Gandhi Jayanti


6th October 2020

Dear Friends,

Last week the country celebrated Gandhi Jayanti.  2 October.

A face on our currency notes.  A statue on a street.  A person in the history books.  A movie made by Richard Attenborough.

Who was this man?  There are very few people around now who knew him personally.  I met one such person last week.  I was driving back from Ahmedabad to Mumbai.  I stopped at the Atul guest house to have lunch.  The Lalbhai family invited me home.  I had the honour of eating with them.  Among them was Dr. Vimla Lalbhai. 93 years young.

We spoke about COVID and the subject matter I taught at Cornell.  After lunch, when I rose to leave, she showed me a book on Gandhi.  I asked her, whether she had ever met him.  Met him?  She said that she had studied at Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi, and the only two Gujaratis her dad knew when he sent her there to study were Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel.  She breezed in and out of their residences while she was in Delhi.  How many times did you meet him? I asked her.  She said she could not count.  But she simply said, he was a fearless man.  A man of character. She had the same opinion of Sardar Patel.  "They were giants", she said.  She wondered whether the current generation and others that follow will understand and value what Gandhiji had to teach.  

I told her that my grandfather, K. J. Somaiya had met him only once, as a young man, at a large rally.  But irrespective of that, Gandhi had had a profound influence on his life.  When Mahatma Gandhi was jailed in the 1920s, a 20 year old Karamshi decided to observe complete silence and fast one day every week.  This vow he made because he said, why should Gandhiji suffer prison alone for all of us.  He was fighting for our independence.  In solidarity with Gandhiji, a young K J Somaiya took this vow, and he kept it until he was 96 and could no longer eat on his own.  76 years of keeping complete silence and not eating every Wednesday.

Who was Mahatma Gandhi? and how did he come to have such a profound influence.  One encounter and K J Somaiya gave up wearing all variety of clothing.  He just kept 5 pairs of khadi kurtas, dhotis, a Gandhi topi and shoes.  Simplicity.  And अपरिग्रह। Not keeping anything more than one needs.  

Shri K J Somaiya was a self made man.  Started poor but found success in sugar trading.  He started his first sugar mill in 1939, in rural Maharashtra.  A place where the caste system was strong.  And he started a school in 1942 to educate the children of the people around him.  He did this in the 1940s when the caste system was so strong and the divisions still stronger.  And he built a school that welcomed all, especially those who were marginalised. He was only 40 then, but he was inspired by Gandhiji's instruction to bring those who are disadvantaged into the mainstream of society.  Not merely to bring them 'in' but to bring them into the 'mainstream'. 

In 1959, he established Somaiya Vidyavihar.  As a commitment to repay his debt to society.  He again echoed Gandhiji's thoughts, that education is meant to create great citizens of India and the world.  That education is more than being literate.  It is to know the art of living and giving.  

In the 1970s he established the Girivanvasi Pragati Mandal.  To go to Adivasi communities and take healthcare to them.  He would ask the best doctors of Mumbai to give up 2-3 weeks of their time and accompany him to the poorest of poor places.  Where people did not have clothes to wear or food to eat, let alone healthcare to benefit from, and serve their needs.  I remember accompanying him as an 11 year old in one of these camps, running errands from the 'store' to the OT, delivering much needed medicines back and forth.  Somaiya students and faculty would join him at these camps, learning the spirit of service and making friends for a lifetime.  By being in such places, seeing such poverty, and serving these 'have nots' they got the education of a lifetime.  My 93 year old uncle mentioned to me last month, that his job was to bathe all the sick men who came to the camp seeking assistance.  A job he did with open arms.

And Gandhi influenced many.  In so many parts of the country.  Vinoba Bhave who inspired the Bhudan movement, inspiring many to donate millions of acres of land to the landless.  Kasturbhai Lalbhai in Ahmedabad.  Doshi kaka who was an eye surgeon in rural Gujarat, who emptied his bank account at the end of each month to start fresh.  When I asked him about the 'uncertainty' that would cause his finances, he said he was ninety years old, and in his life, help from God in a good cause was always certain.  So many of them.  Big and small.  But nation builders all.

Gandhiji loved the Bhajan - વૈષ્ણવ જન તો તેને કહિયે (Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye.. the song sung by Shri Purushottam Upadhyay as an MP3)

Please see the translation below.  If we can embody those qualities, then we are truly educated.

I salute Gandhiji, and the spirit of service and the vision of India that he dreamt off.  To that dream.



PS: If you have not seen the movie or read the books listed below, please do.

The movie:

Gandhi by Attenborough

The books:

Freedom at Midnight - Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins

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