Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Gandhi did to me.

The man is an imp, I tell you. He weasles himself into your brain, your heart, your soul (if you haven't struck any deals with a certain charmer in red at a crossroad near you) and does things to them all. He challenges the certainty of your vision; the way you make sense of this crazy little thing we call the 'world' in shorthand, and you come out...I want to say better, but I'll settle for 'different', for the experience. Here's a little note I wrote, applying for an advanced school on the life and thought of Gandhi at that splendid place I once called home (in a past life, as a Viceroy/Vicereine, possibly), the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla ( I was there last year, for the 'beginners' thoughtshop, and it was the most stimulating 2 weeks of my life in academia. Without further ado, I give you 'why' I must-need/have-to go back:

"I’ve been living with the idea of writing this note for the past month-and-a-half; struggling with it from the very day I received word from the Institute that it was making good the promise it made us about arranging an ‘advanced course’ on the life and thought of Gandhi as a follow-up to the Autumn School we were fortunate enough to have attended last year.

The reason I begin this note like so is that I need to establish just how much the experience of December past has meant to me. I want to say it changed my life – in fact, I will – it did change my life; in the subtlest of ways. A small example is that I’ve started thinking twice before I shine my high-beam onto a car which has not shown me the same courtesy. This act might sound like a trifle, but the first time I did it, it got me thinking about a larger ‘change’ being set in motion somewhere inside me. I finally understood that instead of merely doing unto others as they were doing unto me, it was more difficult to do unto them exactly what they were NOT doing unto me – showing consideration even in the face of apathy or wanton disregard. This, I learnt from Gandhi’s doggedness and unwillingness to back down and recourse to anything which might yield an end, but not satisfy his insistence on the purity of means.

I am both, a Ph.D. student working on the 19th century, as well as an educator in the field of Culture and Communication. Since working alongside the likes of Tridip Suhrud, Thomas Weber and Sudhir Chandra last year – all people who shared very generously of their time and knowledge – I’ve been grappling with the idea of constructing a course on Gandhi and the way he used-forged-disseminated what we today call ‘mass communication’. He was a brilliant semiotician – anyone who understood and deployed the everyday acts of ‘walking’ or ‘spinning’ with the efficacy that he did had to be – and the way he found and used symbols to elucidate for the larger public his ‘experiments’ with the nature and bounds of truth, make for fascinating study. I’ve wanted to work on this further, and see where we can find room for a questioning of this sort in contemporary Communications curricula and theory. This, I hope to do if I can return to the IIAS.

My research, as I mentioned, is also firmly focused on the changing dialectic of the language of social reform in the late 19th century. What the course on Gandhi last fall did for my understanding of the charged playing-field that was late 19th-century India is unparalleled; it taught me to question the age on and in its own terms, and gave me an entry-point into reconstructing the shared semiosphere those who lived and breathed in it had access to. Any retrospective understanding of what contemporary India is or has become is impossible without first understanding where we’ve come from, the seeds of which are sown, to my mind, most closely in the upheavals – social, legal, political – of the 19th century. A furthering of this understanding; seeing what Gandhi did, and recognising how it was a departure (or continuation, in some cases) from where the country-movement-people was/were at before he came to the forefront is precisely the grounding I need to better understand his forebears, the social reformers, politicians, journalists and writers of yore, who enunciated ‘nation’ and ‘freedom’ as ideas for the first time.

The opportunity to return to the IIAS and work on some of these issues anew would undoubtedly benefit my research and my teaching. Most importantly though, musing about Gandhi afresh would also re-validate my decision to drive with my headlights on low-beam. Or just maybe, walk instead."

Would you allow me back if I sent you this?


Rain Girl said...

am so, so impressed... have no words.. but you are goood.. came here through sonalee's FB page :)

wonderful blog.

Harmony Siganporia said...

And I am so, so touched you like my inane little natterings! Lee is fab, and I love her to bits (only metaphorically, promise). If you're a friend of hers, I'm sure you're pretty rad too :)