Diary of a Yatri
01 December 1998

This year 16 black Americans were among 100 travellers on a yatra through Gujarat, land of Mahatma Gandhi's birth. They came to honour Martin Luther King's spiritual debt to Gandhi.

You won't find `yatra' in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is a Hindi word meaning a long journey; it can also be a spiritual journey. The person who goes on a yatra is a 'yatri'.

This year 16 black Americans were among 100 travellers on a yatra through Gujarat, land of Mahatma Gandhi's birth. They came to honour Martin Luther King's spiritual debt to Gandhi. Among them were Portia Scott, assistant editor o f the Atlanta Daily World - the oldest Black American newspaper -and `Able' Mabel Thomas, one of the youngest members of the Georgia State Legislature. Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, was one of those from India leading the `march on wheels'. Gour Kishor Ghosh, the Magsaysay award winning journalist and novelist from Calcutta, also took part.

Their journey, which covered Dandi, Navsari, Vyara, Ankleshwar, Baroda, Anand, Nadiad, Ahmedabad and places in between, was featured in the Times of India, the Indian Express, the Hindustan Times and national television and radio.

Lawrence Ellis from Brooklyn, New York, recorded this event for For A Change. As a Rhodes Scholar, he wrote his thesis on Gandhi, Martin Luther King and militant non-violence.

On October 2, the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, 90 yatris from 15 nations gathered at historic Dandi to pay homage to `The Great Soul' and to honour one of his finest disciples, Martin Luther King Jr. We were Indian and Sri Lankan, black and white, Hindu and Moslem, African and European, brahmin and untouchable, indigenous and metropolitan... a polymorphous potpourri that would have pleased the two spiritual giants renowned for their capacity to unite peoples divided by hatred and fear.

By the sea at Dandi, where Gandhi's humble act of scooping salt heralded the end of British colonial rule, we offered prayers in many languages from many faiths. The forms of worship were different, but the spirit was one.Enshrouded by morning mist, enfolded by a presence that was tangible, we rededicated our lives to the order and purposes of the Creator before embarking on our yatra.

Our eight-day journey was chockablock. At every stop we were welcomed with incomparable hospitality: pageants and feasts, lodging, conversation, unexpected gifts. Daily we addressed the current and future leadership of India - statesmen, academicians, lawyers, journalists, business people and students. Our talks challenged our audiences to self-examination, individual transformation and social change. Reactions to our message became increasingly predictable, and our responses increasingly absolute:

`Won't a focus on individual change detract from changing our corrupt society?'

- Become a clean tool now so that wherever you serve you yourself do not contribute to the corruption.

`But I am only one person. How can changing myself make a difference?'

- Your change will have a ripple effect into your world and into a vast web of interconnections.

`Gandhi and King are dead. We need a new leader to direct us.'

- We, all of us, are the leaders we have been waiting for. And beyond our individual example, there is a transcendent authority and wisdom that is available to any human being, in any place at any time - the Inner Voice.

Gandhi's talk of the Inner Voice, the voice of truth, of the `still small voice within' pervades his speeches, his instruction, his autobiography, his life. Yet how has India, only decades after his death, forgotten the core of his life? In homes, in meetings, in conversations, everywhere we filled a moral and spiritual vacuum about the truths for which Gandhi and King lived, fought and died. A student at Baroda University called us `enlightened ones'.
We laughed, but quickly we reversed the social distancing implicit in the term with a reminder that she too was responsible. At Ahmedebad's city hall, as elsewhere, someone asked: `How can I learn to hear the inner voice?' A yatri from India's north-east replied. He spoke of the necessity of quiet reflective times, of listening to and recording thoughts day by day in a journal, of evaluating these by known moral standards, of acting on the right thoughts. We offered no panacea for poverty, warfare, AIDS, and other pressing issues of the day. Instead we offered powerful stories of transformation, examples of personal and social change that have worked, a basis for enduring values amidst increasing confusion. Our mission was as simple as our motto: 'Look in, reach out'- look inward, listen to the Inner Voice, take responsibility for the world, reach out to transform it.

Our itinerary did not include the roadside shanties where the moist cow dung, chicken feathers, filth and squalor covered the floors of the rooms where people live, eat and sleep. Our yatra did not take us to the heart of that India. Twice in our last few days, we visited a Harijan basti - a colony for `untouchables' (harijans) and home to some of the yatris. As often with the poor, joy and tenderness coexisted with the poverty. The laughter of the children was the laughter of children everywhere. Yet we neither idealized nor romanticized about the situation. Only a handful of those children will break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and death that enslaves their parents. One yatri could only grasp at terms to express his horror and fury that such conditions are allowed to exist: `abominable, wicked, satanic'. We were powerless to make promises of change, yet many of us sensed the need to act, to offer some hope. Reg, an Australian Aboriginal yatri, offered the Harijans an Aboriginal message stick, a gesture among his people signifying that an important meeting would take place. We left knowing that something must be done, that we have a responsibility.

Everyone has known pain and suffering, great or small, but the stories of some groups stand out: the abomination of untouchability with its thousands of years of institutionalized degradation; the enslavement of Africans in the largest enforced dislocation of people in recorded history and the subsequent horrors of American slavery and racism; the attempted genocide of native Americans, which reduced their numbers from a flourishing 15 million to a few hundred thousand by the year 1900; a similar tale of land appropriation and massacre of the Aboriginals. Names and places differ but parallels abound. The recent case of the rape of a Harijan woman by four high-caste men and the appalling indifference of local and national communities, press and governments, registered with uneasy familiarity with the black Americans. The words of one Harijan spoke for the sentiments of many: `I thought untouchability was only the problem of my province, perhaps India. After coming here, I realize it is a world-wide problem.'

Yet far from hopeless and despairing, we discussed the need for willingness and courage to move forward. Wisps of conversation recalled the old order, where to cross the great divide of colour, caste or culture meant to court the danger of ignominy ('niggerlover', `Uncle Tom or Aunt Tomesana'; `outcaste') or death. Yet here was something new: a black woman's strength, enduring beyond her forgiveness. `I have been told to sit at the back of the bus, I haven't been served, I have been called a 'nigger-bitch'. I've been through all that, and I don't have that "I'm going to get 'em" attitude. I'm ready.'

A white American grasped the vision. `There are certain truths about myself that I could only learn from my native and black American friends. The message is that we whites need to repent, which gets rid of the guilt... and blacks need to forgive, which heals the bitter heart.'

Whilst the legacy of oppression and the role of the oppressed in building a better world were an important focus of the yatra, our mission went far beyond them. A vision was rekindled, friendships were formed, and the substance of character shone forth.

Finally, the search for truth turns within once again. Was our message too naively idealistic in the midst of soul crippling poverty? When thousands of miles and the clutter of common-day concerns separate the yatris, will the memory of this journey quickly fade into obscurity?

Individual responsibility remains; the responsibility for those who heard the message to be still and to listen to the Inner Voice; the responsibility of the yatris to continue building strong bridges across divisions of race and religion, caste and culture so that when the storms of public opinion and personal prejudice rage, those bridges will stand.

Gandhi and King set the precedent for a hate-free and fear-free society. The vision has been rekindled. Now who, like the vigilant watchman of Biblical lore, will pick up the vision and run?


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