasions.
Gandhi noticed a large group of kids arriving at the outer fringe of the beach. They bobbed, jumped, hopped and skipped in their excitement as they walked in the sand towards the waves. As they came closer to where Gandhi was seated he could make out the eclipsed and harassed, couple, which was escorting these kids.
There were a dozen or more children in all. The youngest of them a mere baby was gazing around him in wonder from his perch on the hip of the lady. The lady looked old, tired, wrinkled and crooked from overwork and labour. The man resembled a scarecrow. On his shoulders sat a boy. Two young girls clung to him about his waist while a little boy tugged at his trouser leg.
Like a marathon runner at the end of his race, the poor gentleman dropped onto the sand. They lady also sat down by his side and admonished all the children to remove their foot ware. The children hurriedly tore at their legs, scattered slippers all over and with a whoop of joy began to run to the ocean.
Gandhi looked sympathetically at the man. “These children yours?" he queried.
The man shamefacedly nodded.
“How many?” Gandhi queried. "Fourteen" was the mumbled reply.
“Work?" probed Gandhi. "Clerk in the P.O".
Silence reigned for a little while. The kids returned from the water and pandemonium broke out. One child wanted a horse ride, another wanted his father to buy him an ice cream, and one kid jumped on the poor man's back and wanted to be taken piggyback. One kid ran around Gandhi in circles kicking the soft sand into his eyes. Gandhi tutted his sympathy and turned his face away from the miserable couple.
The sodium vapour lamps lining the beach road went on and an amber glow lit up the beach. The lighthouse, which was newly constructed, sent its powerful beam of light probing into the dark seas to warn ships of impending danger. Gandhi probed with his eyes looking through the various groups of young and old sitting around the beach enjoying the respite from a humid day.
All that remains for me is despair he thought. This country, which I once struggled to obtain freedom for…this country and its people, for whose welfare I wasted my life, this country's future, which I once dream't of has turned into a nightmare which every Indian has to undergo. Gandhi's mood turned almost suicidal.
Not far away a politician was howling through a microphone at an open air mass rally about the possibilities of a socialistic democracy, whatever that could be? Gandhi did not wish to head towards this gathering. He trudged wearily in the opposite direction not wishing to witness what would have been the greatest and final thrust to his breast.
The thunder of the waves wiped out the sound of the micro-phones bringing relief to his pained ear drums. The soothing roll of waves was medicine to his wounded spirit. Gandhi noticed a group of elderly gentlemen talking animatedly amongst themselves. They seemed pretty decent and reminded Gandhi of the people during his good old days. Gandhi closely studied these people and thought that they seemed to be retired people who had nothing better to do than relax on the beach after having sincerely served God, Country and Master. Gandhi wanted to spend some time with them and talk about the good old days.
As he neared them Gandhi could hear phrases such as criminalisation of politics, the politician - criminal nexus, caste based and communal politics etc. As he sat down near them a fair looking gentleman with sacred ash, vermilion and sandal paste smeared liberally on his forehead was saying, “---- I must agree with Churchill that handing over the destiny of the Indian masses into the hands of the Indian Nationalists was tantamount to handing over the same to rogues, scoundrels and free-booters"
Another gentleman with a bald head wearing a pure white cotton shirt and a white dohti sighed and said “I don't agree with you on this but I must add that life under the British was much more peaceful, economic, and prosperous than what we now have had for the past fifty years".
"Who said we attained freedom fifty years ago", screamed an obese individual well past seventy, who continued, “We are still enslaved by these crooked politicians".
Another gentleman who was bare bodied and only had a saffron dohti around his waist shook his arms vigorously and spoke passionately, " If only the amount of money which these rascals have swindled had been put to good use by linking the rivers all our problems would have been solved by now. Every year one part of the country has floods, which destroys many lives, crops, cattle and livestock, while another part of the country suffers from severe drought, which destroys many lives, crops, cattle and livestock. Even a simpleton like me can understand that linkage of rivers is the only solution to the problem and will lead to all round prosperity, while the big wigs in the planning commission cannot think of this answer".
The obese gentleman screamed once again, “it is not that they don't know the answer. The point is they don't want to provide the answer. The British followed the divide and rule policy but the Indian politician follows the do not provide and rule policy”.
“All this has happened because of that stupid fellow Gandhi", surmised the bald headed man. "If only he had struggled to educate the masses instead of wasting his time on obtaining freedom, the average Indian would have liberated himself with the weapon of knowledge. Rather than fighting for physical liberation he should have fought for the mental liberation of the people”.
“If only he was around now I would make him plead for his life and swear not to talk of ahimsa,” grunted the obese man. Fearing for his own safety Gandhi quietly extricated himself from that group and walked back towards the road.
Gandhi dejectedly trudged towards his pedestal. “Home sweet home", he thought. ”There is no other place like home". Gandhi stood before his pedestal. In his weary state the pedestal seemed immense. He reached out his hands to the top of the pedestal and tried to get a hold so that he could lift his body to the top.
As Gandhi struggled to climb up he heard a masculine voice, “Can I help you sir? " and without waiting for a reply, strong hands readily lifted him up and placed him where he belonged.