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Telling stories of his experiments with truth
A veteran Gandhian fuses the power of storytelling with simplicity and warmth.
Ronak Patel is your typical 12-year-old. He has carefully stored an autograph that cricketer Virat Kohli once gave him, when in Ahmedabad for an ODI. But Ronak has stored another autograph with great care, of another youth icon - and a rather unlikely one at that, since Narayan Desai is 89 years old. Desai is a popular octogenarian who has taken it upon himself to make Gandhian teaching relevant to the 21 century. "I wish my school textbooks told Bapu's story as interestingly, " says a wide-eyed Ronak.
Narayanbhai (as Desai is referred to by most folks) is the Mahatma's most notable new-age prophet; and one who still uses the simple power of the spoken word. No PowerPoint or multimedia presentations for him. And it appears to be a yeoman effort that's succeeding. People of all ages are known to flock to the Gandhi Katha series he started in Gujarat in 2004, and then took across the globe. Nine years on he finds that he has completed 108 of them and is still going strong. He did take a break in 2012 for a short while, he says, what with age catching up. But he has restarted the kathas now.
There's also that ring of authenticity to his tales, since Narayanbhai grew up in Bapu's company. He is the son of Mahadev Desai, the Mahatma's trusted confidante and also his biographer, and indeed, talks of Gandhi as if he were an adorable grandfather, much like he himself now appears to many. But then he also talks of the Mahatma's ability to transcend human failings - both his and of others.
Narayanbhai was born in December 1924 in Valsad and spent most of his childhood in ashrams, mainly Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and Sevagram near Wardha. He stopped attending school to be educated and trained by his father and other inmates of the ashram. He specialised in basic education and spinning and weaving khadi. He is also the author of a four-volume biography of Gandhi in Gujarati - Maru Jeevan Ej Mari Vani (My Life is my Message), a dream his father could not fulfill because of his sudden death in prison on August 15, 1942.
But the oral narrative is now his only obsession. Narayanbhai begins one of his kathas in Ahmedabad in 2012 by stating that Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad, the Mahatma's first home in India (after returning from South Africa in 1915) was a bungalow on the banks of the Sabarmati. But all places that Gandhi went to were dubbed 'ashrams'. So the bungalow, too, he says, became an ashram.
"When Bapu left for the Roundtable Conference in London on the steamer S S Rajputana in 1931, he chose to rest in a place close to the washroom because it was least used on the boat and also the most peaceful, " he says. "Later, even that corner was called an ashram, " he adds, a mischievous smile playing on his face. His audience laughs.
"I want to demystify Gandhiji for my listeners, " he tells TOI-Crest. "He was not a god. He had shortcomings and he also broke the rules he made. The message is really about how he overcame these shortcomings and reinvented himself from time to time and became the Mahatma we know today. I hope that the Gandhi Kathas connect with every individual - right from a small kid to the eldest in a family, a government employee and a politician. "
Even the mundane conditions in which Gandhi first met Vinoba Bhave are woven into a fascinating tale by Narayanbhai. "Vinoba had heard people in Benares say: 'Bhashan ho to Gandhi ka' (Only Gandhi gives great speeches). This fascinated him. After exchanging letters with Bapu, a 19-year-old Vinoba finally came to meet him in Ahmedabad. He was thinking about the grand conditions in which he would meet this great orator, but instead, he found Bapu sitting on the floor, dicing vegetables. Vinoba says Bapu noticed the surprise in his eyes and reacted by offering him the additional bag of vegetables that he had. Both sat down and diced vegetables together. "It was my first diksha in karmayog, " Vinoba had later said.
As is a true Gandhian's wont, Narayanbhai shuns the limelight and continues to lead a simple life in his ashram called 'Sampurna Kranti' at Vedchchi, 60 km away from Surat. The very first Gandhi Katha was held on the campus of Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad, the only university founded by Gandhi. Narayanbhai is the chancellor of the university. He narrates the kathas as if he was narrating the Ramayana, many of which have been converted into CDs and books over the past eight years. He has taken the kathas to Kerala, Odisha, Maharashtra and New Delhi. He has also journeyed to foreign shores and held session in the US, United Kingdom and Canada.
Narayanbhai, who still spins the charkha every morning, always tells his audiences about his abiding faith in Bapu. The katha consists largely of a prose narrative but to break the monotony, he punctuates them with verses and songs - all of which he himself composes. When asked whether he prepares for these kathas, he says, "Never. I look into the audience's eyes and I start speaking. Bapu's speeches and talks were very contextual and simple. " He has also written a book on his first 10 years with Gandhi titled Bliss Was it to be Young with Gandhi: Childhood Reminiscences. Narayanbhai was also conferred the Sahitya Academy Award for Gujarati in 1993 for a biography of his father Mahadev Desai.
Only recently has he reduced the frequency of his kathas. "Earlier, I used to travel every week, but now because of age I have reduced the kathas to one per month. In fact, I look to the young to reinterpret Gandhi for their generation. It might not be in the same form but the narrator should have three things - compassion towards the cause, understanding of Gandhi and his philosophy and good oratory skills, " says Desai.
Does he plan to retire from his kathas anytime? Narayanbhai, with a gleam in his determined eyes, says that's unlikely. "The kathas are my life's mission and will continue till my last breath. I want to tell the world about the relevance of non-violence in the current turbulent times. "
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