In April, I participated in a conference organized by the International Forum for U.S. Studies. The conference theme was “The Presence of America in India.” At the conference, I had the chance to have a brief conversation with Mr. Rajmohan Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi, for those of you who do not know, is Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. He is currently a research professor at UIUC. You can read more about him on his website.
Mr. Gandhi is a good man. It shines off him. He is also an idealistic man (as was his grandfather). He gave a really interesting talk, among other things, about what the US and India can learn from each other. He pointed out that India’s presence in the U.S., politically speaking, was weak, through a “failure to be either a good enemy or a fully co-operating ally.” I hadn’t thought about it that way…
Another thing he said, which really caught my attention, was that we need civil movements at a grassroots level to change mundane ways of doing things.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, not least in the context of Occupy movements in the U.S. and Anna Hazare’s rallying calls in India (there are other problems there, but that’s not the point). One problem in generating change is apathy. Now I’m not saying that people are apathetic because they don’t care. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, though, they are apathetic because they care too much and are overwhelmed, or because they care, but feel like they can’t make a difference. I firmly believe that we should keep trying, even if we don’t change things the way we want to, because in the end, our trials will make a difference.
Anyway, I want to know how to change apathy, so I walked up to Mr. Gandhi after his talk, and asked him (more politely) something to the effect of, “all this is very well, but how do we counter apathy? How do we change what people are doing?”
The answer he gave me was simple, but inspiring. He said that the thing to do was not to try to change people’s behavior, because that is very hard to do. What we should do is find someone who is doing, or struggling to do, something we think ought to be done. Then encourage and help them in any way we can.
The thing about this bit of advice is, as I said, it’s simple. It really is about the grassroots level, the individual level. It really is about changing mundane ways of doing things. It makes what was once overwhelming, easier. Find one person doing something good, something you think needs to be done. Help them to the best of your ability.
It’s been about two months since that brief conversation, and I’ve been thinking about this so much since then. My maternal great-great grandfather was Salem Vijayaraghavachariar. My paternal grandparents were Gandhians and freedom fighters. My paternal grandmother was told by Gandhi to learn and teach Hindi, and she did, for decades, to hundreds of people. My family has a deep-rooted history with the Congress party of the freedom struggle, and with Mahatma Gandhi. This meeting with Rajmohan Gandhi, this encounter with his simple, practical idealism (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron) resonated strongly with the semi-forgotten family histories and legends in me. Surely, I thought to myself, surely it is that simple.
I leave you with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. It’s from his Collected Works.
“Compassion or love is man’s greatest excellence…Is there not cruelty enough in man? On our tongues there is always poison similar to a snake’s. We tear our brethren to pieces as wolves and tigers do…We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
(VOL. 13, 12 MARCH, 1919 – 25 DECEMBER, 1920, p. 241).