Come Mahatma, be my seatmate on this train to Bangalore. See the new India from my eyes. Help me see it through yours. I yearn to see that serene smile on your face once again. To understand the depth behind that forlorn look in your pupils. Come Bapujee, come. Be my travel partner.
I make space for him to sit down next to me.
But, Gandhijee, let me first tell you a little bit about me. Wait, wait . . . I digress. More than fifty years have passed since your tragic assassination, Bapu. You must be very anxious to know how the country has evolved during your absence. Let me bring you up to speed with some of the highlights.
India is still the largest functioning democracy on Earth despite the ethnic divides that continue to ravage the land. Politicians, some successful in creating a middle class from the teeming poor, others brandishing fanatic Hinduism, are all thriving on greed and lusting for power. Delhi-based billionaire businesses have merged into global corporations. The Dalits are now less ostracized; some even working as telemarketing operators in a globalized economy. Thousands of Tibetans, fleeing repression from neighboring China, have lived in exile with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala for some three decades now. The India-Pakistan partition mess left by the British back in 1947 still haunts the land. The disputed territories of Kashmir and Jammu are being fought over with no end in sight. Once even sparking a senseless war with rocket missiles showered from both borders onto innocent civilians.
Yes, wise one, both countries now stockpile nuclear weapons. East Pakistan, aka Bangladesh, is ravaged with poverty, and annual floods turn its city streets into rivers. West Pakistan, with American money, has been engulfed in wars with Islamic extremists from Afghanistan ever since the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York (at one time they were the tallest buildings in the world, Gandhijee, but in 2001 Bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, allegedly masterminded their destruction having two huge commuter jets fly into them, although there are other more plausible explanations for the towers’ collapse. But that is another story). Today, the Islamist extremists are no less fanatic than the die-hard BJP followers on Indian soil. Buzz words like Jihad, Sharia, and Hindustan are still the order of the day. In 2002, a massacre in your home state of Gujarat killed thousands of Muslims as the police watched the slaughter, unmoved. Just months ago, a group of men from Pakistan sneaked into the Bay of Bengal by boats and blew up the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai (aka Bombay) killing hundreds. Not quite the legacy you had in mind, is it Bapu?
And, oh yes, a black man with a Muslim father now presides in the American White House and a Sikh rules from Delhi’s corridors of power. South Africa, where you once fought against apartheid, is now free of the Boer regime. Mandela is out of jail and became president in 1994 under the country’s first fully representative democratic elections. Oh and I almost forgot . . . sorry to be the one to tell you . . . but two more Gandhis have been assassinated, Bapujee. Both Indira and Rajiv are no longer with us, and Italian-born Sonia, Rajiv’s wife, now heads up the Congress Party.
Not a pretty picture, uh? But since I am currently a writer by profession, I tend to follow the arts more closely than politics, Bapu. It’s been thrilling to see new Indian authors spring up, carrying on the tradition of pioneer Rabindranath Tagore. Many live abroad, and have won world-class literary prizes such as the Nobel and Booker. Some decry the Mafioso underground of India’s cities, while others adulate the exotic simplicity of village life’s age-old traditions. Diasporic Indian writers are definitely in vogue worldwide. This is good news for me, since I aspire to be one of them, keen to jump on their bandwagon. The marriage of Bollywood with Hollywood has started. Film stars sport Gucci bags and Ray Ban sunglasses on their way to the movie studios in Mumbai. This is the new way media spins its images today. Indeed, back in 1982, they even made a movie of your life that won numerous Oscars (film awards) in America. With half-Indian, half-Anglo Ben Kingsley playing you and Roshan Seth playing Nehru, the movie succeeded in turning your legacy of non-violence into a lasting eulogy. More recently however, actors staged a play in Gujarat, your home state, titled “Mahatma versus Gandhi” that wasn’t as complimentary of you.