Monday, September 14, 2009

FAMILY TIES Borrowing ideas from Gandhi — for renewal and reconciliation

Originally Published in the Centre Daily Times, January 31, 2009

Mahatma Gandhi is honored all over the world as a champion of truth and nonviolence, teachings that still have value today, when both fresh violence and economic crisis have gripped the world.

As the world this week marks the 61st anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, the United States finds itself at the end of a momentous journey — from the birth of the nation in 1776 to the end of slavery, the civil rights movement and the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave the keynote talk at Penn State’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 21, said he considers this historic inauguration a testament to the power of nonviolence to create change in the relatively short span of 60 years.

Many who were involved in this journey, figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, were directly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi’s writings showed King that the power of love could be effective not just in individual relationships but also for creating political change. With his Christian ideals as background, and the Mahatma’s techniques, King became a powerful proponent of nonviolence.

Gandhi espoused a life of simplicity and integrity and valued the use of honest means to achieve any result.

Can Gandhi’s ideals of love, sacrifice, truth and nonviolence work for the United States and the rest of the world today? Gandhi’s grandson thinks so.

Arun, who was born and raised in South Africa, hated his childhood under apartheid, where he was beaten up by blacks and whites for being the wrong color. When he began to consider fighting back as an option, his parents sent 12-year-old Arun to live with his grandfather in India to learn about nonviolence.

The lessons below, which Arun learned from his grandfather, may provide some fresh guidance as Americans deal with the economic crisis and wars abroad and reflect on President Obama’s first proclamation: Declaring Jan. 20 a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation” and calling upon all to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this nation.

Understanding nonviolence
Nonviolence is an active philosophy, based on positive feelings such as respect, understanding, compassion and acceptance, Arun said. Violence is based on negative feelings such as hate, greed, jealousy and anger.
Nonviolence requires courage to stand up against injustice and accept the consequences.

Anger-Violence Connection
Arun recalls his grandfather asking him to create a genealogy tree, with violence at the head, and two branches — Active violence (killing, beating, pushing) and Passive violence (hating, name calling, stereotyping, wasting resources).
Recording his acts of violence daily on this tree made Arun realize how much passive violence he committed each day. His grandfather explained that the objects of his passive violence could resort to active violence and perpetuate a vicious cycle. He showed Arun how he could break the cycle of violence by being aware of and stopping his own acts of passive violence.

Nonviolent parenting
Arun offered an example from his youth. At 16, he had to drive his father 18 miles to Durbin for a conference and had to pick him up at 5 p.m. for the drive back home.
Arun was late because he went to see a movie. And then he got caught lying to his father about it.
His father did not shout at him. Instead, he told Arun, “There must be something wrong with the way I raised you that you did not have the confidence to tell me the truth.”
His father decided to do penance by walking the 18 miles home to figure out where he went wrong. Arun was miserable and chose to follow his father in his car as night fell. He also resolved to never lie again.
“What if I had been punished?” he asks. “I would perhaps have lied again but made sure that I did not get caught.” He believes that his father taught him a more powerful lesson with love than if punishment had been used.

Arun Gandhi’s tips for daily life
•“Keep a diary — understand your own acts of violence, including hating, putting down, stereotyping others and wasting resources.”
•“Be your own role model — imagine you are climbing a ladder, each day do a little better than yesterday.”
•“Put aside some money daily, even as little as a quarter. After a year, figure out a way to impact someone else’s life with it.”
•“Teach children at all schools to identify their anger, understand their capacity to commit active and passive violence and to break the cycle of violence.”
•“Shed labels — based on gender, religion and even on country — as patriotism too is a narrow idea and can sometimes be a cause of violence.”
•“We can think of the world as a global village, but we need to consider social and cultural globalization in all our global interactions in the global economy.”
Current work

Be the change you wish to see in this world
Arun and his late wife, Sunanda Gandhi, founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence to promote the principles of nonviolence. In January 2008, he resigned from the institute after a negative reaction to a piece he penned for the Washington Post. Today, Gandhi is invited to talk about nonviolence around the world and works to help children out of poverty via education through his institution, The Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute. ( Arun has authored several books, including his grandmother’s biography, “The Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur Gandhi, Wife of Mahatma Gandhi.”

Gifts that only leave a Memory behind

Originally Published in Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 19, 2007

I have always been ambivalent about shopping.

And the season of “Holiday shopping” usually brings this ambivalence to the forefront.

I grew up in a middle class family in India, with parents who shopped only for things that were needed. And so, as a child, I perceived shopping as nothing more than a necessary adult chore to assist daily living.

My parents, who lived in Mumbai (Bombay), shopped for most of their non perishable groceries once a month.

“2 kilos of rice, 3 bars of soap…,” they would tell the store owner in person, or by phone, and someone would deliver the packages home, wrapped in newspaper.

On other sporadic shopping trips for incidentals, a person behind the counter would get the items my parents wanted and put them into their tote bag. My parents would pay cash, and move on to their next errand.

They did not have much opportunity for browsing or for impulse buying of unnecessary items.
Milk was delivered daily, and vegetables were bought once in two days at the nearby vegetable market.

Shopping for clothes was also based on need. My sister and I got new school uniforms every year, new clothes on birthdays and on some religious holidays, and before our long summer visit to our grandparents’ homes.

My parents bought clothes for themselves occasionally - sometimes on special holidays, but mostly to replace old, worn out clothes.

As we got older, my sister and I were sent on shopping errands – something that we initially enjoyed, reveling in our “semi-adult” status, but then got weary of, and tried to escape from.

Armed with this general apathy towards shopping, I arrived in the United States, twenty years ago, as a graduate student. Since I was here by myself, I could not delegate the chore of shopping to anyone else, and learnt to shop even for necessities in a completely different way.

Initially, shopping was an intriguing new cultural experience.

Even a trip to the grocery store required new skills of negotiating multiple brands for the simplest of items like toothpaste, checking unit prices, understanding the rhythm of sales, and searching for customer assistance.

And since I could now browse amongst the aisles, I sometimes bought things that I did not really need.

Thankfully, my busy graduate student schedule, my small income and my aptitude for a simple life, kept me from buying too many clothes or accessories. My downfall came when I found books at bargain prices, which I often bought, with the hope of finding time to read in some distant future.

While in graduate school, I met and married my husband, who also shared my love of leading a simple life, my love of books and my indifference to shopping.

Over the years, we put down roots in the US, and formed new friendships and relationships.

As our ties with people here became stronger, we began to give and receive gifts during the Holiday Season. And when our daughter was born nine years ago, we also began to experience the giving and receiving of gifts at birthday celebrations.

Gradually, the two suitcases that my husband and I had each arrived with, multiplied many times over. And about five years ago, the clutter of possessions in our home began to bother us, as we realized how much we had strayed from our ideal of the “simple” life.

During my Christmas shopping expedition that year, I had an intense reaction at the mall, as I watched people going around shopping for gifts, laden with bags, and buying even more things.
I could not shop anymore, and walked out without buying anything on my gift list. I simply could not bring myself to add clutter to other people’s homes.

My husband and I talked a lot that night about the practice of giving “things,” to symbolize love. We agreed that receiving gifts felt good, but only because they expressed that “we mattered” to someone. And giving gifts felt good, when the gift was something that the other person needed, or enjoyed.

But, what could we give people, who could buy everything they needed and wanted? What could we give, instead of objects - to show them that they mattered to us?

We reached back into our childhood for other ways of showing love, and remembered our mothers making snacks, to give to friends and family during the holidays.

We remembered our six month stay in Tokyo, where gifting food was common, and the stores were filled with elegantly packaged food items.

We adapted these two memories to create a new tradition in our family.

We decided against burdening our friends with snacks and packaged foods, which are sometimes unhealthy.

We opted instead to gift a healthy, homemade food that our friends liked, but did not make themselves. Since my husband and I are both vegetarians of Indian origin, we settled on two favorites - Vegetarian Chili and Channa Masala (a spicy chickpeas and tomato stew) – to give as gifts.

We spent a weekend, making both dishes and delivering them to a few neighbors and friends. They loved the food, and we got several requests for recipes.

We have continued this tradition ever since, adding more dishes to our gift list. We still buy gift cards or books for adults whose culinary preferences we are yet to learn. But we hope that as we get to know them better, we could make more gifts of food, as a labor of love to lessen their burden of cooking on a busy night.

Our nine year old daughter, in particular, has come to love this tradition of making and delivering food, and it has become part of her expectation of the Holiday season. This year, she has suggested that we add her new favorite food, Saag Paneer (a spicy, spinach and cheese dish), to the list of gifts.

We hope that our friends continue to enjoy our annual offering of thanks - of smells, colors, tastes and cultural experiences from faraway lands - from our home to theirs in Central Pennsylvania.

An annual offering that hopefully brings them some joy, while leaving no trace behind, other than that of a cherished memory.