By Harsha Jani
The greatness of a man is realized when his life influences and inspires people to change for the better. Such was the Mahatma's life that even decades after his death, on reading his autobiography, people drastically changed their lives for the better. This article focuses on the impact Gandhi's autobiography had on three people who lived in the United States of America in a culture diametrically opposite to ours. These three people were from different walks of life and doing different jobs
There have been three occasions in my life in USA where I felt Gandhi had an impact on them, or if I were to be more accurate, on reading his autobiography people have undergone a change for the better.
On 12th December 1971, my 2½ year old daughter Aishani and I migrated to the United States of America. My husband Harish had gone earlier and hence by the time I reached USA he had started eating non-vegetarian food. On my arrival he calmly explained that he liked American non-vegetarian food and if I was inclined to I too could eat the same. However, he said if I did not want to eat non-vegetarian food then I could eat Indian vegetarian food or whatever was available in the US, but our daughter would eat nutritious non-vegetarian food. I did not object to this and right from day one started giving Aishani eggs and bread butter for breakfast. After that without any qualms I started cooking non-vegetarian food. If once in a way my husband and children wanted to eat Indian vegetarian food with me it was fine, but I continued eating vegetarian food while the rest of my family ate non-vegetarian food.
Life continued peacefully and finally came the day when my daughter Aishani graduated from university and returned to the nest. Soon the question of her marriage arose and we started looking for a suitable boy for her. One day I was talking to a prospective groom’s mother on the telephone. Aishani was nearby and happened to overhear the conversation. During my talk with the mother I was asked whether my daughter was vegetarian or non-vegetarian. I lied a
little and said that she eats whatever is there and she has no problem eating either type of food. After I hung up the phone Aishani told me not to tell a lie and to get her married in a family that ate non-vegetarian food. About three years after this conversation, one day as I sat watching TV, Aishani came up to me and told me, “Mummy this Saturday when you go to buy groceries do not buy non-vegetarian food for me.” I was pleasantly surprised and asked her, “Why not, has something happened to you?” I wanted to know how a food habit acquired and enjoyed for so many years could be changed in the blink of an eye. On hearing my question Aishani laughed and told me, “After reading a book I have gained some enlightenment and have promised God that I would not eat food that would cause pain to others.” On my inquiring which book she said, “Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi” and then translated the title in Gujarati.
On hearing this I was so happy that I hugged and kissed my daughter. I thought to myself, she had not read Gandhiji’s Autobiography as a novel but with the purpose of practicing his teachings. While my thoughts were tripping over each other in my minds eye I saw Gandhiji and started humming the song, “Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal.” (O Saint of Sabarmati, what you have done is remarkable!) I thought, for years I had cooked non-vegetarian food, which was against my religious beliefs, and kept questioning God as to how long He would test me in this manner and in a moment of self-realization, which had come to my daughter by reading this great man’s Autobiography, she had changed her food habits! I realized that this great soul’s Autobiography helped not only Indians but people all over the world. World over people were indebted to this great man and they tried to clear this debt by living life as per his teachings.
In 1997 we decided to perform the thread ceremony of our son in the US. The date for the ceremony was fixed for the 15th of June and accordingly we got about 200-250 invitation cards printed in India. The size of the card was approximately 5”x8”. The invitation cards were to be distributed in the US amongst our friends and relatives. Some people told us that cards of this size would not be accepted by the post office as in the US the postal department was computerized and the computers were not programmed to handle cards of this size. I decided to try and find a solution on my own to this problem.
I went to my area post office and handed the 200-250 cards to the lady at the counter and requested her to send the cards. She told me that it could not be done and gave me the reasons why. I asked to speak to her supervisor. The supervisor was a big burly white man and looking at me he said, “Hello! Young lady, may I help you?” I replied, “Yes sir, I need your kind help. I think only you can do this.” So saying I gave him a brief background about the thread ceremony we were to perform and then told him that it was for this that the invitation cards needed to be sent. He heard me out and then said, “Lady you are from India. That means Mahatma Gandhi’s country. He was a gentleman. He did good work for humankind. We cannot do this work by machine; but I will do this work by myself, manually. It will take one and a half hours. I think I am doing this work for that great man, Gandhi. Did you know, I have read his Autobiography twice so far? I have now bought that book for my home library. We can learn from his life.” Listening to him I was filled with happiness and thanked him over and over again.
On my way home in my car I thought to myself that my conversational skills had got the job done, but on thinking about the entire episode I realized that once again it was Gandhiji’s teachings that had inspired the postmaster to help me. I was so touched about it that I started to cry and had to stop the car by the wayside to bring myself under control. Once again Gandhiji had done so much for me. I bowed my head to the great man and started chanting his name. I started singing, “Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal.” (o' the saint of Sabarmati, what you have done is remarkable!)
My father – Ganpatishankar Vyas was from Rajpipla and was a lawyer as well as a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi. He wore only khadi and boycotted foreign goods. He was an active participant in India’s struggle for freedom. He had opposed the King of Rajpipla for his oppression of the poor. The result was that the king had taken away my father’s title and my father was forced to practice law outside Ankleshwar. In this way I had been exposed to Gandhi since childhood.
From January 1999 for about five months I worked for the New Jersey Income Tax office. My job was to process Income Tax Return forms. Most of my colleagues were black people. They were a very loud spoken and abusive lot. They used extremely abusive language and it used to upset me so I asked to be transferred to another department. Even there it was the same story and no one in the office was willing to reprimand these people for their bad language and bad behaviour. Many a time I felt I should quit but somehow I stuck it out. Slowly I started realizing that my colleagues wanted to talk to me so I started talking to them and we exchanged superficial information about ourselves. On learning that I was from India they asked me questions like – where was India? How did I come to the US? Which language is spoken in India? How did I learn English? And so on. I answered their questions to the best of my abilities. As we got to know each other more and more, I one day broached the subject about their using abusive language and told them politely that it was not good to use this kind of language and other colleagues were hesitant in talking to them because of their bad language. A young colleague of mine, Chad, started talking about Gandhiji. From what he said I realized his knowledge about Gandhiji was sketchy so I spoke to him in detail about Gandhiji. Chad wanted to know much more about Gandhiji so I told him to read his Autobiography. As Chad did not know where he could buy the book I offered to loan him my copy with the promise that he would return it to me. The next day I brought my English translation of Gandhiji’s Autobiography and gave it to Chad to read. For the next three days there was no sign of Chad. On asking I was told that Chad had left the job. My colleagues started teasing me, “Hansa your book has disappeared forever. You will never get it back.” I confidently replied that the book had not disappeared. Chad would gain a lot from it and return it.
Fifteen days after this conversation, as I was walking from the car park to my office I saw a family of three well-dressed people standing some distance away from me. I noticed that the woman was wearing a light blue t-shirt and a skirt and the man was dressed in a suit. Next to them was a stroller with a child in it. As I drew near them the man said, “Good morning Hansa.” I was startled and thought to myself I don’t know this man and he knows my name! Seeing my blank look the man said, “Hansa you have forgotten me – I am Chad.” I was surprised, for the Chad I remembered had been unshaven and had worn dirty clothes. This Chad was clean shaven and suited and booted. We refreshed our knowledge of each other. He then introduced me to his wife and his two year old daughter who was in the stroller. In a contrite manner Chad said, “Hansa I am sorry. I could not come to return your book. I am grateful that you gave me this great man’s book to read.” So saying he turned towards his wife, Marian, and asked her to tell me the rest. Marian said, “Hansa we want to tell you about us. Chad used to drink a lot and sometimes in his drunkenness he would get angry and hit me. There were times when we did not have money for milk but Chad did not stop drinking. We were having many problems. We are very grateful to you for giving Chad Gandhi’s book to read. On the third day he came to me and told me that this is the book of a great man. I am promising you that I will not drink any spirits from now on and nor will I hit you. In all the years we have been together Chad has never bought me anything. On the day he promised me that he would not drink ever again he bought me a dozen roses. Even the clothes I am wearing have been bought by Chad. I am very happy.” So saying Marian gave me a hug. I looked at Chad and saw a changed man. Chad now had a good job with AT&T and I could see they were very happy. Chad thanked me once again and returned Gandhiji’s Autobiography to me. We said our goodbyes and parted. Once again I realized that this great man’s life and teachings had helped someone make a better and happier life. In my mind I paid respect to Gandhiji and started humming, “Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal.” (O Saint of Sabarmati, what you have done is remarkable!)
The man who had driven away the British with his principles of honesty and non-violence and mental strength, had helped Chad too, to change his life for the better. Gandhiji’s Autobiography is indeed a great book and I salute this great son of Mother India over and over again.