Sure, it was political theatre, even grandstanding. Sure, there were hundreds of obsequious yahoos in every direction, fawning as only they can. Sure, it was a far cry from what it must have been like when a namesake trod the same ground, 75 years earlier. Yet with all that granted, this woman still did this much: she walked the 6 km from Matwad to Dandi, the last leg of the famous Dandi Salt March. Not only that, she walked it in 70 minutes, including a stop to pay tributes at a memorial on the way. Say 10 or 11 minutes per km: by any standards, that's a brisk pace. And she did it in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun; when we followed, marching the same 6 km about 45 minutes later, I still felt the heat weighing my shoulders down.
A friend on the press truck who watched her march marvelled at how she shut out the heat and dust, as well as the shouting, gesticulating, attention-seeking hangers-on who walked with her. How she focused tightly on the march and just did it.
Yes, you can, as all of us did, scorn the Congress tamasha that this last leg of the 75th anniversary Dandi march turned into. But Sonia Gandhi did this much: she shut out the distractions and actually walked those 6 km. I've been wondering since, which other Indian politician would have done the same? AB Vajpayee? Lalu Yadav? Sheila Dixit? LK Advani? Vilasrao Deshmukh? J Jayalalithaa with the double "a"? Bal Thackeray? Deve Gowda? Mayawati?
In Dandi later that evening, I saw her stride, brisk and smiling, from photo op to photo op with unknown groups of marchers, without one complaint. Must have been three dozen groups. That same ability to shut out the distractions.
Seems to me, there's more to this woman than her critics allow. And the more they underestimate her, the more they undermine themselves. Which, if you think about it, is not a bad lesson to take home from Dandi, not at all.
At least two men dressed as Gandhi did the march. They invariably drew smiles, even some tears, and "Gandhi-ji ki jai!" shouts, from the people who lined the route. One walked that last leg alongside Sonia. The same witness from the press truck reported that her security men regularly shoved him aside as he strayed, they thought, in front of her. These shoves prompted outraged cries from the press people: "Gandhi ko chalne do!" ("Let Gandhi walk!")
Not likely to have happened 75 years ago, I don't think.
I caught up with one of these Gandhi figures later that evening, at the memorial in Dandi. He climbed onto the low platform there and struck the famous Gandhi marching pose: stick out, torso leaning slightly forward, legs in mid-stride. In the dimming dusk, he held the pose for a good 20 minutes as newcomers wondered: was this a statue? Or a real fake Gandhi?
The tired peace in the marchers' camp was summarily shattered the evening we caught up with them. Not by us, but by one of the marchers. He came storming out of his tent, roaring in anger, and this is what he was roaring: "My motherfucking phone got stolen! I left it there for ten motherfucking minutes, ten motherfucking minutes, and it's gone! You better run, motherfucker! If I find you I'm going to slice your motherfucking balls off, you hear motherfucker?"
A speech not likely to have aired here 75 years ago, I don't think.
Turns out the man had good reason to feel irate. Earlier in the march, someone had stolen his sandals. Earlier still, his mini-disc player. He finished the march -- that same six km to Dandi -- holding a hand-lettered sign that said, simply, "The Truth Matters." That wasn't stolen.
On the last morning, the foreign participants call a press conference to offer some of their reflections on the march. Several have prepared short speeches for the occasion.
Greg Eckart from Honolulu calls this the "most enriching experience of his life", and says he can never now "return to idleness." He observes that if people can come in droves to Honolulu to look at Pearl Harbour, people should come here to celebrate this march for peace.
Abdul Hamid from Peshawar leads a 92-member Pakistani delegation. He says he's here following the path of Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the "Frontier Gandhi"), their message of brotherhood and peace.
Sheena Worrell from Australia repeats what a lot of people here have said, more than once: that Gandhi's most resonant message was to "be the change you want to see." Living like that needs courage, says Sheena, but Gandhi showed a way.
And through all these reflections, and many more, there's a reporter in the audience who keeps getting calls on his cellphone. Annoying enough by itself, but his ringtone is, of all things, a baby crying. I do not make this stuff up.
I'm not sure which question I am most interested in an answer to: Why won't he turn the damned thing off? Why would a man get his phone to weep like a baby? Why not hammer this fellow, even on this march of peace?