Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thoughts on Courage at the Gandhi Museum

            There’s nothing like shivering from the cold while reviewing the life of a martyr for peace to make you feel small, I thought.  It was drizzling. We were visiting the Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi, site of his assassination and a museum. The children ran ahead to the Mahatma’s room, open and roped off, where the overhang might protect them from the drops. I slowly followed, determined to endure the rain as if this tiny amount of suffering could connect me to the tragedy of Gandhiji’s martyrdom more deeply.  I was already feeling foolish for having so little information about Gandhi to impart to the boys in the taxicab over. Most of what I did convey was gleaned from the Ben Kingsley movie that I hadn’t seen since the early eighties.  The fact that a Hollywood movie was my primary source of information is, sadly, not an anomaly for me. I have great difficulty applying myself to research about people and events to which I haven’t connected on some personal level. Those who designed the Gandhi museum must have had people like me in mind because when I walked along the path Gandhi took to meet his assassin, it became very personal. 
            The boys adopted a solemn tone as we followed the raised footsteps along the path that Gandhi took from his room to prayer, the last few minutes of his life. I’m sure that the quiet and the gray day and the fact that this was a spot where someone was shot, informed their mood.  But there was something else.  Heaviness.  Loss. Something shared. We all felt it. Later, Murphy would ask me if everyone who tried to change the world got shot.
            “Not all,” I said. “But some.”
            “Why do people shoot them?”
            “Because,” I said, keeping it simple not because he’s a child but because it really is quite simple, “lots of people don’t want the world to change. They like it just the way it is and they can get really mad when someone tries to change it even if they’re making it better.”
            “Well, I’m not going to try to change the world then,” he said.
            I could only reassure him that there were lots of people who change the world and don’t get shot – and that there are lots of different ways to change the world. Murphy looked at me sideways like he wasn’t buying it and I couldn’t fault him.
            In order to walk up to the humble monument erected over the exact spot where Gandhi died, we had to remove our shoes and walk on the cold, wet sidewalk. The boys padded toward the spot, quietly.  Pat walked, deep in thought, and stood staring the monument for a long time.  When the boys were ready to turn around, Spencer’s eyes were moist but Murphy was full of questions. Who shot him? Was there a lot of blood? How many bullets? Lots of children are fascinated by gore and death, but Murphy seemed to want to imagine this particular scene as it had specifically happened.
            Which was a challenge since, as I’ve said, I didn’t have a lot of answers. Fortunately, the museum did and Gandhi’s life story was illustrated with pictures along one long wall. Since I was starting at such a deficit, I learned quite a lot.  And, as is often the case with me, I relearned things that I had once known but had since recessed somewhere in my gray matter. One of those things was that Gandhi was killed by a right-winger, a Hindu fundamentalist. Gandhi wasn’t simply radical in the methods he chose to secure independence from Britain, he was also radical in his views for the new India. He insisted on, for example, equality for women and the eradication of the caste system. 
            I have always been in awe of personal courage.  I cannot imagine having the strength of conviction it takes to refuse to move to the back of the bus when ordered to do so. I am sure that I would have gathered my bags and slunk to the back. Why make a fuss?  What would everyone think? Maybe I was wrong in the first place. I doubt that I could have borne the daily fear that would surely take root in my timid soul while hiding Jews behind the bookcase at my workplace. I couldn’t have handled it.  I would have passed out at the first innocent glance in the bookcase’s direction.  I have crumbled when a stranger falsely accuses me of cutting in line at the grocery store.  If I can’t take on a seventy-five year old woman in a housecoat, how could I possibly lead a nation? 
            I am not complacent or cynical about my cowardice. I want to be relieved of it.  Gandhi wrote, “My life is my message.” I don’t want my message to be that I was too lazy and scared to stand up for myself and for those who are weaker than me.  And even though I’m pretty weak, there are plenty who are weaker simply because they’ve been handed so much less.
            Inside the museum, several rooms are devoted to dioramas of scenes from Gandhiji’s life.  It would be easy to dismiss these scenarios put together with dolls against painted backgrounds. But the whole is effective.  The boys ran from scene to scene of the Mahatma leading the famous salt march to the sea, spinning cotton, meeting British royalty, and many more.  As my sons dragged me from one poorly lit box to the other, I wondered. Depending upon your persuasion, you might believe that Gandhi was born with a certain amount of courage and wisdom gathered from many previous lives. Or you might believe that his wisdom and courage was simply stamped upon his DNA. I can’t say that either view is wrong since, unlike Oprah, there’s almost nothing that I know for sure. But as I looked at Gandhi’s life in miniature, it seemed huge and long and complicated – leading me to believe that he found his courage and wisdom by walking through it.
            Which meant that there was hope for me. 


  1. May I suggest showing your son who fears assassination a few episodes of CNN Heroes. There are hundreds and hundreds of people who don't get shot while changing the world for the better.

  2. Evocative and stirring. Excellent questions to ask and to live by (and never underestimate the courage it takes to stand up to a 75 year old woman in a housecoat...).

  3. A wonderful, thoughtful post. Thank you. I so look forward to your stories from India.

  4. so thought provoking thank you