The events of the last few months are enough to scare many an immigrant from wishing for the proverbial “American Dream”. However, shying away from travails isn’t exactly in our DNA. In 2020, I became a United States citizen at the age of 54, thirty-three years after first arriving here for graduate studies at the impressionable age of 21. I wasn’t eligible to vote in last year’s election, but had I been able to, my vote would have supported equity, social justice, and progressive reform across spectra.
For most of the first 21 years of my life, while living in Mumbai, I was a painfully shy child who found solace in sports, food, academics, and movies. At the age of 11, on what would have been Gandhi’s 108th birthday, I was somehow encouraged (forced) to enter the annual elocution competition for students all across the mega city organized by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, an organization committed to preserving the teachings and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. Held over several days, the event has been held annually at Mani Bhavan, a modest two storied building which, for 17 years (1917-1934), served as the action headquarters for Gandhi and his followers during India’s freedom movement. As youngsters, the history of the structure may have been lost on us, but the significance of the space was not.
My name was called, and I made my way down an aisle, up the stage stairs, and in front of a podium without a microphone. I found myself glazing across a sea of peers, teachers, and scholars. On cue, I began my speech and sputtered my way through a rehearsed essay on Gandhiji, one I had written myself. On two occasions, I forgot my next lines and stood frozen before a teacher from my school egged me to continue. Petrified and shamed, I nervously glanced at the paper containing my hand-written speech to find where I was going. It was one of the longest 5 minutes of my young life, but one that is etched in my psyche. A long day of speeches and performances later, after the dust had settled, I was awarded a certificate of distinction (a consolation prize of sorts). A few months later because the star student of my school who placed 2nd city-wide couldn’t (wasn’t allowed to?) go, my good fortune placed me only a few spots away from the late Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi as we chanted morning prayers at Raj Ghat (Gandhi memorial) in New Delhi just prior to the annual Republic Day parade. Somewhat ironically, the impressive parade is designed to showcase India’s military capability in addition to her social and cultural heritage.
My earliest memory of food is warm bottle milk (Horlicks) as a four year old. My earliest memory of embracing non-violence as a lifestyle can be traced back to sometime during my rehearsals for the elocution competition. I’m not sure in which class, but while still in early secondary school, I had read about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggle for equal rights on behalf of millions of Americans. Around the same time, I also became aware of the KKK. I was deeply influenced by stories and images of fair-skinned humans considering dark-skinned humans as being lesser. Mahatma Gandhi showed us that the pen can be mightier than the sword. Martin Luther King, Jr. did the same. I am often reminded by some of my gun carrying friends that I would wish I had a weapon to defend myself or anyone I loved against the ever-present prospect of brutality and violence. I’m certain that I would react in an unpredictable way should that circumstance occur, but until then, I feel complete in my fearlessness of violence because I believe in non-violence. I hear the National Rifle Association has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy…
If I could write that elocution speech again, I would lead with a verse of one of Gandhi’s favorite prayers.
raghupati rāghav rājārām,
patit pāvan sītārām
sītārām, jai sītārām,
bhaj pyāre tu sītārām
īśvar allāh tero nām,
sab ko sanmati de bhagavān
Chief of the house of Raghu, Lord Rama,
Uplifters of those who have fallen, Sita and Rama,
Sita and Rama, Sita and Rama,
O beloved, praise Sita and Rama,
God or Allah is your name,
May God bless all with true wisdom.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 92 years old yesterday and was born while Gandhi was at Mani Bhavan orchestrating the greatest non-violent victory in the history of the world. Perhaps, the indelible impacts they have both had on their countries are more than coincidental. Here’s wishing a Happy MLK, Jr. Day to the world because like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. probably saw himself as a human first and everything else afterwards.