Lorraine, our guide for the morning, takes us through the cold rooms. We are at the Old Fort in Johannesburg, the site of the notorious prison where people who resisted the policy of apartheid used to be jailed. For someone who narrates this story everyday, I expect her to be mechanical. But Lorraine is delivering anything but a rehearsed spiel. Her grim face is impassive as she tells us about the cruelty that human beings are capable of.
We are taken to Prison no. 4 and thus begins the story of its most famous prisoner, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhi was imprisoned here for seven months on different occasions, when he refused to carry a pass. Blacks, coloureds, and whites were lodged separately. Gandhi expected to be imprisoned in a whites only cell, as he was a political prisoner. To his surprise all the satyagrahis were shoved with the black prisoners.
The first sight of the cells is chilling. Prisoners are packed like sardines to keep themselves warm. Bullies among the prisoners grabbed space and blankets. It was a game of power inside the jails.
But then Lorraine moves to the dining area. The discrimination accorded to blacks is disgusting. Their plates go unwashed for weeks altogether. Some prisoners preferred to wash their plates in toilet bowls rather than eat from dirty plates!
But we are yet to see worse. Open toilets face the dining area. No privacy was accorded to the blacks, and hardly any water. Feces often overflowed into the dining space. No wonder cases of typhoid were rampant in prison Only the most depraved human beings would have behaved like this. I couldn’t bear to hear the stories of humiliation. I remember shuddering and breaking down by the time we reached the torture chambers. There was no place for human dignity.
Staying in prison must have changed Gandhi’s outlook about everything. One visit to the prison will explain his fetish for cleanliness, hygiene and cleaning toilets. He had experienced indignity in its worst form. As he writes: “The humiliation has sunk in too deep for me to remain without an outlet.” If Mohandas hadn’t come to South Africa, we would have never seen the making of the Mahatma.
At Gandhi square, we find a rare statue showing the young attorney-at-law dressed in a suit, rather than your usual statue of Gandhi in a loin cloth. It makes me realise how Gandhi had to unlearn everything he knew to mix with the masses. A cursory look through his writings show his efforts at understanding the pulse of the people. And there amidst his many conflicts, you can find glimpses of his humility in confessing where he had faltered. He certainly didn’t become a Mahatma overnight.
Today’s leaders expect to be recognized for their fiery oratory, their dapper dress sense, their carefully cultivated beards and other external signs of having arrived. Remember, Gandhi had none of these advantages. All he had, was the courtesy to listen, to patience to try and understand, the effort to learn, the humility to unlearn and the capacity to trust.
India desperately needs a role model in these trying times. And sadly, there is none on the horizon. Except perhaps Gandhi’s teachings themselves.