Perry Garfinkel – “India needs a moral compass like Gandhi now more than ever” - Hindustan Times
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Perry Garfinkel – “India needs a moral compass like Gandhi now more than ever”

BySyed Saad Ahmed
Apr 13, 2024 05:26 AM IST

The author of Becoming Gandhi on his three-year experiment of adopting MK Gandhi’s principles of truth, non-violence, simplicity, celibacy, vegetarianism, and faith

How did you first learn about Gandhi? What were your earliest impressions?

Author Perry Garfinkel (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Perry Garfinkel (Courtesy the publisher)

I first came to India in the 1970s. At that time, I knew nothing about Gandhi, but every city had his statues and landmarks named after him. I knew he was the “father of the nation” so I vaguely compared him to George Washington. But Gandhi wasn’t a politician, he never held any title. So I could not wrap my mind around who this guy was. He was like a museum figure.

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When I came to India in 2004, it was as a journalist working on a book on Buddhism. I saw India in a wholly different way and learnt where Gandhi fits in the country’s fabric. He was not just the face of every paper currency or a statue in a square, but both a controversial and healing figure. But even then, in some instances, Gandhi seemed irrelevant. At Mani Bhavan in Mumbai, where he had lived, I remember students reciting stories about him. This was just how we learnt about the American founding fathers. But that’s in school and you forget all that.

I was in Udaipur and used to go to this tailor. When I told him I was thinking about this book, he took me to the back of his shop and showed me an album of memorabilia about Gandhi, such as newspaper clippings. It took the journalist in me, not the spiritual expeditionary I think I am, to dig deeper.

What is my feeling now? On the one hand, Gandhi is used as a political football to garner votes, but on the other, India needs a moral compass like him now more than ever.

You embarked on a three-year experiment to follow Gandhi’s moral compass and travel to countries where he had lived to explore his influence. What are the enduring changes you have seen in yourself since the experiment?

I’m more empathetic, I laugh more when I’m alone in the streets, I find humour and beauty in simplicity. I also cry more, but I’ve always been kind of sensitive. On a daily practical level, I began walking religiously: three to four miles a day. I’m a pescetarian and I eat oatmeal in the morning. But it’s more the process — I’m more careful about my language; I’m more respectful; I watch less violence on television, though I had to dabble a little in football because we had the Super Bowl, which is almost a spiritual event here. My mantra is: What would Gandhi think? What would he do?

The original title of my book was Being Gandhi, but halfway into my research, I knew I could never “be” Gandhi. He was too complicated and an overachiever; I could never match that. So I chose “Becoming” — the endless process is the achievement in itself. As long as you don’t give up, you can continue swimming in the infinity pool of becoming Gandhi.

288pp, ₹699; Simon & Schuster
288pp, ₹699; Simon & Schuster

With the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently during your experiment?

As a writer of books and long-form magazine pieces, there are always interviews that don’t make it to the final draft. People give their time, energy, thoughts, and feelings, and I feel guilty that I didn’t include them. But all of them become part of me; I internalise them.

I also wish I had joined a non-profit organisation that does good by people, like the Big Brothers Association. I feel remiss that I didn’t do that. My explanation for myself is that writing is my karma and dharma. Almost everything I write aims to help somebody, either emotionally or physically. I don’t make much money, but that’s my social contribution — not becoming a dentist like my mother wanted.

I had worked for Jewish fund raising organisations to raise money for social service agencies. But that was long before my experiment.

You focus on Gandhi’s principles of truth, non-violence, simplicity, celibacy, vegetarianism, and faith. Why did you focus on these six principles as opposed to the others he propounded?

In my interviews, nobody specifically talked about a certain number of principles, but as I researched, I came across 11. Why didn’t I include all of them? In my book, I say it’s because I’m lazy, but that was tongue-in-cheek. The fact is some of the 11 were untouchability – which, in America and modern India, is not an issue – being a good neighbour, fearlessness, and control of the palate. I thought these were minor. I was trying to follow Gandhi’s principles and thought processes in the context of the 21st century. So some of them were less relevant in that respect. I also wanted my engagement to be substantive, so I focused on fewer principles.

There have often been disproportionate responses to depictions of historical and political figures in India. For instance, Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi was banned for insinuating that he was in a relationship with a man. As a non-Indian writer, were you apprehensive about writing on Gandhi?

Yes, very much, from the beginning to the middle and end. I wrote this book for American and Indian audiences. I had different publishers in both countries, but I wasn’t going to write two separate books. However, I was hyper-aware that vis-a-vis Americans, Indians have a different relationship with Gandhi. They are precious about him: they are strongly pro- or anti-Gandhi; few are neutral. For Americans, the book was an introduction for those whose only understanding of the man was the Attenborough film, Gandhi. Some Indian friends also questioned why a white American was writing a book about Gandhi. I responded that this is not a book about Gandhi, but my attempt to follow his principles.

When my book proposal was circulating, publishers told my literary agent in India, Jayapriya Vasudevan, that they wanted to be sure I wouldn’t make fun of Gandhi. I write with humour, but it’s always self-effacing and directed at my attempts and failures. My friends were amazed that in the chapter on lying, I confided the lies I had told and my other flaws. It was a struggle, but I had to speak from my heart and experiences; I couldn’t lie.

I have taught writing for many years and I start my classes with the American writer Hemingway’s dictum that writing is simple, all you have to do is write one true statement. Those who write know that it’s one of the hardest things to do.

You have written about the censure you faced for your experiment, such as by Professor Desai from South Africa, who said: “Forgive me but this is such a typical United States take. You guys are so obsessed with the I-isms: ‘I am processing and working through this. I am the moral compass. It f***ing drives me crazy that you guys are so I-centric… Go sit in an ashram and carry on with yourself.’ You also mention the rabid criticism of Gandhi by a Gujarati publisher of his books. How did these critiques influence your experiment and your book?

My approach to writing this book was to generally stay away from Gandhi, the politician. One can look at Gandhi politically on the one hand and as a proponent of moral principles on the other. My takeaway from the publisher’s criticism of Gandhi was that Indians did not have trouble combining the two. If they were critical of Gandhi for his controversial aspects, they could not separate these from the principles that held value.

It’s easy to deify Gandhi and consider him a saint or mahatma. I found that curious because probably Jesus and Moses too had flaws. Great leaders of the world are driven by a certain egotism — that their point of view is worth sharing with not just their family and friends, but with the world. I had to keep these aspects separate.

I understand what Dr Desai said, but I disagree with people who say that Americans are all about me, me, me. Even if they were, this may be the time to look within. In my generation, we had the saying, “The personal is political, the political is personal.” Gandhi said, “My life is my message.” I put these two together and thought it doesn’t matter what Dr Desai said, maybe he should practise Gandhi’s principles rather than talk about him academically or politically. Has he taken on Gandhi personally? Don’t just say it, do it.

As a person of Jewish heritage and adherent of Gandhi, how do you view what is unfolding in Palestine right now?

With great sadness, frustration, and disappointment in the nature of man. It’s not going to be solved in a lifetime. It requires a lot of healing and internal work that the two sides are not willing to undertake. There must be a human bridge that brings us together, but so far, I don’t see it. It’s hard to even speak about.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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