by Kevin Pilley from The Telegraph, August 16, 2017
‘Mr Kevin, you are three times a Gandhi. More a Buddha than Bapu.”
The Gujarati accent made “Bapu” sound like “baboon”. But my outfitter’s face was a lesson in unconditional respect. For all living things. And also for waistlines.
My tailor looked compassionately at me, doubtless believing I should devote my life to some higher purpose than putting on weight. He smiled. “Succour is soon in sight!”
After much reflection on my immoderate lifestyle, the experts found a khadi dhoti large enough to accommodate a prop forward rather than a great soul. Mr Roenpasingh of the Bhadar Khadi spun cloth depository on Ahmedabad’s Ashram Road nodded, approving my new sadhaka (“realising my ultimate ideal through service to others”) look.
“You must remember, khadi is a thought. Not a uniform,” said Nischal, my “Gandhi facilitator”.
“It’s a movement. Your trousers freed India. It’s the livery of freedom. To act like Gandhi, think like Gandhi, you must wear like Gandhi.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915 to open his first Indian ashram in Paldi, then a village and now a suburb of Ahmedabad in his home state of Gujarat, where the Indian independence movement – which reached fruition 70 years ago this month – began. His Satyagraha (“Insistence on Truth”) hermitage is open to “responsible travellers”.
The idea came from 32-year-old former restaurant manager Nischal Barot, the “chief explorer” of Maroon Migrates, an independent travel agency specialising in sustainable lifestyle travel and ascetic breaks for people who want to take time off work to practise communal self-sufficiency, free themselves from the shackles of selfishness and realise the best within themselves.
“The Mahatma lived, taught and thought here for two years,” Nischal said, unlocking the ashram gates near the old civil VS Hospital.
Padado (curtain) salesmen squatted on the pavement outside; a bony bullock pulled a gaddu (cart) of trabuch (watermelons); the serdiras (sugar cane juicers) were doing a good trade.
“I want people to see the world with Gandhi’s eyes.”
My room, once a spinning workshop, had a small iron bed and a takkiya bolster pillow. There was electricity but no air conditioning, just a creaky fan.
The windows had no glass, only bars. The kitchen had a fridge, home to four wizened aubergines.
The two-acre ashram (from Sanskrit for “place of religious exertion”), donated to Gandhi by a barrister, is now managed by the university that the Mahatma (“Great Soul”) founded in 1920 “to liberate Indian youth from British colonial rule”. The ashram can accommodate 40 aspiring disciples in 20 cells.
'You must show more self-effort,' Nischal counselled
“Gandhi was the first responsible traveller. He had a light ecological footprint,” observed Nischal as we watched the grey Hanuman langur monkeys. “Here you can live the way he and his followers did, follow their daily routine. Or nearly. He started his day at 4am; we start ours at six.”
My early morning call was courtesy of the devotional kirtans and Prabhatiya prayers of the neighbouring temple. And a feral or “backside” dog which wandered in to sniff me. Cars honked and Chakda rickshaws beeped.
“Living like Gandhi is not some hippy-dippy gimmick. You get authentic Gandhism here,” said Nischal as he showed me the rasoighar (kitchen) and the floor Gandhi slept on. So no incense sticks and omming all day to increase karmic quotient.
“Gandhi believed the essence of civilisation was not the multiplication of wants, but their deliberate and voluntary reduction. He practised extreme austerity and advocated self-abnegation. The ashram was the first non-luxury spa. A spiritual rehab centre!”
On my first day, I swore vows of non-possession, non-violence, non-stealing, fearlessness and aswada, renouncing “stimulating condiments”.
I swore I would work for the uplifting of the poor and the welfare of the needy, hoping the unique crash course in applied Gandhism would make me a better servant of humanity. On the second morning over papads (popadums), bataka pauva (flattened flaked rice with potatoes) and mango chunks, Nischal advised me to read the trees. “Obey them. Learn from them.”
The day before I arrived there had been a hailstorm and I helped the Nepalese janitor Bhim Bahadur and his assistant Ramu sweep up and compost the leaves and sevan nuts. Bhim later showed me how to make a brush, or jhadu. His partner, Janki Thapa, a nurse, taught me how to make chai masala tea. I washed up. Blessed are they who wash up.
Guests are asked to fast at least one day. I broke mine within an hour. I confessed I had consumed Lopox, the country’s premier brand of diarrhoea-relief capsules.
Nischal gave me a look of intense sorrow. Then smiled. “Gandhi made people guilty; he fought with thought. He is getting to you; his spirit is mentoring you.”
That afternoon we visited the city’s university spinning school. All students must sit the chakhra module. The weaving teacher Bhupatsinh Sartvaiyu showed me different spinning wheels: portable, rotor e-spinners and a tabletop one designed by Gandhi himself. “The benefits of spinning are self-reliance, dignity, goodwill and self-discipline,” he said. “Weaving strengthens you. It’s spiritualising.”
In the evening we went to the Seva (service) Café. I washed and dried thali and karoti plates and lote jugs. Nischal executed a textbook Indian head wobble and did his Ben Kingsley impression: “My life is my message. To lose yourself, you must lose yourself in the service of others.”
On my third khadi-clad day we lost ourselves in Ahmedabad’s Saracenic architecture, Corbusier design, sandstone fort, chowks, open sewers, derasars (ancient step wells) and Sidi Bashir mosque’s shaking minarets.
Because of the 110F heat, I was allowed to wear my “M&S” Made in China sunhat. I didn’t have to go palathi, or cross-legged, because of recent knee surgery. Charitably invoking the tenets of the Jainist Jeeva-daya (compassion), I was allowed to use sunscreen.
Following in Gandhi’s sandal steps, ashram guests can practise padayatra (foot pilgrimages) by visiting tribal communities and staying in mud-and-brush huts, or go salt collecting in the pans of the Little Raan of Kutch. We distributed pepsicles and Mango Bite sweets to slum children.
By day three I had reached my puffed-rice threshold and began to hallucinate about minibars and high-threadcount bed linen. The self-purification started to pall.
“You must show more tapasya (self-effort),” Nischal counselled. “And lokriti (self-restraint). There’s enough for everyone’s need. But not everyone’s greed!”
Nothing at the ashram is compulsory. All religions are equal. You can perform yayna and sing bhajan devotional songs, indulge in stasang discussion and self-analysis, read the Gita or chant the vedas. Or read the paper on the prayer platform from which Gandhi gave his first addresses on his return to Gujarat.
After three days, I graduated as an honorary renunciant and Bapu, a respected elder. Sirh Ramesh pressed his palms together and asked me to bow.
“He wants you to take home his aani,” said Nischal. Over my head was placed a garland of khadi kurta yarn, the symbol of Gandhi philosophy. Homespun.
The loincloth, they said, was in the post.
Kevin Pilley travelled with Maroon Migrates (0091 999 807 0606; maroonmigrates.com). The Live Gandhi for a While experience costs Rs1,400 (£17) per person per night, including accommodation and meals in the ashram; activities such as visiting villages cost extra. Transfers to and from Ahmedabad can be arranged. See livegandhiforawhile.com.
Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com ) flies from London to Ahmedabad via Delhi and Mumbai from £429 return (economy); £1,822 (premiere class). Flights also available from regional airports via Amsterdam.