Born: October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India
1893: Goes to South Africa and battles for rights of Indians
1915-20: Begins his struggle for India’s Independence
1930: Leads hundreds on long Salt March to Dandi to protest a tax on salt
1947: Negotiatives an end to 190 years of British colonial rule in India
Died: 1948, Killed by a fanatic opposed to Gandhi’s tolerance of other religions
A Thin Indian Man With Not Much hair sits alone on a bare floor, wearing nothing but a pair of cheap spectacles, studying the clutch of handwritten notes in his hand. The black – and – white photograph takes up a full page in the newspaper. In the top left-hand corner of the page, in full color, is a small rainbow – stripe apple. Below this, there’s a slangily American injection to “Think Different”. Such is the present-day power of business. Even the greatest of the dead may summarily be drafted into its image ad campaign. Once, a half-century ago, this bony man shaped a nation’s struggle for freedom. But that, as they say, is history. Now Gandhi is modeling for Apple. His thoughts don’t really count in this new incarnation. What counts is that he is considered to be “on message”, in line with the corporate philosophy of Apple.
The advertisement is odd enough to be worth dissecting a little. Obviously it is rich in unintentional comedy. M. K. Gandhi, as the photograph itself demonstrates, was a passionate opponent of modernity and technology, preferring the pencil to the typewriter, the loincloth to the business suite, the plowed field to the belching manufactory. Had the word processor been invented in his lifetime, he would almost certainly found it abhorrent. The very term word processor, with its overly technological ring, is unlikely to have found favor.
“Think Different”. Gandhi in his younger days a sophisticated and westernized lawyer, did indeed change his thinking more radically than most people do. Ghanshyam Das Birla, one of the merchant princes who backed him, once said, “He was more modern than I. But he made a conscious decision to go back to the Middle Ages”. This is not, presumably, the revolutionary new direction of thought that the good folks at Apple are seeking to encourage.
Gandhi today is up for grabs. He has become abstract, a historical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a free-floating concept, a part of available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reunited to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth.
Richard Attenborough’s much-Oscared movie Gandhi, struck me, when it was first released, as an example of this type of unhistorical Western saint making. Here was Gandhi-as-guru, purveying that fashionable product, the Wisdom of the East; and Gandhi-as-Christ, dying (and, before that, frequently going on hunger strike) so that other might live. His philosophy of nonviolence seemed to work by embarrassing the British into leaving; freedom could be won, film appeared to suggest, by being more moral than your oppressor, whose moral code could then oblige him to withdraw.