Thursday, March 29, 2012

Narayan Desai in Montgomery

An unusual lunch hour for customarily dormant Montgomerites…

Narayan Desai is the closest we can get to Gandhi today; this is how author and pacifist James W. Douglass introduced the 87-year old student of “The Mahatma.” Desai’s 2,300 page-long biography, My Life is My Message, comprehensively recounts the extraordinary and inspiring life of the Indian leader. Narayan surely had plenty of material to work with for his multi-volume book about Gandhi: Narayan grew up around him and surrounded by his followers. Narayan’s father, Mahadev Desai, was Gandhi’s personal secretary. As a teenager, Narayan was already trusted and well respected by Gandhi to the point that The Mahatma asked him to write a letter to Adolf Hitler. He was part of the Indian liberation movement.
After Mahadev’s death in a British prison and Gandhi’s assassination, Desai committed to spend the rest of his life to the practice and teaching of nonviolence. As one of the leaders of the land grant movement, he walked 12,000 kilometers and between 1952 and 1960 he helped liberate over 3,000 acres of land. He was national secretary of Shanti Sena (or “Peace Army”) and founding director of the World Peace Brigade.
It may sound cliché but Mahadev Desai is a man who emanates wisdom and inner peace.
Accompanied by his daughter, Desai speaks to an audience of mostly women, and, uncommonly enough for Alabama, women of different faith, age, background, and ethnicity. The event, organized by Leadership Montgomery, Open Hearts and Minds, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery, and Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, is hosted by the recently-opened Cloverdale Playhouse in one of city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. Attendees are seated and have been fed, and they are now ready to hear the guest speaker.

Desai’s presentation, “Living Non-Violently in a Violent World—Gandhi’s Wisdom” takes immediately an exciting turn as Narayan says he’s actually not going to give any speech. He wants, instead, to ask the audience a question. He has stood up by now, and somehow I’m surprised to see how tall he actually is in spite of his old age and the hardship he put his body through in his struggle for a peaceful world.
“Do we really want to live a nonviolent life?” If so, he continues serenely but firmly, one needs to be prepared to make sacrifices. One needs to be ready for a change. If my lifestyle is sustained by a violent system, we need to question that lifestyle and our own nonviolent intentions.

Nonviolence, Desai explains, was a negative term in India before Gandhi. Thanks to him, it became an active force of change in society.
There’s still a debate whether the nonviolent way has worked politically, he says; even if it hasn’t, “the people who lived a nonviolent life,” he asserts, “died with the satisfaction of having lived a honest life.” Then Desai delves into his notion of faith, which it’s twofold: faith “in the goodness of Man,” and faith in the ultimate realization of a peaceful society.

This all makes perfect sense to me, and it seems everyone should agree on something that simple. But then I think of how dissonant this might sound to many Christian ears. “Goodness of Man?” This is not the theology that many Christians, and many Christians in the South, have been taught. Conversely, most Christians have been inculcated this idea that they are inherently bad, actually, because humans are all marked by the original sin.
“Joy comes from goodness and from sharing with others,” Desai adds to my request to expand on his first notion of faith.
His daughter, who sits next to him, translates for him—Desai wears a hearing aid—and he always pauses before answering a question. Make time for reflection. “Reflect, don’t react” was one of Gandhi’s teachings. It was through reflection that he changed his own ideas about nonviolence. In 1982, “I withdrew a campaign because there was violence.” In hindsight, Desai admits he shouldn’t have. He now believes the nonviolent movement should have continued with its peaceful stand. “You see, this notion for me is constantly changing.” He says. “It’s never a static idea.”
“Is physical violence ever justifiable?” Rabbi Elliot Stevens asks from the audience.
No. The magnitude of violence may change (Desai here refers to another question about the situation when one nation is attacked by another), but not its wrongness. The nonviolent way is a total revolution. And so it’s called the center (Institute for Total Revolution) Desai set up in Vedchhi, in the Gujurat State of India, where he teaches nonviolence and the Gandhian way of life.
A woman asks Desai about the motivation for his visit to Montgomery. She mentions Martin Luther King Jr., and the fact that he himself had studied Gandhi. Desai kenw King and his wife Coretta; they were his guests in India. 
Desai pauses a little longer before answering. “It’s a pilgrimage for me,” he begins.