February 18, 2020
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Dandi : The Mahatma, Salted And Dried

In a weird retake on 'Quit India', Dandi's denizens just mark time till they can go abroad.

Dandi : The Mahatma, Salted And Dried
The road to Dandi in Gujarat, 300 km from Mumbai, is so bumpy that when the driver starts chuckling, we search for head injuries. But just then he says sanely: Now I know why Gandhiji walked. Seventy years ago, the father of the nation walked 250 miles over 23 days and reached Dandi. He showed in a drama that only he was capable of taking the British Empire with a pinch of salt. As a tribute to this great man, we find that in Navsari, which is a small town 20 km from Dandi, there is curfew. A man died in a brief communal riot.

Despite the eerie silence around, Dandi has a population of some 1,200. The first spot for a stranger to go is where Gandhiji broke the Salt Law. It’s near a small cottage where he lived for 10 days. The house belonged to his holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb, a religious head of the Dawoodi Bohra sect but is now a museum which contains snapshots of those heady days and an enormous pan in which the Mahatma made salt. This place is also called ‘Directorate of Information’, which is locked today. Some passing villagers point out that the man may not come because India was playing Zimbawe. When a disgruntled peon, still in a hangover from last night’s good life, opens the door of the museum, we find the rugs on the floor torn to shreds. The walls haven’t been painted, possibly ever since Gandhiji left. There is something about this place which the diligent villagers quickly disown (It’s maintained by the state government). Something about this place that would make all of us pray that we do not become Mahatmas one day. For it’s such posthumous reverence that makes anonymity a virtue.

He tries to switch on the lights but there is no electricity. This village goes for many hours every day without power. It gets water for half an hour every day. As the peon wipes the 15-foot shallow-wood statue of the Mahatma, he gets personal: I get Rs 450 a month and sometimes I am not paid for five to six months. He wonders if we can help him go to the Gulf. This is the same request which an onlooker, Moti Patel, has. I went twice to the Gulf, as a contract labourer. The contracts didn’t last for more than 15 months.

There is a peculiar phenomenon in Dandi. Thirty per cent of the official 1,200-odd residents are abroad, chiefly in Europe, West Asia and New Zealand. They are mostly shopkeepers and factory workers there. All that most people in Dandi wait for is help from the diaspora in leaving the country. There is a certain prosperity around Dandi which has been supplied by foreign currency ending up in the village’s Bank of Baroda. There are 50 phonelines in this village. Some parents whose kids are abroad live in big houses with dish antennae to save themselves from DD.

Naresh Patel was 21 when he left Dandi for New Zealand. That was 15 years ago. He is in Dandi on a small vacation with his wife and two young sons. He runs a shop in Auckland that sells biscuits, milk and other things. He studied in the stark environs of Dandi but today speaks like Chris Cairns. Kanti Patel is on his first visit to India, and misguided by blood relations, he rushed from Mumbai airport to Dandi by road. He came here along with his two kids, his sister and her two impressionable girls, to meet his aunt. And have a nice holiday. But what greets them is some kind of dry rigour mortis, with lazy men chatting under a sprawling banyan tree. His children in the backdrop are shaking their heads and limbs vigorously, chasing away mosquitoes. Those kids may have already formed an opinion about their father.

There’s is a simple reason why almost everybody in Dandi wants to go abroad. There is nothing to do in Dandi. The village may be synonymous with salt but the truth is, there is no salt here. The sea was flooding the houses and so in 1951 bunds were built. The sea has retreated over a kilometre. Few people pursue fishing as it fetches just about Rs 40 after a hard day’s work. The land here is not conducive to serious agriculture. Tourism is not a business here. During festival days, the beach is invaded by strangers and Dandi earns a bit from selling parking tickets. Young boys and girls who are stuck in Dandi wait for suitable matrimonial alliances from abroad. Dhirubhaiji, who is an important person here, says: Everybody in Dandi belongs to the Koli Patel community and we are very particular about marrying within the community. So even those who are settled abroad come here to find grooms and brides. Expectations from marriage have created some social situations wherein a boy who lives in Dandi waits unendingly for an alliance, feeling small. Most girls look forward to going to UK or New Zealand and marrying shopkeepers and factory workers.

Dhirubhaiji runs the village school. Vinay Mandir High School has classes from 8 to 10. And there is an adjoining primary school. Some 250 students from Dandi and around come here to play volleyball and study, in that order. There is a certain ‘sign of the times’ in this school. Most of the boys who play volleyball are wearing jerseys that say CK or Nike, which their expatriate relatives have sent them. If you ask them to burn it, they will kill you. The school itself has been built from the pounds sent by Dhirubhai’s brother in UK. The school has three computers that help them teach basic. The boys in the high school have a mandatory optional among the other regulars. It’s carpentry or technical. The idea is to help some of them find jobs abroad. It’s a queer Quit India movement that M.K. Gandhi may not have dreamt of during that magical moment when everyone believed in the spiel about how we have awakened while those in other time zones were sleeping.

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