Gandhi’s faithful dissenter


Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was a man of books, both as an attentive reader and a writer of masterpieces. But it was in the writing of letters that he spent the largest part of his affair with pen and ink. He seemed to enjoy both the substance and the form of correspondence, with brief letters drawing the best from the effervescence of his wit and the longer ones, from the ripeness of his wisdom. When those two talents of his — wit and wisdom — combined and drew from the dictionary of trenchant words, we got what may be called ‘vintage CR.’

If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had an addiction, it was to the same universe of written communication. Few have written letters as prodigiously as Gandhi, fewer with his thrift, cogency and clarity, his letters remaining, mostly, straight-laced and serious, but sometimes bursting into a laugh. There were days when Gandhi did not eat, when he did not speak. Scarce was the day when he did not write a letter.
CR and Gandhi shared about thirty years of colleagueship, hardship and friendship. Letters or post-cards written on handmade paper and posted from different locations and also from wayside railway stations sustained the association no less than time spent together.
Even when most other limbs of British India, ‘polluted’ by the imperialist ego, were boycotted by Congress, the postal system was not. It was not only not disassociated from but actively patronised by these eminent rebels. Legislatures were to be shunned, law courts abjured, colleges and schools run by the government declared noxious and out of bounds for the patriotic, but not so the post offices of the Raj, and its systems of collection and delivery.
From 1919 until Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, postal correspondence linked CR to his leader. During these three decades CR was based in India’s south — either in Madras or in his ashram at Tiruchengodu, in the parched part of Madras Presidency’s Salem district. And Gandhi was wherever his two feet and a million concerns carried him, restless and composed, agitated and at peace, ever giving and ever demanding of trust. Not for nothing did he get to be known as Gandhi’s southern warrior, his foe-harrier, flag-carrier. And by some, as a barrier between them and the Mahatma, a wall that Gandhi leaned on for support and as a protective guard for his own spiritual sustenance.
The letters to Gandhi are of value as the intellectual and never un-emotional outreach of Gandhi’s ‘conscience-keeper,’ as the Mahatma more than once referred to CR. They are also a cardiograph of the national struggle for freedom and for social reform, as recorded on the sensitive disc of CR’s observations.
‘Come back,’ CR writes to the Mahatma on June 16, 1920, ‘and give us life.’
Is that a prayer or an admonition? Counsel or a subtle warning? Is it an individual’s appeal or a collective pleading? Perhaps the words are a blend of all that and more. I believe they are written by one whose faith in his leader did not indemnify the object of his faith from misjudgements, error or even folly. Can faith be judgmental? The writer addresses Gandhi, as ‘Master.’ Can one admonish one’s Master? Not usually. But then CR is not ‘usual.’
CR was never ‘usual.’
CR’s last letter to Gandhi is what might be called ‘official.’ It is indeed on an official matter, pertaining to his Ministry, sent by 67-year-old CR, as Minister in the interim government of free India in charge of the department of Industries and Supplies, on official letter paper, to the Father of the Nation. Though addressed, like the others, to ‘My dear Bapu,’ it is signed as CR would sign all official letters, in full — ‘C. Rajagopalachari.’ And, as is only to be expected from the unusual in CR, it demurs. CR declines to place 1900 bales of yarn per month at the disposal of a non-government agency for distribution in Noakhali on the ground that only the Bengal government could and should distribute yarn, then a commodity in short supply.
Noakhali, as we know, was the scene of a millennial intervention by the Mahatma on the eve of the partition of India, following brutal communal riots. Life in Noakhali was ravaged beyond recognition. As part of a process of healing and restoration, it would seem that Gandhi wanted to have (non-khadi, ‘mill’) yarn placed at Noakhali’s disposal for providing weaving and wage-earning opportunities to the affected people there. The idea was that a non-governmental agency would distribute the yarn on a monthly basis. But, no, the Minister did not agree with the Mahatma. Procedures were procedures. Officially procured yarn was to be officially, not non-officially, distributed. And then in the quantities that were feasible, according to the government’s calculations, not Gandhi’s. There is nothing to show that the Mahatma pressed the point.
The nearly eighty communications that pass between the first and the last reflect the same unusual nature of their relationship, where respect is given, affection lavished, but nothing taken for granted except the genuineness of the equation, its truth, its faith. They show CR as the faithful dissenter or the dissenting faithful.
That is where a certain grace informs CR’s contrariness. It can sound weary, sad. It does not sound affronted or disoriented by defeat. The strength of CR’s intellection lay in its being exempt from two drawbacks: an eagerness to win an argument and fear of losing it. He seemed to find a careful exposition, a subtle elaboration, a syntactically apposite formulation laced with unexpected turns of humour to be sufficient unto the purpose.
He was unabashedly God-minded and pious, placing his talents and his time very consciously on the altar of reverential belief. He wrote on Scripture as a sacrament, on politics as a duty, on social issues as an obligation. He wrote on Gandhi as Ananda would on the Tathagata or Mark, Mathew, Paul and Luke would on the Prince of Nazareth.
CR was designed to leave a mark on the stage of endeavour, not on the stage of achievement. His achievement was his endeavour, as a freedom fighter, as a public intellectual, as an opinion-maker, and as a statesman in high office and outside it.
Who or what was the ‘essential CR’?
CR was pious, he was not pietist. He was religious, not religiose. He was traditional, not orthodox. He could rebel, but not dally with heterodoxy. He prized intelligence but did not pickle his brains in the vinegar of cleverness. He was accepting of what Time served him, not servile before its buffetings.
CR’s last recorded words in hospital, as life ebbed away from his 94-year-old frame on December 25, 1972, were “I am happy.” These were said by a man who rescued happiness from the debris of disappointments and faith from shattered dreams. Contradictory? Of course, yes. But then what else could be expected from that most unusual man?
(Excerpted by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former West Bengal Governor, from his foreword to the book My Dear Bapu. Today is the 40th death anniversary of C. Rajagopalachari).

(courtesy : "The Hindu", 25.12.2012)

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches

His face averted from the rest of the workers,an old man was digging earth at the drought relief work.The general deportment indicated he must have been a man from a well-placed rural family that had fallen on bad days because of the failure of the monsoon,but that did not prevent him from working like a fury.

As his pick hit the land with gusto,he sang in Gujarati: "Khandaniya Ma Mathan Ram, Zinko Ram Zinko Ram, Dukale Pidhan Lohida Ram" ( We are like the grains being pounded in the mortar.O God, go on pounding us with as much force as you like in this famine which is sucking our blood.)

A visitor who was at the site to distribute buttermilk among the workers was overhearing it,as if petrified by the sorrow and pain the old man,as alsothousands and thousands like him,were suffering,uncomplaining and yet with dignity facing miseries inflicted by the vagaries of the rain God.

"It sort of sent a flashlight through my head",said Upendra Trivedi,noted Gujarati thespian,whose depiction on the celluloid of the terrible famine in Gujarat nearly a hundred years ago,done on paper with great mastery by the late author Pannalal Patel,Manvini Bhavai,had bagged a silver lotus award for a regional film at the 41st national film festival.

Basically, Upendra is a show man in the genre of  Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. After a life time in films, he had a stint in politics and found out that the real life is far more complicated than the reel life. For some time now he has been in wilderness and was almost in the oblivion. Politicians, cricketers and denizens of the filmdom cannot afford to remain out of public limelight.Perhaps , Upendra Trivedi had perceived it to be a clear danger. His friends and well-wishers rallied round with a volume containing the actor’s own life statement and writings by others and released it on July 9, 2009 at Gandhinagar. Among those who were present was Morari Bapu, a noted Ramayan preacher.  An exhibition of cartoons  and caricatures on Upendra by Nirmish Thaker, whose cartoons appear in a number of publications, including Opinion was another hightlight of the programme. Nirmish said later his was the first solo exhibition of cartoons on a single actor.

Rahul Gandhi notwithstanding, aged people rule the political arena, but perpetual youth is expected of sport persons and show people.So it is difficult to make whether Upendra’s political career blooms once more or  his screen life, his real life or his reel life! Whichever it is, it remains true that had he not done anything else but the film on Pannalal’s novel, Upendra Trivedi’s name would always deserve respect.

The novel,on which the film is based,itself had won laurels for Pannalal, eversince he wrote it in 1947,capping it with a Jnanpith award for 1985,given in 1986.The late poet Umashankar Joshi had hailed Pannalal as a writer no less than Shakespeare.Upendra Trivedi would compare him with Chekhov;others have drawn parallel between Pannalal and Maxim Gorky.Like Gorky,Pannalal had graduated from the university of life,portraying life around him powerfully, graphically and beautifully.Man was at the centre of the best produced by Pannalal,and yet it was no fanciful flight of imagination in individualism totally delinked from the society around him.In the struggles of ordinary people he portrayed,Pannnalal never came out as an escapist." Man ," he once said," is not evil as such.Hunger is.And a worse evil than poverty is begging."

Upendra Trivedi,who has been a leading light of the Gujarati silver screen and stage for years,had acquired film rights of Manvini Bhavai even before it got the Jnanpith award to Pannalal.The story,its social relevance,its pathos,its immediacy all appealed to him as something that would lend for a powerful movie.But,said Upendra Trivedi later," I could not clarify in my own mind as to what I wanted to do with the story. That day when I saw the old man on the drought relief work,heard his song,and later spoke to him to find out details of his life,it all clarified in an instant-- as if like a flash."

He said that almost every Gujarati who can read has either heard of or read Pannalal's Manvini Bhavai.What kind of treatment should be given to it in  picturising it was the million rupee question that had been exercising his thought-process. "When I saw the old man and his dignified struggle,learnt of the fact that although he had a rich son in law,he was loathe asking for help,that during lunch time,he would go running home to look up his cattle,all touched my heart,and gave me a cinema idiom,so to say."

He could as if fathom the suffering of the old man at the relief work,and strove to transform that suffering in filming Manvini Bhavai."It was not a story of Kalu and Raju,or of any of the characters portrayed in the novel only. It was during a famine that most of the established demarcations of behaviour disappear.Famliy ties became strenuous; man and animal both would be compelled to drink dirty water from the same source.It was a timeless tale of the rural folks pitted against hard times, the story of a drought, a famine,whether it is is in Bhiloda,my constituency,north Gujarat,Saurashtra or Kutch,or entire Gujarat.It transcended boundaries; it could be the tale of farmers in Somalia or Ethiopia."

"Time is the hero,the nature its leading lady,and the famine the villain. Man's battle against the drought,the shortage of food and water,the miseries all around are enough to defeat him,crush his spirit.But man,fights on,often on the strength of fragile threads of non-existent hope.I made the film on this concept",Upendra Trivedi said."I realised how magnificent this epic struggle of human beings against the vagaries of nature has been.I have tried to celebrate it,eulogise his fighting spirit,pay tribute to his ingenuity. Look at Kalu,one shower of rain and he revives as if Shiv has returned with the Ganga in his hairlock." He also felt that a paucity of water -- for drinking,for farming, for animals-- was at the root of most of his miseries. "Water is life."

In filming the novel, Upendra made a few changes ; " I have dropped a few charaacters,added some,added some descriptive scenes to make it all the more focused. For instance, to drive home the real face of the famine of the 1890,which Pannalal wrote about in the book,I have added a pre-drought scene of charming rural scenery.But I have remained faithful to the basic purpose of Manvini Bhavai."

In a way,this is the graduation of Upendra Trivedi,successful actor,from the days he used to play varied roles such as Veer Mangdawalo,Malavpati Munj,to Kalu,the famine-ravaged rustic from rural Gujarat.If he began with Veer Mangdawalo, a beautiful story of history,in which a newly-married man goes out from the marriage pandal to save cows. He remembered,with visible signs of pain,how the literati in Gujarat used to scoff at his such roles in historical movies made on low budget in Gujarati in the 1970s and early 80s.They made him a household name in the villages,but did not earn him respect among the elite. "The literati",he recalled as if to comfort himseflf, " had found fault even with Zaverchand Meghani half a century ago,when the poet and writer had roamed all over Saurashtra,collecting folk tales and songs.These had been the rich heritage of our people but the elite pooh-poohed it all.The same happened to me too."

But,this has been an education for Upendra Trivedi and has helped him in transformation from a popular screen figure into a producer ith some social insight and politician with some commitment. Born at Indore ,Madhya Pradesh,on July 14,1937,Upendra has seen many ups and downs. "For some time,we used to live at Ujjain and I did not even know much of Gujarati",he recalled.Then,he went to college in Mumbai,got a diploma in dramatics,studied Hindi,even as he pursued a career of acting on the stage. The exposure to the theatre gave him an abundant love for literature,an ability to put his finger on the popular pulse and courage to strive on and on. He remembered he had done an earlier picture in Gujarati just for a fat fee of Rs.500. Those were the days when one could be happy earning as little as Rs.125 a month.He got a break when he got a job as a producer on the All India Radio,but his first love,acting,made him gave it up."I was told I could not act at will if I was in the service.I chose not to be in service."

His search for the self had begun. One of Upendra's early works was a highly-successful play called Abhinay Samrat, a title that  was soometimes applied to him in sniggering and derogatory reference.He played seven roles in the play,and yet the real identity of the heor was a mystery till the end; he was Radheshyam Maharaj,Haiderali Habib,Captain Rajesh Thakur,Rev.Johnny Walker,a tobacco trader from Talod,Pashabhai Patel. The story was that of a conman par excellence who could assume a different idenitity everytime he needed to cheat someone,and get away by pleading that "Hun te nathi (he was not that person)."

From "Hun te nathi",Upendra progressed to the silver screen,becoming the archetypal of Mangdawalo.But ,he has also made films like Zer To Pidhan Jani Jani,based on the literary work of the same name by Manubhai Pancholi,Darshak.He has some 125 films,and many plays,to his credit by now.He speaks almost regrtfully of the stunted growth of the Gujarati film industry; "It was beginning to blosom into its own after the inception of Gujarat as a separate state in 1960 and the formulation of a film policy later. But the video invasion,quickly followed by the satellite TV,aggression,dashed its hopes."

He said that despite this,it was his ambition to make a film version of Manvni Bhavai.He has directed the film,in addition to playing the main role,written the script,the dialogue and chosen the locations himself.While Upendra plays the role of Kalu,whose struggle against the drought and pining for his lost love for Raju are at the centre of the theme,Anuradha Patel plays the female lead role.Among others in the supporting cast are Chandrakant Pandya,Bhairavi Vyas,Anang Desai ,Kalpana Deewan and Ramesh Mehta.

The only fault some people have found in the film is a reference to the Narmada project at the end of the movie.While it is true that water is very important,and so is the Narmada project,the mention of the Narmada super-imposed thus,lends a touch of propaganda to the effort.

For a person who is a household name in countless village homes,Upendra is a very low profile person.He has an easy amiability, a presence and a good voice,but lacks the showbiz fizz.He had represented Bhiloda constituency in the backward Sabarkantha district for two terms,is very popular."I am not in politics for politicking", said Upendra,as if defending his place in it."I want to help the people; I am a people's artist and thought I could help them by working as their representative."He has an asset that may come handy in months ahead; he has a face that gets recognised by the crowds.

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches