Like many whose primary source of continuing education is movies (with support from books, magazines, and occasional TV documentaries), the base for my knowledge of India was Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi (1983). Many of the scenes from this movie stayed in my mind and were further impressed on me as I watched repeated showings on television. It ranked in my mental model of the world with Lawrence of Arabia as one of the great modern epics of the struggle for independence. In both films, there is the irony of Britain, paragon of Civilization,* acting as arrogant teacher and taskmaster on the one hand and brutal oppressor on the other. This exercise of superiority was more oblique in Lawrence while it was graphically enforced in Gandhi.
My experience in northern India in 2005 provided an opportunity to match my movie knowledge with what could be learned from rubbing shoulders with the culture. There were some surprises. First among them was that not every one in India adored Gandhi. I had not fully understood from Attenborough’s film that for a thousand years before the arrival of the British, India had been dominated by Muslim conquerors. The roots of contention over Gandhi’s accommodation of the Muslim population in 1947, with the partitioning of Pakistan, ran much deeper than I had realized. I lost no admiration for Gandhi’s efforts to respect the needs of all citizens of his country, but I gained a new appreciation for the complexities of the situation. I had a lot to learn.
From the Caravan Journals: On our arrival in New Delhi, we were assigned to a very nice hotel on the outskirts of the city. During our brief stay, one of our group returned from a walk to announce that the site of Gandhi’s assassination was right around the corner on the same block. Nobody had mentioned this to us. He was shot by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948.
*Go to FAQ for use of the term post-paradigm and capitalization of Civilization.