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Nude heads wearing Gandhi caps have become the new face of corporatised India’s conscience. It happens to be at around the same time when the Mahatma’s clay feet are being grounded in a book that is sought to be banned for its allusion to his affair with a German Jew. But Joseph Lelyveld’s ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India’ is being lapped up eagerly by the nouveau intellectuals who believe it is cool to have Gandhi as a gay icon.
The two ideas meet quite seamlessly in the conscious – and one might add conscience – of the ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ crowd. The awakening of India is not evolutionary. It has not chosen a specific segment to fight against, but a notion. Corruption, like sexuality, works underground. It comes with a baggage of shame and guilt and although crimes can be tried in a court of law, there is more likely to be an emphasis on the moral dimension.
When activist Anna Hazare decided to go on a hunger strike to push for public involvement in dealing with corrupt ministers he was playing on sentiment. Right versus Wrong. Superficially, it is about right and wrong, and at least one headline talked about “Crowds gather at the Corruption Kukukshetra’, the latter being the mythical battlefield of the Mahabharata. But there is no battle. Sonia Gandhi in a moment akin to her raised fists to cheer a victorious cricket team has come out in support of this fight. There cannot be a darker comedic moment than this.
But, then, think of her as an outsider in more ways than one, the onlooker, the lawgiver with eyes blindfolded to convey that justice will be done. This is giving a different thrust. In slang parlance it would amount to taking the mickey out of the mouse. It is a mice story.
More reminiscence reveals that it is the story of selective Gandhian conscience. The Gandhian conscience and Gandhi’s conscience are not the same. The latter is a personality trait; the other is a potent totem of what is perceived to be Gandhi’s conscience. At the most obvious level, Gandhi never wore what has popularly been called the Gandhi cap. Today it is being used as a symbol for a non-violent struggle against a non-violent crime. Therefore, it isn’t a struggle with an outside force but one within.
The conflict in Mahatma Gandhi’s mind is a chimera for public consumption. He was clear. There was no obfuscation in his need to sell a dream and market his concept of sleeping with a clean conscience. Indians are really into this. In their waking hours they might not worry too much about their consciences, but they must sleep with an airbrushed one.
Several miles away the Italian prime minister is being tried for his debauched lifestyle and using his position to have merry moments with women who benefitted from his position. He claims that he is “no saint”. Gandhi did not indulge in any of these hedonistic delights but his sainthood is rather deliciously based on his trials with “the scorpion of passion”. His celibacy was exhibitionistic. India has been a spectator to it for all the years since Independence. Much as we inherited the Victorian idea of sexuality from the British, the Mahatma embellished it further with the theme of struggle, an annihilation of the Self. It appears like a humble thought but in reality it is egotistical. The Self becomes a self-perpetuating organism, like the algae that breaks up and creates other selves. This ‘complexity’ is designed.
In a society that shirks discussions about the body, everything from his frail frame to his swift walk to the sparse clothing and the primal instincts have become part of our cultural understanding of the individual to use as an example of subsuming of precisely what was over-the-counter. It is a bit like our flashing the Kama Sutra and temple sculptures as examples of our openness. They in fact serve to alienate us and renew guilt over basic needs. The struggles are for saints and the fantasies for iconic figures.
Superimpose this on the battle against any idea that takes to the streets. It again harks back to guilt and punishment and the culprits are to be shamed before a public commission. The call for a ‘jail bharo’ to fill the prisons can be seen as a release from guilt, the momentary joy by letting go of inhibitions. Rather tellingly, no questions are being asked about those who are participating or offering support. There have been pictures of young children standing in the heat who don’t know what corruption is. They are being tainted with the knowledge before they can think of using it. This amounts to intellectual paedophilia. Bollywood stars who are raided for tax evasion are offering their support; film directors who have exploited characters to suit their art-house works are joining in. There is silence over their inclusion and it is not because the fight is not exclusivist but because they will be the supra-‘underdogs’.
These people may have been otherwise spewing out against any negative representation of Gandhi, but these are days of liberalisation – economic and therefore elitist. When we tour the world with our fat wallets we will meet people who are sexually experimentative. We have legalised homosexuality not to help the poor in the gay community but to give a semblance of modernity to our cultural ambassadors who can now flaunt India as an ‘alternative’ vision.
Discussing Gandhi, sexologist and author Dr. Sudhir Kakar chooses to see his sexuality in spiritual terms.
“We cannot understand Gandhi’s sexual preoccupations without understanding their source in Hindu Vaishnav ideas on semen and celibacy, which he had absorbed from his culture while growing up and which he had internalised. In brief, physical strength and mental power have their source in virya, a word that stands for both sexual energy and semen. Virya can either move downward in sexual intercourse, where it is emitted as semen, or move upward into the brain in its subtle form known as ojas. The downward movement of semen is regarded as enervating, a debilitating waste of vitality and essential energy. If, on the other hand, semen is retained, converted into ojas by brahmacharya, it becomes a source of spiritual life and mental power. Memory, willpower, inspiration – scientific and artistic – all derive from the observation of brahmacharya. Gandhi is merely reiterating these popular ideas when he writes that sex, except for the purpose of generation, is ‘… a criminal waste of precious energy. It is now easy to understand why the scientists of old have put such a great value upon the vital fluid and why they have insisted upon its strong transmutation into the highest form of energy for the benefit of society’.”
Scientific ideas in fact insist that letting the fluid flow is better for general health. The ‘wastage’ theory is unfounded, and its upward movement need not necessarily transform into a halo. It could just sit in the brain and devour it. Gandhi employed the concept as a masochistic non-violent struggle. The rightwing RSS that follows stringent rules of abstinence does not show any spiritual inclination.
The main purpose was to “benefit” society. This resonates with people. The giver is also the one who retains, so to speak. Moral authority is in the hands of the Samaritan. A gathering gains momentum in a metaphorical hormonal surge. Internalised guilt gets projected. A hundred mutinies throb in symbolic deliriousness. Nothing is wasted; a little is gained.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/