Monday, October 02, 2006

Talking Gandhi over brandy

(Published in Nov. 2003, the theme of this piece is ever-relevant, and eminently recycleable every other Oct. 2. Wonder if Dr M S Rao has found a publisher for his irreverent book on Gandhi.)

It takes courage for someone to attempt a book on Gandhi. He is so over-written about that a Google web search for books on the Mahatma throws up 324,000 references. There is so much information overload that anyone who entertains thoughts of publishing yet another book ought to be either Gandhi's grandson or mentally challenged. Dr. M.S. Rao is neither. And he has a book in the works; and is in search of a publisher.

Dr. Rao, a medical practitioner disenchanted with his profession, is settled in Coonoor and runs a guest-house - - with his English wife. Apparently, he has better credentials to write about the ills of medical profession than about Gandhi. Dr. Rao has written about it in 'Look After Yourself. No One Else Will - How to bypass the medical profession and stay healthy'.

I didn't know Dr. Rao well enough to dissuade him from doing the Gandhi book when he called me the other day for a get-together. I didn't know what I was in for when I suggested the Velan Ritz bar. Discussing Gandhi over rum and lukewarm water wasn't quite my idea of spending the evening. Besides, care-takers of his legacy would rather prescribe a glass of goat milk to go with Gandhi. Speaking of legacy, it is said a London restaurant owner named his enterprise Gandhi Steak House. In a magazine article Gopalkrishna Gandhi said, 'Gandhi (the name) sells, so does his steak; and together the two work magic for the restaurant owner'. Speaking for himself, Gandhi's grandson says it works for him eminently - 'paths open, pot holes close to let the person bearing the name pass'. At airports he gets waved through by customs officials when they look at Mr Gandhi's passport.

Dr. Rao is no goat-milk Gandhian. Indeed he believes that Gandhi needs to be saved from such elements. He claims his book is an attempt to 'liberate' Gandhi. The thing that is going for him is this incurable obsession with the subject and Dr. Rao's belief that no book has succeeded in explaining fully the phenomenon of Gandhi, who, he says, is impossible to pigeonhole. As he put it, the man was a politician, philosopher, doctor, dietician, sex-therapist, ascetic, veterinarian, social reformer, woolly-headed anarchist, mystic, rabble-rouser and a compulsive cleaner of latrines.It is about time someone presented Gandhi in a manner that was not only acceptable to the present times, but interesting to an entire spectrum of readers, says Dr. Rao in a prologue to his book, which is nearly done. The prologue gives us the author's sense of Gandhi in today's world.

Dr. Rao poses the question: What, for instance, would Gandhi do, if a bunch of thugs rough him up, as they do in Mafia movies? After the deed is done the thugs leave Gandhi, with a bleeding nose, and a warning: "It will be worse next time, old man, unless you give up making salt."And then Gandhi gets a call from another thug informing that one of his sons was being held for ransom and he would be killed, if Gandhi didn't pay up. To which Gandhi reacts, "You've got the wrong number, mate. I have no dough, so go ahead and do what you think is best. By the way, which son of mine are you holding? I have millions of them." So spoke the father of the nation, in an alien accent. Having spent 17 years in Liverpool Dr. Rao can't be faulted for embellishing Gandhi's lingo.

Dr. Rao says one can find much that is self-incriminating in Gandhi's own writings. And anyone diligent enough to go through them could interpret Gandhi in any light. If one wanted to dismiss Gandhi as manic depressive, one could do so in Gandhi's own words. "If we were to conclude he was an egotist, he says so himself; a sexual faddist, he tells us this quite plainly; and a nut case, he joyfully agrees," says Dr. Rao.The author says he has peppered his book with remarks on Gandhi by non-Indians, because "citations from others are, by far, the surest way to impress Indians, whose peculiar psyche does not lend them to believe their own kind." A book gets noticed, if it informs, interprets, irritates or exhilarates the reader. Whether or not he delivers on the other three attributes it appears Dr. Rao would have no problem irritating readers with some of his self-opinionated remarks.