No guns, only roses

Oct 02, 2012, 07:43 IST | Fiona Fernandez

On the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Anne and Perry O'Brien writers of a book called, 'After Gandhi' speak about profiling bravehearts who espouse non-violence

It is the acid test of nonviolence that there is no rancour left behind, and in the end, the enemies are converted into friends” 

-- Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi
True leader: Mahatma Gandhi. Pic courtesy/ After Gandhi

Mother and son. Modern-day America. Non-violence. MK Gandhi.

The connect might sound far fetched, at first glance. But, as one turns the pages of, After Gandhi, co-authored by Anne O’Brien and son Perry, it is easy to join the dots.

Martin Luther King Jr, The book After Gandhi
Fighter: Martin Luther King Jr , Cover up: The book After Gandhi 

Back in March 2006, in Alabama, both joined ‘Walkin’ to New Orleans’, an event organised by The Veterans and Survivors March for Peace and Justice. The group spoke in one voice “stop the war and bring people home”. The US was grappling with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; there was a public outcry to use national income and human resources engaged in war in other countries, to be diverted towards nation building instead. Six days later, the 300-strong group entered New Orleans after having experienced the real America along the way. War sagas and hurricane survivor stories became a common platform that bonded this group.

Perry O'Brien with his mother Anne
Writer duo: Perry O’Brien with his mother Anne

But the seeds of this book and the mother and son’s mission were rooted in the cause earlier. Anne’s tryst dates back to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Since then, she has joined marches, rallies and campaigns for a host of causes and is an award-winning author. Perry was six weeks old when he attended his first peace march. After serving in Afghanistan as an airborne medic he received an honourable discharge as a Conscientious Objector (CO). Today, as founder of and board member of the National Forum for Peace and Justice, he works as a labour organiser in New York City. Via an email interview, the gritty mother-son duo share their beliefs, goals and pursuits to be the change, in their own small way. The book is a retelling of stories of popular and lesser-known change makers from across the globe, who followed Gandhi’s ideals of nonviolence and patience in an impatient, ever-changing world. Excerpts from the interview:

Anna Hazare
Fighting for a noble cause: Anna Hazare went on an indefinite fast to protest against corruption

How soon after the protests of 2006 did you decide to begin work on this book?
Anne O’Brien: The book was actually in process long before 2006. Originally, I was working on the project with an author and an editor with whom I’d collaborated on five other books. Both of them had to pull out of the project in 2005 for personal reasons.

Iron lady: Aung San Suu Kyi led the non-violent resistance in Burma

How did both of you become a writing team?
Anne: When my former collaborators couldn’t complete the project, I ended up being the person left standing, holding a contract for the book – and I was originally the illustrator! One of my partners said, “Why don’t you write the book?” I was both excited and terrified by the idea, as I’d never tackled such a huge project on my own. I told him I’d sleep on it.

The next morning I woke up thinking, “Perry!” My son had received an honourable discharge from the Army as a CO the year before, had spent the Spring (season) as a researcher for a law firm, was completing his degree at Cornell University, and is a wonderful writer. Who could be a better collaborator for this book? I called him up and asked, “How would you like to write a book with your mom?” He said, “Yes!” We turned out to be very compatible as writing partners and had a thoroughly enjoyable experience with this challenging and important project.

Perry O’Brien: It was an exciting opportunity for me because at the time I was already working with Iraq Veterans against the War. I looked forward to delving more deeply into the history of non-violence and the people who made possible the anti-war work that we were doing.

What were the criteria you set to shortlist the names? Also, tell us about the research you had to do, considering the names are filled with extremes – from very popular to the lesser-known.

Anne: When Perry and I became partners, we revisited the original list of names and developed a new criteria reflecting what the two of us brought to the project. For instance, in response to Perry’s recent experience of becoming a conscientious objector, we wanted to include a strong model of a CO (we chose to include Muhammad Ali) and other examples of war resistance. The criteria we finally settled on was “a group of people who 1. Represent the diverse, global nature of non-violent resistance and its range of causes, 2. Engaged in direct action, and 3. Lived the Gandhian ideals of self-sacrifice and overcoming hate with love.”

We also looked for particular incidents that could be told as opening scenes, to convey the inspiring drama, courage and creativity of non-violent resistance, when people make extraordinary decisions with their lives on the line.

Our research was extensive. But there were lucky gifts as well, such as when one of the students in our middle school focus group (who called themselves ‘Gandhi Publishing’ and to whom the book is dedicated) discovered the Aborigine Freedom Rides in Australia. We’d never heard of Charles Perkins, but he ended up in our book.

Do such books make for fantastic statements of change and tolerance in classrooms and for Gen Y?
Perry: Absolutely. Now more than ever around the world, people are using non-violence to make change in our communities. Books like After Gandhi can provide context, essential historical information, and role models to help inspire the next generation of young activists.

Do you believe that the world and India in particular, practises the work and principles of Gandhi ?
Anne: For several months in 2012, I experimented with a Twitter account related to the book. I found numerous examples of non-violent resistance, currently and historically, that I didn’t know about before I did the research. I suspect that there are far more incidents around the world of people choosing to emulate Gandhi. For instance, I was vaguely aware of the Chipko Movement, but it was very exciting to read about it in the India edition of our book, and the account prompted me to read more about its history. We are all enriched by hearing these stories, feel hopeful about the possibilities, and being inspired to action ourselves, so we urge everyone to look for and to become those who follow after Gandhi. 

About after Gandhi
From Buenos Aires to Cape Town, Prague, Vietnam and Beijing, history books have always highlighted people’s movements — of the leaders, the man on the street, the victors, survivors and the aftermath. Often, in the buzz and chaos of the larger picture, the handful of minds that steered the charge tends to get lost (though most will step back from the glare, willingly). It is the lives and struggles of these bravehearts who Anne O’Brien and son Perry have paid tribute to in After Gandhi.

Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel are some of the well-known inclusions; there are others too — the flag bearers for the Northern island cause, the aboriginal rights movement and many others.

The narrative from the chilling student activism that lit Tiananmen Square, along with an Indian chapter that salutes Irom Sharmila, Medha Patkar’s
Narmada Bachao Andolan, Anna Hazare, the Chipko Movement and the Right To Information Act are all in this timeline of global nonviolence.

Don’t mistake it for a history book. Instead, approach it for its telling, honest accounts of lives that stood in the line of fire, defied the odds and adopted a nonviolent approach to beat the oppressor. Go ahead, browse its pages for inspiration. The change is out there.

After Gandhi: Brave Torchbearers of Nonviolent Resistance, by Anne Sibley O’Brien & Perry Edmond O’Brien, Hachette India, Rs 350. 

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