Obama, as I wrote a couple of days ago, told a young girl on the day that he addressed the nation’s school children that if he could have dinner with anyone, it would have to be Mohandas Gandhi. It is perhaps to Obama’s credit that he picked the least likely person with whom one might, from the culinary standpoint, enjoy a meal. Such a meal would have been bereft of wine, lobster thermidor, meat, fowl, or fish in any form, indeed even cooked vegetables. Gandhi, incidentally, never ate after sunset, but Obama, being the President of the United States and not of Spain, where dinner commences at 10 PM, would have had at least no difficulty on this score. So Obama’s choice of a dinner companion, if only for a night, suggests that he has a real appetite for something other than food – an appetite for conversation and the exchange of ideas. Moreover, who one allows at one’s dinner table tells a lot about that person, just as one can say a good deal about a society from the rules of commensality that govern it.
Nevertheless, the sight of the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest army partaking of a meal with the man who authored the idea of mass nonviolent resistance and helped to bring the British Empire to its knees is an intriguing one. There will, of course, be many who will at once chirp in with observations about the Mahatma and his many ‘myths.’ It will be argued, in a rehearsal of what has been heard many times before, that the British were exhausted by War World II and decided to give up India, which in any case had become a liability. On the Indian side, one encounters the argument that violent revolutionaries had a far greater hand in forcing the British to quit India than has been acknowledged. And so on. But, overlooking these predictable objections, one must consider another constellation of facts surrounding Gandhi and his eating habits. Gandhi is history’s most astounding master of the fast. Obama quipped about Gandhi’s small meals, but often Gandhi had no meals at all. The term ‘hunger strike’ has often been used to describe Gandhi’s deployment of fasting as a weapon in a political cause, but fasting and hunger strike operate on two very different sets of assumptions. The hunger strike is directed at someone else; the fast is always directed at oneself, even if it is also intended to influence another party. Gandhi fasted not only in an endeavor to influence the actions or thinking of someone else, but because he viewed it as a way of cleansing the body: if silence, which Gandhi observed one day a week, is another form of fulfilling the idea of emptiness, so is fasting. But on such distinctions hang many other narratives.
Something like the dinner that Obama envisioned took place when Gandhi met the King Emperor at a tea party in his honor at Buckingham Palace on his last visit to London to negotiate for Indian independence. I seem to recall that his companion and aide, Mirabehn, has narrated what transpired at that meeting. The King Emperor was somewhat rude, since Gandhi had caused immense trouble in his realms. Now, to top it all, the seditious Gandhi took out a pinch of salt that he had saved from the Salt March – which had forced the British to the negotiation table – and put it in a bowl of yogurt. It is hard to think of Gandhi as a man rubbing salt into one’s wounds, but he may have done just that on that evening. I daresay that Obama would have met more than his match at the dinner table with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.