W.W.G.D.?

I’m probably not breaking new literary ground by saying this: Gandhi was an amazing guy.

Before this trip, I had seen the Hollywood movie and knew a bit of Indian history. Learning more about his life was a priority for me in Mumbai and Delhi. As I walked through the cramped hallways of Mani Bhavan and saw his small living area in Gandhi Smriti, the icon turned into a real person for me. I marveled anew at his story.

This guy didn’t just eloquently talk the talk, he undeniably walked the walk, casting aside worldly possessions to advocate for the poor. It casts a hard light on the politicians and the, well, all of us who claim to care about the less fortunate (I say, typing the words on a laptop made by the less fortunate, working under questionable circumstances).

As I toured India, from the slums of Mumbai to the toxic water of the Ganges, I often wondered: were he alive today, What Would Gandhi Do? He said:

I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, and India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony… There can be no room in such India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs… Women will enjoy the same rights as men… This is the India of my dreams.

That India certainly doesn’t exist today. The big picture is discouraging: government corruption renders the most well-intentioned efforts ineffective. A billion people stretch infrastructure and environmental resources to their limits. Money flows through the country: a torrent for some, a trickle for others.

What we saw at street level was more illuminating than any GDP number. People living on the sidewalks, children begging in the streets. So much garbage, dirt, pollution.

One Indian I spoke to- an IT professional for a multinational company- said that eventually there will be a revolution. He calmly predicted that when enough people feel disenfranchised, this country will explode. Who will lead the march? Do Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and negotiation have a place in the 21st century, or will the uprising look more like Syria does right now?

I’m not looking down on India here: the US isn’t exactly the gold standard in equality and environmental stewardship. If there’s an afterlife, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and a few founding fathers are standing side-by-side, shaking their heads.

Gandhi also said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house, as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.

One reason Karen and I embarked on this journey was to blow around in a few cultures ourselves (we’ve even been temporarily knocked off our feet once or twice). What an image: new cultures swirling around a solid foundation. In this era of building 20-foot-tall fences and blaming immigrants for a host of problems (wow, Mexican busboys must wield enormous power), what would Gandhi think?

In our darker moments, Karen and I sometimes come up with spoof tourism slogans, like “Cambodia: There’s Always Something” or “Thailand: Trust No One.” In trying to assess India’s current situation, I tried out the slogan “India: It’s Too Late.” Want to clean up the garbage? It’s too late- the piles are already too high. Want a transportation system that can handle the traffic? It’s too late- the roads and the rails were laid out a hundred years ago, and you’re stuck with them.

To a weary tourist, an honest politician, or an underpaid factory worker, it may indeed seem too late. But I hope that slogan is proven wrong- sooner than later. The problems are daunting. The numbers are staggering. But these are human beings we’re talking about, and hope can come from the least likely places.

No one expected a London-educated lawyer to bring the British Empire to its knees. I’m sure the 1.2 billion people of India have a few surprises in store for us. Hopefully, the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi will inspire some of them, as it inspires people around the world.

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