Narayan Desai: He took Gandhi’s teachings to the people

By Rajdeep Pathak

I first met Narayan Bhai – as he was popularly called – in Jaipur when I was sent by my office, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, to host an exhibit on Mahatma Gandhi. He pointed to a picture of his father Mahadev Desai – a long-time associate and personal secretary (and diarist) to Mahatma Gandhi – in one panel and said: “I met Bapuji, felt his touch, his love and was awed by the discipline he instilled in everybody around him which today we all lack.”

Pic Courtesy:
Pic Courtesy:

The year was 2005. Narayan Desai was aging fast. I had till then not known him so well. I did not know about him as the only living person to educate people on Gandhi’s life through his narration of the “Gandhi Katha” (Gandhi stories) – a different approach he attempted to take Gandhian thoughts to the remotest corner of the country. Here was an octogenarian Gandhian trying to instill the idea of truth, peace and non-violence by bringing to life the episodes of Gandhi’s life through his narratives.

Not much later, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, which is the National Memorial of the Father of the Nation, hosted the Gandhi Katha for the first time in 2007. This was at Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi where the Mahatma lived the last 144 days of his life. For the first time I saw how enthusiastic people were in hosting this Katha. People from all over Delhi, including the young, sat through the entire narration.

Narayan Desai was an acclaimed scholar who began his narrative after the Gujarat riots of 2002. He toured all over the country and abroad taking his simple style of narration with anecdotes from the Mahatma’s life to the masses, presenting what Gandhi as a man in flesh and blood could achieve and failed.

Narayan Desai’s poems were closely connected to the narratives of the Katha. Whether it was a song from episodes of Gandhi’s childhood or his marriage, Narayan Desai penned all these himself. In Delhi I saw his poems being set to music. Nearly 40 songs were composed.

As this octogenarian narrated one episode after another, I could see his happiness, his journey to his childhood days when he met his Bapuji and played with him, when he saw the child in Gandhi; his ecstasy when Gandhi triumphed in South Africa; his impatience when Gandhi was arrested during the Salt Satyagraha; his frustration when Gandhi fasted time and again for bringing about communal harmony; his anger when Gandhi was disillusioned in the last phase of his life, and when several attempts were made to assassinate Gandhi before the fateful January 30, 1948, and his tears — when he paused, re-paused, sipped water while ending his katha with the death of the Mahatma. As the flute began to render Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, I felt the emotional turbulence that gripped Narayan Desai. He wasn’t able to rest his stormy mind and finally walked out, leaving the packed venue tearful.

The music faded. The Katha concluded. Some people stood in the stillness of the moment that Narayan Desai had created – and left.

What really touched me was that after each day’s narrative – that lasted for about three hours – Narayan Desai planned for the next day, sat with the musical choir group and decided on the next set of songs, rehearsing, fixing each detail with keen alertness and awareness.

In 2012, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti again hosted the Gandhi Katha. This time almost 400 people heard it every day for three days. It was a kind of cosmic choreography that revolved around us. This time there were fewer songs, some episodes were cut short, and Narayan bhai’s stormy mind – that I saw about six years back when he was about to conclude – and emotional turbulence had found a more peaceful landscape.

Born in Valsad in Gujarat, Narayan Desai grew up at the Sabarmati Ashram and Sewagram Ashram in Wardha. Inspired by Vinobha Bhave’s Bhoodan movement, he travelled through Gujarat urging the rich to distribute land among the landless. To further promote the idea of Sarvodaya and revolution, he set up an institute called “Sampurna Kranti Vidyalaya” in Vedchhi village in Tapi district.

Narayan Desai wrote 40 books, including “My Life is My Message”, an epic four-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi, which was ably translated by Tridip Suhrud. “The Fire and the Rose”, his biography of his father, is a must read book describing the role of Mahadev Desai’s life, his sacrifice and the role he played with Mahatma Gandhi.

He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Gujarati in 1993 and the Jamnalal Bajaj Award in 1999 and the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence in 1998.

Narayan Desai served as the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth (July 2007 to March 7, 2015), founded in 1920 by Mahatma Gandhi. He quit early this month. His death is a loss to the people who attempted to develop an understanding of Mahatma Gandhi from a man who was so close to his Bapuji.

(Rajdeep Pathak is Programme Executive at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected])

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