Now the matter of believing is this: That the sun also rises, and does so across the borders which we have drawn, and over the walls which we have built. (The walls we have no ways climbed and cannot raze.)
In India, it was a satin Sunday, droning on with sunshine, that stirred in its loins for the moments of emancipation. You must understand me, Father: Before Ghandi, before the lopsided British meandered their way off the peninsula, the character of a nation was born. Some say nations are subjects to their own fetters, bonded by requirement to unity and law, to virtue and government. But I do not remember virtue seething through blind men’s eyes, panning for gold in the feces of the street. Nor to say that government emancipated, but was rawly built to ensure emancipation. What, indeed, might have kept them free? Civil self, indeed! What thought combustible launched a thousand years of debt to their redeemers?
Therefore it was difficult to see myself British, or Indian, or British-Indian, or son of the sand, or mother of the Ganges; the filthy water clung to me like guilt. And no Brit walks about unclean, no Indian in his right mind is not always a carrier of his country’s pernicious past. When I hear the sideways slur of British English, even now I think of slavery’s bonds and the curt entanglement of overbearing kings on the kingdom that does not set. It does not set, but the sun does. I have seen it.
Still, on a satin Sunday in October, the sand still bristled with heat, the horizon wavered with eyes drunk on its fumes. And I became, one and the same time, father of a movement. It was 3pm when I met with the Mahatma, and he was neither ready nor learned enough for that moment. Neither, in brown flip-flops and a rough canvas robe, was I.
For it was not the British which encroached upon our minds. But the sun, and the moon, and then … matters full and full of all the earth. Tomorrow, Lady Ganges would overflow her banks, and would run across the wide maw of the land. And still, nothing would be clean. But dead.
And so he greeted me, setting upon his lotus pose while offering me a cigarette. “It’s not mine,” I remember him saying, rapidly. For surely, the Great Soul died with nary $2 to his continent of possessions. But I speak also of India.
“There’s not much in the way of it.” That was his cordial beginning, his tight-lipped presentation of the facts of things. And so much of what he said was nothing. But he was not to be blamed, for nothing could be said; crouched down in a sea of princes, India languished in dirt. If that wily good poet Owen will allow (one of the best Britain had), I’ll be a usurper for a day: India was writhing with froth-corrupted lungs, never knowing what stung her in the first place. Our world wars would have done her a mite good, dare I speak such a horror.
Mahatma clawed me with his eyes. There was surreptitiousness about him, which he had long since learned were better than platitudes. But it meant I couldn’t read the hell out of him, and had to pry away with witticisms until something stuck. Like the seldom clods of dirt moistened by sometimes water. And when sometimes there was water, there was forever water.
That day, I was fed up: “What is it, Ghandi?” I never used his name. It meant impatience, which he was used to. Easily deflected with a gruff shake of the head and a puff-up of his bony chest.
“No, I mean it!” I persisted. “You’ve got nothing at all to say and so I say everything. You called me here. What, then??”
Silence. Mahatamas, as a principle, are stoic. Ghandi was the head of his class—a ripe specimen of Eastern-worldly perfection that didn’t avoid abject poverty and somehow managed to dull the senses to their inuring disgust just long enough to rise above the fray with an idea. He whispered, “Let them stay.”
That was his counsel: Let them stay. “You know,” I gagged feverishly, coughing up the wind swept sand that ushered in through flaps of the tent, “it’s just idiocy. You either want them in or you want them out. But you can’t want them out and tell them to stay. You’ll confuse the living hell out of them!”
He wasn’t much for listening, unless it was to Indians. They gave him purpose, I suppose, and so he sought them out to maintain his reasons for reasoning. And while his answers were inane to a Westerner, they resonated with a deprecated nothing of a caste that made the whole of India shine with brownness.
“It is our heritage, poorness.” I thought to correct him with the likes of “poverty” or “penury” but resisted the urge. “To be poor, that is our namesake. To be trodden, that is our way. We cannot deny this.”
I lowered my head and stared at the fraying edge of my robe, sighing deeply with a thunderous release. I did meet his great, inquisitive eyes. “You give them every reason in the world to stay. They aim to civilize you, to make you better—”
“—they want to control us!” he snapped, clapping his skeletal fingers in front of my nose. It called my attention to the dust, which leaped from the ground into my nose. I sneezed with a bark, shaking. There would be no way, no possible way for a man of the dust to understand a man of politics and government.
“I suppose you care more about the Ganges?” I roughly ventured.
“She is our life-blood and our destruction. We have no choice but to care about her. She cares for us.”
“On a good day. Don’t you understand? The British can help—they’ll bring levees to stop the flooding, they’ll teach you irrigation!”
Mahatma laughed, at first quietly, then with an uproarious shudder that no one in the world would have guessed could emanate from his frail body. At last, he stopped, looking out in the distance at the steps of the Ganges. “They won’t teach us anything. We are not British; we are Indian. They would have nothing to do with us if they could. They want the land, not the people. But here, the people are the land.”
Desperately, I wanted to argue, but there was a raw truth to his words. They reeked of oppression and hinted at, one day, a revolution. It is said the British Empire never sees the setting sun, but I believe it wrong now. If ever the sun does sets, it sets here in India, with the people, flooded by misfortune and an intemperate river.
The Mahatma died that year—shot for nothing more criminal than a lust for peace. If the crime had been anyone’s, if any force of man could be said to upend the treatment of his fellow with dignity, then it was Britain. And she sailed on the wave of civilization with impunity, wresting all but subsistence from her distant shores. May that be her legacy.
And may I live 50 more turbulent years at this, the first breath of the Ganges; the rising sun of the East; the triumph of the will of man.
It is true, I never understood the great Mahatma. But I did not need to. His people did, and so did this great river.