Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Someone I met: Gandhi's grandson

Just before my Eurostar train pulls into Brussels Midi station, Arun Gandhi’s plane touches down at the international airport. He takes a few hours of rest following his overnight flight from Atlanta while I meet up with photographer Dimitri Koutsomytis. Over coffee at the iconic Grand Place, we try to imagine what life must have been like for Arun, as the 5th grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

In the days leading up to the interview, I’d been reading many of Arun’s articles and chapters of some of his books.

In one, called Legacy of Love, he describes the daily injustices he faced in apartheid South Africa, where he grew up as ‘neither black nor white’. Aged 12, his parents sent him to live with his grandfather in India. The elder Gandhi set aside an hour each day for his grandson, using storytelling and exercises to introduce Arun to his theory and daily practice of peace and nonviolence. The pair had just 18 months together before Mahatma was assassinated. But this time, it turned out, was enough to transform Arun into a persuasive advocate of Gandhian ideals.

When we meet our interviewee in the lobby of Hotel Amigo, the first thing we notice is the energy that surrounds him. He looks well for his 81 years, but it’s when he starts speaking that his full personality shines through. He welcomes us with a deep voice and a warm smile. As we settle in to the sofas and arm chairs, we are offered drinks and pastries. He takes a sip of his tea and nods towards the voice recorder. Arun Gandhi is ready to take our questions.

His international representative had assured us beforehand: “Really, he has a mind altering view on most things.” Having worked as a journalist for the Times of India for thirty years, Arun has a keen interest in the role of the media in shaping perspectives. But we also discuss modern day parenting, the effects of social media on our relationships with others and the way he copes with life in the spotlights, as well as –in some ways- in the shadows of his late grandfather.

I’m intrigued by the latter point, specifically in the way he had to adapt his grandfather’s teachings to modern day life. Popular (or, as social media managers say: highly ‘shareable’) quotes and pictures of Mahatma Gandhi now appear regularly on our Facebook feeds, Instagram pages and inspirational post cards. I have seen the most iconic quote ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ anywhere from the wall of a coffee shop to a tattoo on someone’s back. I wonder what Arun thinks of the fact that his grandfather’s lessons are still widely quoted, even though he did not want his writings to become a dogma after his death.

He says: “Any philosophy has to keep evolving. What my grandfather said hundred years ago will not be entirely true today. Philosophers don’t like it when I say this, but I believe that the moment you put a philosophy down in a book, it ceases to be a philosophy and becomes a dogma. Everyone will refer to that book and ask: ‘What did Gandhi say’ and then apply it literally. It is the same with religion which was written down in books and scriptures thousands of years ago. We need to have the intelligence to see what was meant and use it in today’s world.”

“Change could happen much faster if all of us look beyond ourselves.”

I want to dig deeper into society’s current challenges and learn more about Arun’s ‘translation’ of the lessons of his grandfather to our modern world. Gandhi once said, for example, that the ‘true India’ was found in the villages, but more than half the world’s population now lives in cities and the UN estimates that it will be 66% by 2050. I wonder if and how Arun feels that change could be created in urban areas.

“We can still do something within cities, by building smaller neighbourhood villages and connections”, he answers. “When we live in a big city we get so lost in our own world there. With new technology we have stopped making friends next door. We make friends who are thousands of miles away, some of whom we only know by their picture on Facebook. We come home, lock our front doors, watch TV and go to work the next day. Our scattered relationships don’t add up to a cohesive society.”

I understand what he is getting at, but I am curious to see if he agrees with me on the potential for great social change through digital, globalised connections. During my research I noticed that he has a Facebook and Twitter accounts of his own, so I ask him whether he believes that technology could also be used to connect, rather than distance people around the world.

“It could and should be used like that, but I don’t think it is happening”, he replies. Since joining Facebook a couple of years ago, he has felt largely disillusioned with it: “I started off posting some thoughtful messages, seeking response from people. We could have a constructive debate, but what happens is that they just press ‘like’ and go on. So I have a thousand likes but I don’t think anyone has read what I have written. It is meaningless when people’s attention span is so short.”

Ultimately, he believes that witnessing things first-hand makes for the most powerful ways of creating understanding. As a journalist, I agree with him to some extent: interviewing people face-to-face leads to richer conversations than via phone or email, just like physical visits to places beats desk research every time. Yet it is my job to convey those experiences via media outlets, so that others who cannot physically be present can still share, learn and feel involved (in fact, the Someone I met series was started for precisely this reason).

At the same time, I recognise the power of immersive experiences, particularly while travelling. I ask him about the Gandhi legacy tours, which he leads in India and South Africa. “I thought it would be a good idea to show how many individuals or small groups of people help others overcome their problems”, he explains. “There are some amazing ideas that others can use in their own community.”

We discuss various initiatives, including the Barefoot College in India, which educates local people without formal education. I had seen the famous TED Talk by its founder Bunker Roy, which has been viewed almost 3.5 million times.

Arun passionately describes the journey of one woman in a local village who could not read or write. At the Barefoot College, she trained in dentistry and since runs a clinic like a qualified dentist. As I pack up my note pad and the photographer gets ready for the photo shoot, Arun makes his final remarks: “I see all of these projects and I feel hopeful that change will happen. It could happen much faster if all of us look beyond ourselves.”

And on that part, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo by Dimitri Koutsomytis

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