Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Gandhi Method

Near where I live there is a tiny airport. I sometimes park outside to sit and watch the planes. They are small ones. Mostly it is a training school for pilots from abroad. I watch in a trance-like state as the planes gather speed along the runway until, as if by magic, they suddenly become airborne. I watch them land. The gradual, circling descent, lower and lower, nose flaring briefly upwards before the wheels touch down in a quick puff of dust. It is so calming. So satisfying to watch these two simple events---takeoff and landing---over and over again. It enables me to let my thoughts wander into hidden territory. Explore what lies behind the mental armour I wear against the rough and tumble of daily life. Forget drink. Forget drugs. They don't work for me. This does. Give me a sunny day with small planes endlessly taking off and landing. There is no greater release. There is no greater pleasure.......

......... and I think of the people in my life who have passed by. The ones who have done me right. The ones who have done me wrong. And the ones to whom I have done right or wrong. Somehow the "right" ones don't matter so much. It is the "wrong" ones who fill my thoughts.

I form the words and sentences that I should have said to the ones who wronged me. Sometimes even speeches telling them about how they made me feel. I yearn for an explanation. I need to understand why they behaved as they did. Because I want to forgive them. No, I need to forgive them. I also make up excuses for the times when I wronged someone, in retrospect blaming it on pressure I had been under at the time.

And I like to think that those who wronged me had similar pressures at work on them. But I can never be sure, can I? Maybe they just perversely enjoyed what they said or did to me at the time. I don't like this thought. I want to forgive, but I need a reason to forgive. An expression of remorse from them. Otherwise how can I forgive? I am only an ordinary human being.

So through this morass I wade, in my relaxed and freewheeling state of mind, and the planes just keep coming and going in the distance. And sooner or later and my thoughts turn to one particular person who came and went in my life.

The cleaning lady. Let's call her Anna.

She came to our house every day. Squatting down on her haunches and pushing her voluminous garments out of the way, she would hand-mop our smooth-tiled patio floors. My brother was two, and I was four years old. We would approach, and for no reason at all we would kick Anna the cleaning lady's shins. A small first layer of skin would detach on her ankles, and a white patch would show through. She would moan, but she never retaliated in any way. Not even telling our mother to obtain the sound spanking that we little monsters so richly deserved. So we did it again and again. Why? Because her acceptance bothered us. We needed a response. We did not understand this lack of complaint. And until it came, something in us would not let it rest, so we went on doing it. Kicking the shins of this poor cleaning lady.

We overheard Anna speaking to our mother once, but it wasn't about us. She was describing a visit she made to the government hospital. The doctor who told her she needed treatment for some ailment. The huge hypodermic syringe that she saw him preparing through a chink in the curtain, the sight of it unnerving her so much that she quietly slipped out and away. "Well, whatever has to happen, will happen," I remember her finishing as my mother sat staring at her with a bemused look.

And one day I overheard Anna softly humming a sad song to herself as she wearily massaged her well-kicked ankles. And I felt really bad. But the next day I was back at it again, inflicting needless pain on the poor creature. Because I could not understand her. I needed her to do something that would put paid to these horrible and mean acts she suffered from my brother and I. I needed her to stop us. But she never did, and in that lay her victory and my defeat. By acting thus she inflicted on me a deeper, longer lasting wound than any sound spanking could ever have done.
Many years have passed but she still haunts me. Whenever I have the time for introspection I remember her. Wishing I could return and find a way to make some kind of reparation for what I did. To make it okay. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me, how much it cuts me up inside not to be able to do this. I wouldn't be able to trace her in that far off country we lived in. She's almost certainly dead by now anyway. She was quite old.

And so I look up again at the clear blue sky through the windscreen of my parked car and watch the approach of another metallic bird, a shiny dot out of nowhere, slowly swooping earthwards to land gracefully with a small puff of dust that the old cleaning lady would have got rid off so effortlessly with one sweep of her hand. For she knew a secret. A mighty secret. It was the same secret that Gandhi knew. The secret knowledge that he used to defeat all the soldiers of the mighty British Empire.

Non-retaliation. The Gandhi method.

You see, people just can't understand it. When they go on being violent this non-retaliation eats away at the souls of the aggressors faster than battery acid spilled onto a pile carpet. It rots their very core. Because ordinary human beings like you and me are usually not psychos. We do have sensitivities and feelings even if we might often forget them in moments of self interest or self gratification. And the wrong that we have done, if left unpunished, becomes too much for us to bear.

The British rulers imposed an unfair tax on salt---and salt is something that even the poorest could not do without. Gandhi's response was to march his followers to the sea to make their own salt by evaporating sea-water. Soldiers armed with heavy bamboo staves stood in their way. Each time Gandhi's followers advanced to make salt they were beaten to the ground, bones cracking under the bamboo staves of the waiting soldiers. And there they lay, groaning in bloody heaps. Then Gandhi would signal and a fresh wave of his people would advance, only to be beaten to the ground again in similar ghastly fashion. This happened so many times. The soldiers were sickened. The newspaper accounts were even more sickening. Even in smudgy black and white photographs the blood stains were clearly visible---perhaps more so because Gandhi's followers always dressed in white.

So okay, the bones would mend and the wounds would heal. But the damage could never be repaired. This is the way they eventually triumphed. Gandhi's followers were quite happy to be beaten up again and again, on every occasion when brute authority needed to be challenged. There came a point when enough was enough, the British government could not take it any more. They gave India her independence. They wanted out of that "crazy" place and its "crazy" people led by that "crazy" man. But was Gandhi crazy? Far from it. He was a very clever man indeed. He knew how to hit and hurt people in their conscience deep down inside where no one else could see, where the wound would never heal.
And Anna, our old cleaning lady, knew this too. And I am suffering to this day, and will probably do so until I breathe my last.
Clever Gandhi. Clever Anna, the cleaning lady.
I start the engine of my car and drive home. My peace is gone. My spirit is restless once more........


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