Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gandhi's in the House

This afternoon, Rajmohan Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, and his lovely wife, Usha, came over to our humble home in New Delhi. We were honored and delighted to host them, quite blown over by the reality of having such an internationally revered figure sitting with us in our makeshift living room in this rented flat. They were both so gracious, down-to-earth and inquisitive, especially sensitive to including our daughters in the conversation.

How I came to invite them over takes some back-story. I serve as Vice Chair of the board of a nonprofit called Initiatives of Change – USA. It is part of an interfaith global network ( that Rajmohan was the International President of up until the end of 2010. IofC challenges people to take quiet time to reflect on the personal changes they need to make which may create ripples that can transform a community. We are people struggling to live out Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This fellowship of friends has been important to me at crucial times in examining places where I am wanting and need to make changes in my own life, a continuous process to be sure, and has introduced me to some wonderful folks such as Raj and Usha.

In addition to this IofC connection, the Gandhi’s have a son, Debu, who attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where my mother is an alumnae and long-served on the Board of Trustees. Debu occasionally spent vacation breaks in my parents’ home in Portland, when he wasn’t able to get back to India or wherever his folks were at the time.

Later in my trip, I hope to go to Panchgani near Pune to visit Asia Plateau, the retreat center for Initiatives of Change – India. This morning I called the Managing Trustee there to make arrangements. Dr. Ravi Rao mentioned that Rajmohan and Usha had just left Panchgani and were in Delhi for a couple days before departing for Caux, Switzerland, where IofC’s International Retreat Center is located (and where I proposed to Aviva). I immediately called Raj’s mobile number and he invited me to meet them for lunch.

When I told my colleagues at Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy that I was leaving early for lunch with Rajmohan Gandhi they were aghast. “He is the grandson of the father of our country and you are the having lunch with him? I have only seen him on TV. He is a powerful speaker,” one said. Raj is a journalist, historian and author, and was a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the India’s Parliament. He now teaches at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I later said to my daughters that “it would be like having George Washington’s grandson in our home,” to which Ilana responded, “But George Washington’s grandson is dead.”

Usha’s sister, Jai Chandiram, a film maker and media consultant, was meeting Raj and Usha for lunch at the comfortable India International Center in Lodi Colony, and I joined them. After lunch, Raj and Usha had a meeting with their tax advisor who just happens to office around the corner from where we stay in Jangpura. They were delighted to offer me a ride in their car and I was delighted to have them come up for about 45 minutes to meet the rest of my family.

I called Aviva to make sure that our place was picked up enough to entertain these honored guests. Raj was slow coming up the two flights of stairs. Later, when Leora asked “Why did your grandfather use that stick?” Raj answered, “Like me holding onto the railing coming up the stairs today, he also sometimes needed something to help him keep his balance.”

Once we sat down and offered them a glass of cold water and a plate of simple cookies, we relaxed into some chit-chat. With an interesting twist on the standard question we are asked by many here – Do you like India? – Raj provocatively asked our girls, “What is something that you don’t like about India?”  Leora quickly answered, “The smell is sometimes yucky.”

As if taking personal responsibility for the smells of this country, Rajmohan said, “I’m sorry that India does not smell good. We do not always take care of our garbage. I apologize for that.” It struck me that this incredible man was finding some way in which to make my youngest child feel just a little more comfortable in his country by sincerely apologizing for something that he has very, very little control over. It was a small gesture that went a long way in connecting with this almost-8 year old girl.

I asked Rajmohan to tell my girls a story that he remembers about his grandfather from when he was their ages. He prefaced his story by recalling that when he was about 10 years old, his father, Devdas Gandhi, the Mahatma’s youngest son, was the editor of The Hindustan Times, an English language newspaper published in Delhi. The printing presses were on the ground floor, business offices on the first floor and housing on the second floor where his family lived. Using his grandfather’s surname, Raj said, “At that time, Gandhi was very busy,” probably an understatement considering the years must have been the late 1930s or early 1940s during the heat of the Indian independence movement.

Rajmohan said, “In India it is traditional when you first greet a family member of the older generation to bow before them and they give the child a blessing. When my grandfather would come over, he would bless us by giving us a thump on our backs, a loving thump,” he said demonstrating with his open palm and making a motion as if gently slapping a small person’s back bending in front of him. We all laughed, having shared an inside intimacy of the Gandhi family.

Raj looked at Ilana, “Like you, I wore glasses.” Then he said, “My grandfather was very simple and frugal.” He asked my girls, “Do you know what frugal means?” When Leora said no, he answered his own question, “It means not wasting things.” He went on with his story, “I had recently got a new pair of glasses. At first I thought that he wouldn’t notice because he was so busy with other people. But he did notice and said, ‘You got a new pair of glasses.’ I had already thought about how I would answer and quickly said, ‘Yes, I needed a new pair.’ To which my grandfather asked, ‘And did you need new frames too?’”

Another story Rajmohan told us referenced the place in Delhi, now called Gandhi Smriti, where his grandfather was assassinated. When we said that we planned to go see that place, now a famous memorial and pilgrimage place, Usha said with a special twinkle for my girls that there were small dolls showing scenes from Gandhi’s life. Raj then told us, “We would walk with my grandfather to his prayer meetings. The whole way we would joke and laugh having so much fun with him. He loved his family. But when we got there, we would have to be very silent.”

Raj and Usha graced us with a few photos and we said our goodbyes. The Gandhis’ visit to our home was definitely the highlight of India so far. But there are many highlights yet to come. This weekend we will celebrate the girls’ 8th and 10th birthdays in Agra, where we will see the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, Rajasthan, which is called the Pink City.

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