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‘I was the last foreigner to see Arafat before he died’
Tête à tête

When the proverbial poop hit the roof, one would have thought that Arun Gandhi would have known what was coming. After having lived in the United States for two decades, M.K. Gandhi’s American passport-holding grandson must have known that the Jews were something of a holy cow there. Failing that, he should have been better prepared for a backlash of some severity.

In January, 74-year-old Gandhi wrote as a panelist on a topic given by The Washington Post for its blog on faith that “Jewish identity in the past has been locked into the holocaust experience — a German burden that the Jews have not been able to shed.” He called “Jews and Israel ‘the biggest players’ in a global culture of violence.” An outcry followed, despite Gandhi’s apology for his “poorly worded piece”.

WaPo, as the Post is called, was flooded with e-mails, most of which castigated Gandhi, or more frequently ‘Ghandi’ for his “ignorance”, “anti-semitism” and allegedly carrying on M.K. Gandhi’s advice of non-violent methods to deal with Hitler during World War II. Several Indian readers pitched in, too, and some were dismissive of Gandhi’s illustrious ancestor.

“I did not know they’d react with so much vengeance and anger. I overestimated the presence of liberal thought and value of democratic expression,” Gandhi says doggedly.

The furore eventually claimed his scalp, for he had to resign from the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, now at the University of Rochester in New York, that he had founded along with his wife shortly after they moved to the US. Ironically, WaPo, which had invited him to write, has continued to place its faith in free speech, retaining him as a panelist.

We are meeting at his son Tushar’s home, one of a well-located but a simple old-style arrangement of flats with a common verandah. It is in a predominantly Gujarati cluster tucked away in Mumbai’s western suburbs. Family photographs of four generations of the Gandhis sweep one wall. Endearingly enough, also on the wall are clay masks of ‘Bapu’ — the name the entire family uses for their iconic ancestor — usually found in schools and with hawkers. There is also a garlanded photograph of his wife who died a year ago.

There were a few, though, who protested the axing of Gandhi in the US A tiny group of 25 people met at the city centre in a protest rally in Mumbai. “There were more paparazzi covering the event than the demonstrators, and more police than the press,” says his daughter, Archana, who works in a public library and lives with her family in Rochester and also happens to be visiting. The demonstrators were arrested and later released on bail.

Isn’t it ironical, muses Gandhi, that the Maharashtra government takes a whole week to arrest someone whose speeches on migrants have led to violence in the state while peaceful demonstrators like Gandhi’s group are arrested in a matter of hours?

But such unevenhandedness of law and circumstances is unlikely to halt him in his tracks. “I was concerned about the Jewish issue because I was in Palestine in 2004. I was the last foreigner to see Arafat before he died. I was critical of and concerned for both sides,” he says. “I apologised to the Jewish population for saying all Jews, instead of saying Zionists, were locked in this violent cause. But I did not grovel.”

During his visit to troubled West Asia, he suggested that 50,000 Palestinian refugees peacefully march into Israel to claim their homeland even at the risk of being shot down. No one quite embraced that idea.

Gandhi maintains that he does not intend to deny the Holocaust or the Jewish genocide that took place during the Nazi era. The issue, he says, is how to deal with it. “One way is to not allow it to happen to ‘us’ again. The Jewish people feel to ensure this they must keep the memory of what happened alive. So, for instance, they organise free tours to Holocaust memorials. It is a form of brainwashing. It doesn’t allow people to forget. Another way of looking at it is my grandfather’s way: we will not allow this to happen to anyone on earth. It’s a more positive way to curb violence,” says Gandhi.

Moving on and adapting to circumstances is a way of life for this Gandhi, born to Manilal, the second of the Mahatma’s four sons. Manilal was the editor of Indian Opinion published in South Africa where Arun Gandhi was born and raised. He lived in the Phoenix Settlement which was burnt down after the end of apartheid. Gandhi has earlier talked of childhood misery in a land where he was neither black nor white enough.

Going to granddad’s for a vacation was, of course not quite a routine summer holiday. At 12, Gandhi was old enough to remember the time he spent with Bapu at Sewagram. “He would take out an hour every evening to spend with me alone. We would spin the charkha together. We would compete to make the most and the thinnest yarn. I always won,” the grandson remembers.

Chance seems to have played the pied piper in his life. Be it the family that he was born into, or the way he met his wife Sunanda. On a visit to India to immerse his father’s ashes, he was rushed to Mumbai’s Harkisondas hospital for appendicitis. “I fell in love with my nurse and we married. But South Africa would not allow me to bring her, as there was a quota on the number of Indians entering the country.”

They stayed on in India instead. He joined a newspaper and the couple also worked on eco-development projects with destitutes in Maharashtra’s Sangli, Miraj and Kolhapur districts. Chance nudged him America-wards when a discussion on the caste system with an American visitor led to a year’s fellowship in the University of Mississippi to study three strains of prejudice — race, colour and caste.

The grandfather went to South Africa for a year and stayed on for 22. The fifth grandson went to the States for a year, and has been there for 20. “American citizenship is a technical convenience,” admits Gandhi, who believes he is a world citizen. Bapu, he quotes, said nationalism caused more distress than anything else.

In an era which treats history with equal measure of forgetfulness, irreverence and machination, Gandhi lives in a period still in extant memory.

“For me he will always be grandfather, Bapuji. Perhaps, yes, I look less objectively and cannot be very critical of him and his policies,” he admits. There is room for doubt, however. M.K. Gandhi’s adherence to khadi and advocacy of voluntary poverty do not appeal to Gandhi, whose father almost died because there was no money to take him to hospital, till a wealthy friend came to their aid.

“Some security is essential for a family,” asserts Gandhi, whose sense of the practical made him auction letters from his grandfather to his parents, in the teeth of opposition from some family members, to raise money for the institute he set up in the States. The letters eventually landed up with the Indian government, but then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s lack of interest in Gandhi’s proposal to buy the papers at the going bid of $125,000 still rankles. The letters were bought by a private collector for barely half that sum.

Gandhi may be wrong in underestimating democratic expression in his adopted country. On his return to the US, he will be on the lecture circuit even more frequently. None of his guest lectures — 80 per cent in universities and the rest in community churches — has so far been cancelled.

No longer part of the institute, what else will he busy himself with? “Reading, long walks. At my age, you don’t have a lot of choices,” says Gandhi.

And, oh yes, Gandhi is currently at work on his next topic, taking off from a survey conducted by the US-based Pew Institute that says six out of 10 Americans change their religion during their lifetime. Is it a sign of the ill-health of religion or a positive symbol? “Another controversial topic,” says Gandhi.

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