What if Gandhi were here in our world today? This upside down world where we were in personal lockdown long before COVID 19 hit?
By which I mean, the way we were encouraging our young to shrink their social space by being only with people like us and social distancing from people who were in any way different. Gandhi tackled the social distancing of color, caste and religion, poverty.
Sadly, we still need him to fight the very same battles. In the 150 years since he was born, we are still faced with the very same demons. When first asked to write BEING GANDHI, I was unwilling. My thought was – what else can I say about the man that hasn’t already been said? What is left for children to learn? But the more I read about how we serve him up to our young, convinced me that we have taught them very little. Here was a man whose beliefs and more important, actions, are not only relevant but urgent today.
Perhaps, because we largely paint Gandhi into God-like images, we have taken him so far away from us, that we cannot recognize our own inner Gandhis.
Children are born fearless, children are born without hate or divisiveness. Children don’t differentiate between a person of a different caste, color, religion or economic background. How then are we teaching them to differentiate? Surely we would make them better human beings and indeed, safer human beings if we were to give them a bigger rather than smaller social group. If, instead of hating and fearing someone because they were unknown, our children could have a large, dependable community of people she could fall back on, depend on. In attempting to keep our children safe or safer, my thinking is that we are in fact, putting them in greater danger by alienating them from whole groups of people. And thereby, leaving them more vulnerable to being isolated or finding themselves on the receiving end of some other group’s hatred.
So how is the question? For me the answer is kind of simple, bring up your bebe with love and confidence. Encourage her to discover her kinder self rather than her suspicious self. Empower your son to stand up for the rights of others rather than just his own rights. Empower your daughter to stand up for her own rights and also the rights of others. I am not playing semantics here. I am sure that we can all agree that we tend to bring up our sons to look inwards and daughters to look outwards. The assumed role of caregivers for women makes them put themselves second at the very best. But if we have strong women role models, then we have a generation of empowered women. And surely that can only lead to positives.
In the process of my writing of BEING GANDHI, I discovered how powerful his ideas were then and how relevant they remain. And yet, how very simple and even do-able his ideas were. It requires one empowered child to stand up to a bully to start turning a tide. In a gentle way you can shake the world, said Gandhi. If a child converts from being a bystander to just standing with the victim of bullying, others who hesitated, or couldn’t find the courage, may just be able to. If the bullying still doesn’t stop, then being proactive would make the victim at least feel that she was not so isolated. If there were half a dozen children who stood up for the victim, the bully would begin to feel vulnerable. Otherwise, we are empowering the oppressor with our silence.
Gandhi spoke up – we need to speak up
Gandhi stepped up – we need to step up
Gandhi stood up for what he believed was right
Gandhi listened to the thoughts of others
And then Gandhi made up his own mind
We? All of the above.
And it is so ridiculously easy to do all of the above that we should not even have to think about it.
So the challenge for me was, once I was convinced that I did want to write a book on Gandhi, but how was I to convince children to read that book?
The answer for me lay not in Gandhi the man, not the that moment in history, but rather to put his thoughts into contemporary context where younger readers would relate and then, “hey, I could do this” or “gosh, I’ve seen this, I’ve felt like doing something – so, can I?”
When I take the book to a group of children in a school and tell them that I am going to talk about Gandhi, there is an audible groan, a leaning away. Because Gandhi=boring in the way that they’ve been taught.
But as I start the reading and from the heading of the first chapter, which is “MY LIFE SUCKS, JUST SUCKS”, they are puzzled, curious. Drawn in. They listen.
I have seen recognition dawn as the story unfolds. A recognition of a wrong they have witnessed. Of a helplessness they have felt. And there it is. It is all I ever wanted to do as a writer.
The questions that follow interactions reflect their own problems – “this is what I see, I hate it, what can I do?” is the larger, consistent theme of the questions. One question that stands out. It came in a zoom meeting. Quietly, anonymously in a chat box.
“My parents are refusing to pay our cleaning didi during lockdown because they are not letting her come. I know that she is a single mother with children to look after. I don’t know what to do.”
The answer is simply – find your inner Gandhi.
Do something about it.
Be Gandhi. Help others find theirs.
Because each of us has a better person inside.
All illustrations above are by Priya Kuriyan and from the book, 'Being Gandhi', by Paro Anand published by HarperCollins Children's Books.
Get a copy of Being Gandhi here - https://amzn.to/3jnxOVs