By Haroon Khalid
26 Oct, 2012
In Mumbai, Haroon Khalid immerses himself in the house, books and sayings of one of the Indian subcontinent's greatest men
I have heard several people returning from Saudi Arabia, the holy land, say that there is a splendid serenity there, one that they have never felt anywhere else and are not likely to either. It is truly the home of God, they say. For a sceptic like me, such religiously-imbued statements have never held much sway. I am not driven to find the passion of life's purpose in spiritual experiences. Of course there is the occasional Punjabi "auntie" or born-again cousin who tells me with incredible confidence that I will soon hear the calling and until then will never know what the believers know.
But through travel I have discovered that spiritual experiences are not only meant for the religious or those on a pilgrimage. A "spiritual experience" is in fact a vague term loosely defined that gives shape to the ambiguous emotions one experiences when one is at a place one feels strong a association with. So I want to conclude that a spiritual experience is not just for the religious, it's for all passionate people.
I find that my own feeling for a sacred place develops only because of a person associated with it. One such person who has inspired me immensely is Baba Guru Nanak, said to be the founder of the Sikh religion. (Guru Nanak himself might disagree with that description, given his own dislike of ritualized religion.) I attended his birth anniversary festival, held every year in November at Nankana Sahib, Pakistan, at the place of his birth, for the first time in 2008. Already fascinated with him and having read about him, this was my first experience of being at a place where he had been. As I walked through those crowded streets of Nankana, with hundreds of other Sikh and Hindu pilgrims around me, I imagined Guru Nanak walking that particular street in his orange robe along with his two companions Bhai Mardana and Bhai Bala. And in that crowded city I found peace. It was a strange uplifting feeling. For years afterwards, whenever I returned to Nankana Sahib, I would imagine the same sight and all the sounds of the market would recede to the background.
The second time I discovered this serenity was in Bombay while I was visiting MK Gandhi's residence, Mani Bhawan. Gandhi lived here from 1917 to 1934 and it was from here that he launched his Satyagraha, the insistence of truth, in 1919, which became the symbol of India's independence struggle. It was also from here that he launched a civil disobedience movement in 1932. Standing inside the hall, my eyes welled up when I read his quotation hanging from one of the pillars. "Means and ends are convertible terms in my philosophy of life... and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end, as there is between the seed and the tree." The power of these lines shook my soul, like they did when I first discovered his philosophy and devoured his writings and the writings about him some years ago, while I was still a student. This was the voice that swayed millions of Indians that compelled them to follow his pronouncements, so much so that he eventually became a Mahatma or Saint. It was his message of peace and non-violent resistance that inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and gave a vision to the American civil rights movement. It wasn't a new message. Gandhi reiterated the message of Jesus Christ, something he acknowledges several times. The famous philosophy of turning the other cheek, which in India is associated with Gandhi, was articulated two thousand years ago by Jesus Christ.
Gandhi's library, which is also a part of the Mani Bhawan, contains several books locked within glass showcases. There is a copy of the Quran there, along with the Historical Materialism of Karl Marx, next to the Communist Manifesto. There are several books here from Gandhi's favourite political thinker, Leo Tolstoy, the mercurial Russian philosopher and novelist. I also saw several editions of the Bhagvad Gita, Gandhi's favourite book, the tome of philosophies that encodes the concept of morality in Hinduism. In the book a distressed Arjun consults the Hindu god Krishna before waging war with his cousins and uncle for the throne. Arjun doesn't want to fight, repulsed by the idea of shedding the blood of his own kin, but is instructed by Krishna about his duties and responsibilities towards his people; a message that Gandhi followed with complete conviction. Hazrat Ali (RA) would have felt a similar anxiety before going to war with Hazrat Ayesha (RA) when heading into battle. But, motivated by a sense of duty, he is said to have led his companions into battle and then respectfully allowed the defeated Hazrat Ayesha (RA) to head back to Makkah. It is this spirit of duty and honour that Gandhi evokes in his philosophy.
Around me were tourists, thinly clad Europeans holding their copies of Lonely Planet and reading about Gandhi and Mani Bhawan quickly, to fill up the void of knowledge of the Western tourist, arguably the most influential individual of our times. The tourists posed in front of a bust of Gandhi on one side of the hall, eager to preserve a memory and tick off another tourist destination off their things to do in Bombay. Civil servants clad in white Kurta pyjama sat in the offices completing their paper work, with a picture of Gandhi behind every desk. I wondered if they felt the same kind of emotion that I felt about Gandhi. Since childhood many Indians have been injected with a hagiography of the Mahatma, a Mahatma who is no longer the human being that strived towards goodness but a predestined Saint, a naturally superior being who only followed his fate and got to heights which are beyond the grasp of ordinary individuals.
I knew that if I was not welcome in the Mumbai of Bal Thackeray I was welcome in the abode of Gandhi
I reflected upon the significance of a Pakistani visiting Bombay in the year 2012, four years after the horrendous Mumbai attacks, after two full-scale wars, two minor ones and several other skirmishes. I was afraid of disclosing my identity to anyone. After all, Mumbai is governed by the Shiv Sena of Bal Thackeray, a violently anti-Muslim party. The scars of the Mumbai attack are still fresh in the minds of the people here. And then there is Gandhi, a person who rejected vengeance, who went to every extent to kill his own anger, who showed love to everyone irrespective of religion, caste, creed or nationality. I knew that if I was not welcome in the Mumbai of Bal Thackeray I was welcome in the abode of Gandhi. Gandhi, his teachings, philosophy and legacy is as much mine as that of any Indian. He fasted so that Pakistan got its rights. Both were his countries, India and Pakistan. He cried silently when everyone around him celebrated the birth of the two countries. Every year, on the eves of the 14th and 15th of August, I think about the millions of people killed, displaced, raped and orphaned in that time, and wonder what is it that we are celebrating. What would have happened had Gandhi lived and come to Pakistan as he promised?
On the third floor the government has still preserved his room. The cane he used to walk with rests on the wall, while his mat is spread on the floor. His loom is in front of it, with a picture of Gandhi clad only in a khaddar cloth made out of a loom like that on the accompanying wall. His shoes and fan are placed next to the mat as if he is expected to show up any minute. I try to imagine his presence around me. It doesn't work. The sight of his room, his memories laid out in front of me, they don't allow me to feel his presence, not as much as his words had downstairs. One of the quotes on the ground floor reads, "There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it though I do not see it. That informing power or spirit is God." This is the power of words; the ability to keep people alive. Material preservation can never achieve the same purpose. It is not without reason that Baba Bulleh Shah, the 18th century Punjabi poet and rebel, declared that he was not going to die. How can such a prolific writer, who by weaving his words enjoins a thousand hearts, ever die? His words, his philosophy surround us everywhere. Even at his shrine in Kasur, the caretaker has preserved a few of Bulleh Shah's paraphernalia, which hardly anyone bothers to look at. Appreciating the power of words and the meanings loaded into them, Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru of the Sikh tradition, ordered that there would be no more Guru, but the words of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. The poems and writings of Saints have been elevated to divine heights. It is this understanding of their teachings that their followers often lack, when they interpret their words literally.
Facing Gandhi's room is another huge hall, probably renovated recently to accommodate a small museum. Small dolls have been enclosed in a glass showcase, depicting important scenes from Gandhi's life: when he was thrown out of the train in South Africa; his trial of 1922, in which he pleaded guilty for sedition; the Quit India movement. One of the scenes made me emotional. This was a scene from 1947, with Gandhi resting on his bed and a tall Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the "Sarhadi Gandhi" or Gandhi of the Frontier, sitting next to him. Ghaffar Khan hailed from what would eventually become the Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP at that time). This was most likely their last meeting. Ghaffar Khan was opposed to the Partition of India. Here for the last time he had to come to plead against this madness. "You are leaving us to the wolves," he told Gandhi at that meeting. Gandhi's voice had been shut out by power-wielders such as Nehru and Patel. The peaceful and honourable India, Gandhi had envisaged was to be replaced by a truncated and ambitious one. This was going to be Gandhi's last compromise. And indeed it was to the wolves that Ghaffar Khan was surrendered. He was harassed for the rest of his life and called an "enemy of Pakistan". He is not even allowed to rest in peace. Nationalists of all sorts to this day challenge his patriotism based on his choice to be buried in Afghanistan. He was a proud Pashtun. There was no place for a Gandhian in Pakistan; and today every Pakistani needs a Gandhi.
Dedicated to Malala Yousfzai, the soul of humanity