Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two) here.

In Part One I talked about how 80% of Gandhi’s autobiography is about “Very Normal Things”, including eating, getting dressed, and moving around.  Here’s what else he spends most of his autobiography talking about:

Very Normal Thing #4:  Housework
Counter to the outsourcing trends of his milieu, Gandhi spends time hand-milling his own grain, starching and ironing his own clothes, and cutting his own hair.  He learns how to repair shoes and helps figure out how to spin thread and work the handloom.  Gandhi is big on cleanliness; not only does he clean his own latrines, he volunteers to inspect other peoples’ latrines to make sure they’re up to snuff (and sweeps them out if found lacking).  And Gandhi even spends a lot of time on interior decoration:  first on making his pad swank and deserving of the status of a barrister, later on disposing of all that junk.  By the time I got to the end of his story, I was convinced that Gandhi was very handy around the house.

Very Normal Thing #5:  Getting Sick and Getting Better
Gandhi variously contracts and recovers from ringworm, dysentery, constipation, headaches, and pleurisy.  He is constantly nursing others, within his family, when the black plague hits town, and as a wartime medic (Boer War, WWI).  He learns how to become a compounding pharmacist and volunteers at the local hospital.  He also becomes a bit of a quack doctor (as he admits) when he gets into earth treatments (apparently applying a poultice of dirt under a bandage?) and hydropathy (some sort of obscure water treatment?).  At one point Gandhi even calls in an “Ice Doctor” who cures him of dysentery by packing him in ice.  Like his obsession with food, there are many tales of sickness, health, and his related philosophies.

Very Normal Thing #6:  Annoying Administrative Work
In every group he’s a part of, Gandhi volunteers for many of the annoying tasks most of us would avoid doing – and then describes them in extensive detail.  He translates correspondence from one language to another, answers other peoples’ mail, collects dues, raises money, hand-cranks the printing press, leases buildings, folds newspapers, passes around petitions, serves as secretary, scribes documents when he can’t get them copied, you get the picture.  Even Gandhi tires of administrivia though; at one point, he bribes children to help him fold pamphlets with used postage stamps.  Score.

The most interesting point, however, is that in the midst of these “Very Normal Things,” you see the greatness of the Mahatma emerging.  He approaches the most annoying administrative work with a sense of servanthood.  He strives for simplicity in his clothes, his surroundings, and his speech.  He pursues brahmacharya (self-restraint) by limiting his consumption and swearing off sex.  He seeks purity in keeping his surroundings clean and instructing others to do so.   He practices ahimsa (non-violence) through his staunch vegetarianism.  He advocates for Hindustani identity when he refuses to remove his turban, translates papers into accessible Indian languages, and insists upon wearing his khadi dhoti.  Every “experiment with truth” he runs is enacted in the petri dish of his life.  And the way he approaches the mundane realities of everyday – from food to clothes, from housework to administrative work – reinforces or undermines some ‘lived value’ he holds.  Ultimately, in Gandhi’s case, those lived values – the ahimsa, brahmacharya, servanthood, identity, purity that he cultivated – became the same strengths which he brought to bear later in his toughest political trials.

There are a couple of moments when you can see the grand trajectory of the political movement in something small.  For example, when Gandhi starts a vegetarian kitchen at his ashram and engages the students to cook in it, it becomes an object-lesson in self-sufficiency.  When a friend comments:  “The experiment contains the key to Swaraj” the links between the most mundane (e.g., schoolboys cooking daal) and the most ambitious (e.g., India achieving political independence) start to come into focus.

Gandhi teaches me that “Very Normal Things” and “Very Big Things” are ultimate one and the same.  But I struggle with this.  I love thinking and writing about the big, the grand, the ambitious, the intellectual – the “Very Big Things.”  There’s some part of me that thinks that I will do my part in solving all the world’s problems by coming up with deep insights and articulating them in a compelling way.  And yet, when I focus on the “Very Big Things,” I don’t necessarily see the change I seek.

Given this, I’m trying to focus on the “Very Normal Things.”  Great things are the result of small, everyday actions, lived with intentionality, improved upon by reflection, and accumulated over time.  Even the most inspirational leaders live their lives day-by-day.  So I am building faith that if I do my “Very Normal Things” well, they’ll build into something weightier over time.  That feels happily accessible, but also a bit daunting.  It makes me realize that I’m indeed doing “Very Big Things” with every small action.

The small contains the key to the big. 

Off to do “Very Normal Things” with my Sunday,
Meredith

One final fun fact:  Gandhi also just took away my excuse for not going to the gym:  “. . . I believe even now, that, no matter what amount of work one has, one should always find some time for exercise, just as one does for one’s meals.  It is my humble opinion that, far from taking away from one’s capacity for work, it adds to it.”

Doing “Very Normal Things” with Gandhi (Part One of Two)

When I travel, I often select my reading material based on something appropriate to my destination.  Headed to Johannesburg in May, I read Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories, a collection of vivid vignettes of South African life after apartheid.  Headed to Seoul in September, I picked up Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom to get a view into everyday Korean life.  And over the last thirteen days in India, I read Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography – or, as he titles it The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

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Gandhi was one of the most effective and influential advocates for Swaraj (Indian home-rule) and his accompanying tactic of ahimsa (non-violence).  His name is known the world over.  As I loaded him onto my Kindle I expected to read about the story behind the “Very Big Things” he accomplished:  Articulations of high-minded ideals.  The narrative of an epic political movement.  Sweeping insights into leadership.

Do you know what I found?

Instead of hearing about Gandhi’s “Very Big Things” I was struck by the mundane, the minute, and the everyday.  Gandhi spends his life doing what most of us would recognize as the same “Very Normal Things” we ourselves do, but with a heightened sense of morals and meaning.  Here’s 80% of what Gandhi talks about in his autobiography:

Very Normal Thing #1:  Eating
If Gandhi has one lifelong obsession, it’s food.  In his teenage years, Gandhi starts running with the ‘bad boy’ crowd and sneaks away to eat meat.  He later repents of his rebellious ways and becomes a relentless advocate for vegetarianism.  Over time, he pushes this even further, swearing off salt, lentils, and dairy.  At one point, while sick, he drinks some goat’s milk at a doctor’s recommendation and then beats himself up for the rest of his life about it.  He ends up as a fruitarian who eats five or fewer types of food each day and finishes dinner by sundown.

Very Normal Thing #2:  Getting Dressed
Gandhi talks extensively about his Anglicized clothes in London.  He buys a chimney-pot hat for nineteen shillings and an evening suit for ten pounds.  When he moves to South Africa, he’s still consciously distinct from other Indians in his attire, in his hybrid frock-coat and turban.  In fact, there’s an entire turban-wearing fiasco when he joins the courts.  Over time, however, Gandhi dresses more simply.  He moves to a shirt, coat, and dhoti combo and later resolves to wear only khadi (locally produced hand-woven cloth) – a highly politicized fashion statement in keeping with the Swadeshi movement.

Very Normal Thing #3:  Moving Around
In the years he travels between India, England, and South Africa, there are long recounts of boat trips.  We learn what he ate on the boat (fruits and nuts), what he did on the boat (played chess, learned Tamil and Urdu, accidentally visited a hooker in Zanzibar), and who he hung out with on the boat (the Captain, a couple of English guys, a Puritan).   Later in life, Gandhi takes a lot of trains, particularly in third-class.  There is plenty of drama about train ticket cancellations, whether he gets bedding or not, how dirty and crowded the trains are, and the difficulty of getting on the train when people block the doors (it’s true; it’s happened to me as well).

In short, Gandhi’s autobiography is filled with extensive descriptions of “Very Normal Things.”

With that, I’ll pause this post given the length and continue with Part Two.  Look forward to “Very Normal Things” #4 through #6 as well as how it all comes together.  Continue in Part Two of Two here.

Also, if you have not yet done so, hit the ‘subscribe’ button on the right of the page to ensure you get other upcoming posts.  (It makes me really happy.  Seriously.  Like macaroni-and-cheese-happy.)

Glad to be home,
Meredith

Fun facts about Gandhi:

  • Gandhi thinks the Eiffel Tower is ridiculous.
  • Gandhi ends up in a brothel a couple of times, but always by accident (oops!).
  • Gandhi was all about home-schooling for his kids.
  • While living in England, Gandhi took dance lessons.
  • Gandhi was a married as a child at the age of only thirteen.