It is well-known that a child’s love for his aunts and uncles is different from his attachment to his parents. Memories of my childhood tell me that this is true — my aunt was, I like to think, the best of what a middle-class culture creates in our country. The fifth daughter of a successful lawyer, she grew up in a small village in Kerala in the early part of the 20th century. Strong-willed but still emotional, she opened a new world to me and my sister to whom she offered an inexhaustible supply of love, concern and care. My aunt had been an outstanding student. Sadly, like most girls of her generation she was not allowed to attend college. She was extremely well-read. Like my mother, my aunt had strong principles dearly cherished, and closely held values demonstrated in every aspect of her life. With it my aunt displayed a ferocious work ethic when it came to studies and examinations.
Her husband was a famous Sanskrit scholar, educated at Oxford and Heidelberg, Professor at well-known Indian colleges and later Vice-Chancellor of a university. I was 10 when they came to stay with us, after my uncle’s retirement. It was at this stage that M K Gandhi entered my life and made me look at things more deeply than I would have otherwise. He ceased to be a statue or a picture and became a living presence at home.
It all started with the Mahabharata. I was in a Jesuit school that laid great emphasis on English. Texts, examples, games and culture were all oriented to the West. One of the first things my Aunt did was to buy us copies of C Rajagoplachari’s versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. My sister and I devoured these. We talked about the characters, endlessly reliving some of the more famous events, enacting the conflicts and yelling some of the more dramatic lines. For me this was the beginning of a life-long love of the Mahabharata and its characters.
One day my aunt said to me “Gandhiji also loved parts of the Mahabharata.” This was the first of many references to Gandhiji. We followed her around, pestering her for descriptions of her life and what she thought of this or that.
My aunt never drew water directly from a tap. She would pour water into a small container and save what was not used. Why do you do this, we asked. Gandhiji said we should not waste water. A small lesson in saving natural resources followed. Came Diwali and when we wanted to burst fire-crackers like everyone else, she said we shouldn’t waste money. Gandhiji said it is the same as burning money. At this point, we asked “ Why do you say Gandhiji?” She explained ‘ji’ was a way of showing respect. From there she smoothly transited into our learning Hindi. Why? Because Gandhiji said Hindi should be learnt by all young children. Thus we were enrolled at the Dakshin Hindi Prachar Sabha and passed two levels of examinations. Needless to say, my aunt had actually passed them all several years earlier.
My aunt suggested that I wore khaddar kurta and pyjamas at home. It was a very small difference, but it brought about a major change in my outlook. In this and countless other ways our, my aunt taught us Gandhian principles. Looking back, I realise that this was an important turning point in my life. It was at this stage that I looked beyond a world of west-oriented books and stories for the first time. When I turned the pages of my history book, I felt closer to those who had brought freedom to our country.
Impressed with my aunt’s strong belief in Gandhi and his way of life, one day I asked “ How well did you know Gandhi?” She said “I never met him, but your uncle knew him.” How could this be, I asked myself. It didn’t add up. How could you be influenced so deeply by someone you had never met?
Many years later, I learnt how true leaders fashion the lives of others – even those they never meet. When I worry about the state of my country today, I remind myself of my aunt and my mother. I think of the millions of good and decent people who will respond to the goodness in their leaders and transform their lives and the lives of others.