Dial M For Mahatma

“You find ingredients listed on bottles of masala, but not the recipe, so that nobody can replicate it,” says a young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, himself looking for what turned him into Mahatma, Bapu. Father of The Nation. He believes it’s all in Mohan’s notebook, and if he traces it, he will get the secret recipe.

Manoj Shah’s new play is titled Mohan No Masalo a one-man show with Pratik Gandhi playing Mohaniya, the Gujarati boy from Porbandar who has no idea that he is marked for greatness. Shah has been working on interesting solo acts; not only does he come up with interesting subjects, he also matches them with good writing, and of course, strong performers. It takes immense confidence, not to mention memory power and stamina to hold an audience for the 90-plus minutes’ duration of the play. So Satchit Puranik in Karl Marx in Kalbadevi, Pratik Gandhi in Hun Chandrakant Bakshi and Dayashanker Pandey in Popcorn With Parsai, all brought their characters, their work, their beliefs and periods they represented alive on the stage, with minimal props and a large helping of humour.

Gandhi is both easy and difficult to portray easy because there is so much material available on him, a lot of it written by him in books, newspaper articles and copious correspondence with a variety of people, plus a lot by journalists, researchers, followers; difficult because what is there to say that isn’t already known about Gandhi? Pic/Getty Images
Gandhi is both easy and difficult to portray easy because there is so much material available on him, a lot of it written by him in books, newspaper articles and copious correspondence with a variety of people, plus a lot by journalists, researchers, followers; difficult because what is there to say that isn’t already known about Gandhi? Pic/Getty Images

Gandhi is both easy and difficult to portray easy because there is so much material available on him, a lot of it written by him in books, newspaper articles and copious correspondence with a variety of people, plus a lot by journalists, researchers, followers; difficult because what is there to say that isn’t already known about Gandhi?

Mohan No Masalo (written by Ishan Doshi and Satya Mehta) focusses on the formative years of Gandhi’s life, the people and incidents that made him a leader of people. As a kid, he was ordinary, not a particularly good student, but was truthful and obedient. One of the incidents that indicate his honesty: an Inspector came to his school. Gandhi misspelt the word ‘kettle’, his teacher signaled to him to copy from the student next to him, but he refused to be dishonest.

Stage plays on Shravan and Raja Harishchandra had a great impact on him, particularly the latter’s adherence to the truth, at the cost of great personal sacrifice.

Like every boy his age, he was also impressionable. When he was told by a classmate that to drive the British out of the country, one had to be strong, and that was possible only with a non-vegetarian diet, he started secretly eating meat, but did not like the taste; he also started smoking surreptitiously.

In a tragic-comic incident, his friends and he felt that they had done wrong, and the only way to atone was to commit suicide, and they tried swallowing poisonous datura seeds. Then, wracked with guilt, he wrote a letter confessing his misdeed to his father, and feared stringent punishment, but his father did not even scold him, just shed silent tears. Gandhi said he learnt the value of non-violence then. He was married at age 13 to Kasturba, and said she inspired patience and strength.

Glimpses of the courage and conviction that marked his character are seen when he stands up against his community leaders’ threats to ostracise him, and decides to go to England to study law, giving word to his mother that he would not touch meat or alcohol. It meant he was half-starved in cold London which is where he learnt how to go hungry, something that worked for his long hunger strikes later till he discovered a vegetarian restaurant.

It is in England that he first read the Bhagvad Gita in its English translation, with his theosophist friends. His interest in the scriptures of his own and other faiths probably started here.

In England, he saved money by walking everywhere, tried to improve himself, practicing his English, learning French, dancing and public speaking. Still, when he returned to India to practice law, he failed because he got tongue-tied in court. These little nuggets of information are not hidden, but this ‘human’ side of the Mahatma is not something that is talked about.

What is taught in schools, glorified in films and plays are the two incidents in South Africa the one in court where the judge rudely ordered him to remove the turban he was wearing, and the more famous one of being thrown out of the first class train compartment, that fuelled his rage against British rule. Carrying on this journey, he was insulted by a white man, who ordered him to sit on the footboard of the carriage. When Gandhi refused, he was beaten up so badly that the other passengers had to intervene this is possibly when his concept of satyagraha and the non-cooperation movement took seed.

Peppered with humour and delivered with verve, Mohan No Masalo actually makes for entertaining viewing. And gives rise to the question, the ingredients are there, the recipe can be formulated, but can another Mahatma be prepared?

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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