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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Narayanbhai’s katha brings the Mahatma to vivid life

Narayanbhai Desai

he thin old man in a white kurta is seated on an elevated platform with a white sheet stretched over it. Behind him is a single white bolster; in front of him sprouts a bunch of microphones. He is reading, but in a marvellous informal manner that makes it seem he is speaking extempore. His voice is comforting, but thin. It is, after all, the voice of an 87-year-old. But it does not quiver. When he pauses for breath between passages, the small mandli to his left begins to sing. Now his lips are pursed gently in concentration, eyes closed beneath his spectacles. He sways gently to the music, and his narrow, bald head gleams when it catches the light. To his right, in a large wooden frame, is the familiar painted image of another old man: also bald, and with his eyes closed behind his round spectacles.

The resonance is unintended, but unmistakeable.

Narayanbhai Desai is the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's longtime personal secretary. He spent the first 23 years of his life at Sabarmati and Sewagram, both ashrams established by Gandhi. For the last few years, he has been the Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the university started by Gandhi in 1920. The highly respected Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud considers Desai's four volume work Maru Jivan Ej Mari Vani the most complete biography of Gandhi in Gujarati, and translated it into English under the title My Life is My Message.

At the age of 77, having published a four-volume work of repute, one might think that a man would feel he had done the work he had to. And it is possible that Narayanbhai would have settled into quiet retirement if Godhra had not happened. But Godhra happened, and Narayanbhai felt that he had to do something in response. His sense of what he should do was clear: to recharge the memory of Gandhi's message in a Gujarat which seemed to have turned sharply away from it. This was also his aim in writing the biography, but he had come to recognise that most people would not pick up a four volume work. It was then that he arrived at the idea of storytelling.

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It is possible that Narayanbhai would have settled into quiet retirement if Godhra had not happened.

e held his first Gandhi Katha in 2004. Since then, he has travelled with it across 12 Indian states, as well as Canada, the USA and the UK. The katha I attended was the 106th, held from 4th to 8th October 2012 at Birla House in Delhi, the site of Gandhi's assassination. The 107th katha will be held at Vadodara Central Jail. The 108th, with which he plans to bring the process to a close in January 2013, will be at Sadra, a village in Gandhinagar district of Gujarat, where the Mahadev Desai College of Social Work, run by Gujarat Vidyapeeth, is located.

Each katha is held over five days, with Narayanbhai speaking for three hours every evening, recounting the events of Gandhi's life, broadly in chronological sequence. His anecdotes give the audience the privilege of hearing directly from someone who knew the Mahatma – of hearing history live. He does not leave out anything that would be considered major in the history books – so everything from Champaran to Direct Action Day gets its due. But it is his ability to weave in the smallest of incidents and characters that makes his katha come alive. It is ordinary people who are at the centre of this narrative – ordinary people who made Gandhi what he was.

So we hear the story of Kasturba's encounter with a family in an Andhra village who refused to open the door of their hut, finally agreeing to speak to her from inside. Aren't you coming to the sabha, she asked? Don't you want to hear Bapu? We would come, they answered, but there are three of us and only one proper dhoti between us. "Bapu did not say anything when Kasturba told him this story," says Narayanbhai. "But later he took to wearing just a dhoti. He said, 'How can I speak, wearing all these clothes, to people who don't even have a single garment to call their own?'"

When we hear how lawyers who came to assist him in Champaran with their individual caste cooks were persuaded to eat from a common rasoi, or how the potential rioter in pre-Partition Calcutta laid down his grenade at Gandhi's feet because his ginni (wife) was refusing to eat until Gandhi did, perhaps we are hearing the kind of exemplary moral tale that might usually be told about an epic hero, like Ram. The portrait with a garland around it, the large brass diya, the musicians' yellow saris and white kurtas: these certainly have all the familiarity of our Hindu style of national ritual. The stage is decorated, as stages are, with strings of marigold.

But there is a simplicity here, a quiet refusal of plushness. The marigolds from the first day remain until the fifth, transforming slowly from fiery goldenness to a muted ochre. Desai has taken a traditional form of subcontinental storytelling and made of it an informative, affecting form of remembrance, a form that perfectly fits the man at its centre. The final evening, after a brief reference to Gandhi's death, ends with a song, followed by a request for silence and no jaijaikaar. One wishes we had more rituals like these.

 
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