Recently a niece, her husband and seven-year-old son Soren stayed with us for a few days. They are citizens of Canada and live in Toronto. In the course of some payments to a home delivery Pizza vendor, Soren happened to see several Indian currency notes. Seeing Gandhiji’s portrait he wanted to see all the denominations. To his surprise, he found Gandhi’s portrait on each note. Who is this person? he asked me. Why is the great man present on every note? I had said that Gandhi was a saintly man. So the youngster asked, was he so very fond of money, that his photograph had to be printed on every bill (as they call notes in the Americas?)
My reply was that he was saintly and had little to do with money. He normally lived in an ashram or monastery. His great concern was that India should be free from the yoke of British rule. He wore a simple dhoti and in winter a thin woolen shawl. On his feet he wore chappals and generally carried a long bamboo stick to balance himself.
That’s all; for food, he ate simple and drank goat milk in the morning. You mean, Soren asked, he did not draw even a salary? Who paid for his food? Wherever he lived, he was fed free. You mean he had no money in the bank? No, nothing as far I knew, was my reply. Oh my God exclaimed Soren, you think your government imposed all this huge collection of bills on him after he died?
I tried to explain to the child that no one has imposed anything on the great man. It is just that the Indian people adore Gandhi so much that they use his portrait on their currency notes. Soren was not satisfied; he went on, have you no other great man or woman in your country? Like they have had so many Presidents in the USA. Every sum 5, 10, 20, 50, dollar bills have a different portrait.
At this point his father Kevin took over and remarked that your bills do give the impression that Indians are obsessed with Gandhi. Why after so many years, so many billions are focused on the same person? Hardly anyone of you has seen him. And India, from what he has read, had a galaxy of freedom fighters. Nehru, Patel, that soldier hero Subhas and so on.
I replied by saying that if you look at our history, you would find a mega-gallery of great men. A professor, who happened to come into the house to visit us, joined in to insist that we are being extremely unfair to Gandhi.
Money was his last concern, nor was he lucky with wealth. In his days, more Indians walked barefoot than with footwear. More young children walked about half naked than fully clothed. We should not involve Gandhi with money, stressed the professor.
In fact, he went on, if any of our leaders who needs to be remembered for national wealth he was the late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who released India from the bondage of socialism and made it free to trade and acquire wealth.
Frankly, the professor thumped a table nearby and loudly proclaimed that by printing Gandhi on currency notes we are insulting the great old man.
And we appear to be hypocritical; we display Gandhi so much and practise nothing of what he stood for. Lately, we have added a reproduction of his round-frame spectacles on the same currency notes. What do they symbolize except shortsightedness? What is there to be proud of that deficiency?
To check on what the child Soren brought up, what I thought and how the professor reacted, I referred the issue to a long retired but a very wise judge. He was quick to opine. For 40 years or so after Independence, we printed the Ashoka stambh or pillar on our notes. There was no human portrait.
Then all of a sudden Gandhi’s photograph appeared and with a vengeance on all denominations. On what provocation, the judge could not guess. His only further point was: if the government wanted to spread a noble message or example through the currency, there was a better way.
India has innumerable heroes, ancient, medieval and modern. Why not deploy a separate example with each denomination? Say Krishna with his insistence on doing one’s duty without looking for its reward. And his insistence on the kind of ruler governing for the country and its people and not for himself.
Adi Sankaracharya the father of a great deal of modern Indian thought and spiritual culture. Say Ramanuja who propagated bhakti through Vedanta. Say, Kabir and his sahaja-yoga or simple union, as a secular ideal. Raja Rammohan Roy and his anxiety to abolish the evil of sati; Swami Vivekananda and his reformism like the elimination of child marriage, still quite rampant unfortunately. Or his keenness to educate women, his ideals of self-perfection and service to society. Or Sri Aurobindo and his dialectic, cosmic salvation through yoga which transcends reason as well as intuition. Also Netaji Subhas, the hero soldier of Indian freedom whose Azad Hind Fauj convinced the British that more Indians working for their foreign regime might rebel; it was therefore time to leave. Or C.V Raman, the nobel Laureate, for his Raman effect, change in the wavelength of light that occurs when a light beam is deflected by molecules.
Or Gurudeb Tagore. Or say Kalidas and his legendary play Meghdoot and others. Or say Mirza Asadullah Ghalib, the most popular Urdu poet of the 19th century and his famous words: Ghalib Ka andaz-e-bayan aur. Or, Kaabe per purdah bane rehane do ay Ghalib, kahni wahan bhi kafir sanam na nikale.
Or, Rani Ahalya Bai who ruled Indore with distinction for 30 years and built the road that even now links Jagannathpuri to Kolkata. She was the one ruler who replaced many a monumental temple earlier destroyed by foreign invaders. Today’s Kashi Vishwanath temple and the mandir at Somnath where the devotees still worship and not merely admire.
(The writer is an author, thinker and a former Member of Parliament)