Gandhi as my double

Shiv Visvanathan

Years ago, legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi was asked by a foreign journalist, “what do you think about Western Civilization?” Gandhi replied promptly and pithily “It would be a good idea.” Decades later there was a cartoon with Gandhi in heaven being asked “What do you think of Indian civilization?” He replied sadly, “That too, would be a good idea.”

shiv Oddly, the man Gandhi haunts us even though he hardly takes space in NCERT textbooks. His anniversary celebrations sound cursory today. In an everyday sense, he is eminently misquotable and frequently cited by those for whom violence is a way of life. Many people feel he is vaguely present but somewhat irrelevant. Hardik Patel sums up that attitude when he claims that if Gandhi were present today, he would abandon non-violence. Patel argued that the modern Indian state is far more vicious and tyrannical than any colonial incarnation. Despite such mindsets, Gandhi is always alive for me and that too in a very particular way.

For a child brought up in the immediate years after independence, Mahatma Gandhi conveyed a different kind of ecological presence. Other leaders like Azad were a legacy, by the Sixties, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was an anecdote, by the Seventies, Nehru belonged to the museum. They were either exhibits or memorials, evocative as history but not quite musical in everyday life. But Gandhi floated around. He literally buzzed around my everydayness. As my father claimed, he was the norm, the ethical measure we all sought to live up to. Gandhi became a part, an ecology of our everyday and the future. In fact, he functioned like a double with whom you had imaginary conversations.

Sometimes when you began a new project or were about to make a decision which required more than habit, you asked “How would he have done it?” Oddly in this thought experiment, one did not cite any Gandhi chapter and verse. Gandhi was a deeply Gutenberg phenomenon, but true to type, he was more. He was a folk figure who continually reinvented himself and nagged you to be inventive. He was not exactly a conscience which functioned more patriarchally but a double, a playful presence who walked and worked along with you, who, through body language or key words, kept pushing one to question oneself and somehow go beyond standard limits. I felt he was not judgmental. This internal Gandhi always hinted that the story was not complete. He treated my mind as an ashram while he and I discussed new experiments with my truth. It was as if he were playfully suggesting that I was not experimental enough, that I was too ritualistic or ideological, that he wanted fresh answers to everydayness warning me that my rhythms would become rote and routine. With Gandhi around, I felt that walking, writing, thinking and every craft of life was actually a philosophy, that walking was not just a sculpting of the body but the beginning of ethics. To be at home with him, one often had to move away from the herd. I quarrelled with him in sheer frustration even commenting pettily that my handwriting was better than his. He admitted it readily but then suggested neither of us were quite calligraphists. His presence asked for no obeisance or idolatry, he literally laughed at his own quotes. In fact all he asked was that I invent myself. He was not a citation or a catechism but a heuristic asking, inviting a new generation to reinvent itself.

I remember having this maddening conversation in my head where I cited him wickedly and he replied calling me ‘mothballs.’ He said “you quote me, therefore I no longer am. I live not as a quote unquote but a quote misquoted. A slippage is the beginning of invention.” Anyone who studies memory would realize recitation is both recollection and invention. He added once “in a shakha, you repeat yourself, in an ashram you reinvent. A shakha teaches you discipline, an ashram invites self-reliance.” He then added, “of course you cannot attribute this to me.” I realized goodness is always a trifle mischievous.

The author is a social science nomad. He can be reached at

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