April 04, 2005

Chasing the salt

Mewalal Gupta Arya is walking beside me, or perhaps I should say I am walking along beside him, because I'm having a hard time keeping up with him. We are on a narrow road in rural Gujarat, beautiful green paddy fields on either side, low trees forming a canopy overhead. Behind us is Navsari: ahead a village called Dandi.

Mewalal is chatting with abandon. We should fight child marriage. There should be an end to the burning of brides for dowry. Modi did some very wrong things in this state. We need more justice. These are the things Gandhi fought for, you know?

And also, says Mewalal, we should feel young, like me. At this point, he actually starts skipping, jumping, leaping about the road till I have to look to see if anyone has noticed this and what they might think.

Mewalal Gupta Arya from Allahabad wears dark glasses as the result of a recent cataract operation, he is a freedom fighter, he carries a flag right now, and he is 89 years old. Sorry, young. And he is still leaping about. Born December 21 1916, write that down! he says.

Why would a 89 year old freedom fighter come here? He has been with the 75th anniversary edition of the Dandi Salt March since it started, nearly a month ago, walking the 10-12 miles every day. Why would this old man come to Gujarat and skip along as he tells me Modi did much wrong?

I don't know. You have to ask that question not just of him, but of Nicole from Dublin and Katie from Bristol; of Louise from Orange County ("NOT Los Angeles, OK?"); or of Tanusree from Delhi; or of the dwarf-man who is shorter and slimmer than my five-year-old, but has a face of the 50-year-old he is, been with the march since the beginning too.

Yes, there's the overbearing presence of the Congress. My very own MP, Sunil Dutt, is here, local MLA in his car sees him walking, pulls over hurriedly ahead, gets out and smooths his shirt, spits twice, and standds at attention to receive the MP a few seconds later. A float plays "patriotic" songs ("Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon" prominently and often) and intersperses them with paeans to Nehru, SOnia, Rajiv, Indira ... The usual Congress stuff.

Yes, there are simply too many cars and trucks and so forth. Much smoke and dust.

But there also are the schoolkids who line the roads shouting encouragement at the marchers, handing out lassi and water, showering them with rose petals, singing songs themselves, shouting "Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai!" There are the crowds at every little junction. There's the easy camaraderie that has built up among the marchers, that I can sense even after just an afternoon and evening spent among them. There's a spirit here, and you can be cynical about it as I find myself doing almost knee-jerk style.

But you can also celebrate it. Dandi said something, and 75 years later, it seems to say something once more, to a lot of people.

And for the time being, I'll stifle my cynicism and listen to what it says too. At 10pm on Monday, we're 4 miles short of Dandi. Tomorrow, the beach there. I look forward to the salt.

No comments: