Inspired by His Famous Forebear, Mahatma Gandhi's Grandson Takes a Close Look at Racism in America

updated 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Comparisons with his famous grandfather make Arun Gandhi uneasy. Not on account of the Mahatma's achievements but because of the personal austerity that is part of his legend. The elder Gandhi lived in huts, went barefoot, wore white cotton loincloths and had the look of a man who missed more meals than he ate. Arun, 54, does none of the above. "People stare at me and ask, 'How can you be a grandson?' " he says. " 'You are so fat and wear Western clothes.' "

Which isn't to say he's not his grandfather's grandson. A longtime social worker and veteran journalist, Arun is as passionately opposed to discrimination as the elder Gandhi was. Accompanied by his wife, Sunanda, he has come to the University of Mississippi at Oxford to study the U.S., a country he perceives as beset with corrosive social problems. "The concept of America as a melting pot is a myth," says Gandhi. "In reality it's more of a tossed salad bowl. It melts down nationalities, but not races."

For part of a book on discrimination in India, South Africa and the U.S., Arun and Sunanda are studying Mississippi's impoverished Tunica County. "The Mississippi Delta is a sorry situation," says Gandhi, who first visited in 1984. "We have found lots of tensions existing between whites and blacks here, just as they exist between upper-and lower-caste people in India. Each side has taken hard attitudes of confrontation."

Headquarters for the Gandhis' work is the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. From there, the couple ventures into the backcountry of Tunica County interviewing the people who live there—black and white, community leaders and ordinary citizens. Gandhi acknowledges that "a lot of change has taken place in the past 25 years in Mississippi," and that apart from "some suspicious looks," he encountered no personal hostility. "Some people are aware I am a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, some are not," he says. "In some cases, they do not know who we are talking about when we mention my grandfather."

Arun is no stranger to racial conflict. As a child in his native South Africa, where he lived until he was 23, he was attacked by a gang of white youths while walking home from a store one day and was later beaten by blacks during race riots in Durban. For a time, he admits, "I was becoming racist myself, hating whites and blacks for what they were doing to other people."

When Arun was 12, his father, Manilal, second of the Mahatma's four sons, sent him back to India to live with his grandfather for a year. The Mahatma set aside an hour every evening to talk to his grandson, instilling lessons of tolerance and nonviolence. "In his own quiet and inimitable way he taught me how to forgive and understand people," says Arun. "He specifically told me on several occasions that hate is not a good response. Hate begets more hate. When I was a boy his philosophy didn't make much sense to me, but later, when I grew up, I began to understand much more."

In 1956, eight years after his grandfather's assassination by a Hindu fanatic, Arun went back to India, where he met and married Sunanda, then a nurse in Bombay. Prevented by South African law from returning home with his Indian bride, he settled in Bombay with her and began working as a journalist for the Times of India. Then in 1970 the Gandhis and seven friends founded the Society for National Integration to foster economic projects in the Indian countryside. One of their accomplishments was to persuade 500 Bombay textile workers to save a few cents each day from their meager wages. Within a year a textile collective with 10 secondhand power looms had been set up back at the workers' home village. Today, he boasts, the project has grown to three full-size factories and a cooperative bank.

Such social successes have not translated into riches for the Gandhis. In Bombay they share a tiny apartment with their son, Tushar, 29, who is a small-scale independent publisher, and his wife, Sonal. One couple sleeps on the kitchen floor at night while the other beds down on the floor of the only other room. (Their daughter, Archana, 35, is married and lives in Upstate New York.) Though modest, the Gandhis' accommodations in Oxford are roomier. Aided by a $1,000-a-month stipend from U.S. church groups, they have their own one-bedroom apartment, a TV and a secondhand VW.

Although their one-year grant at the University of Mississippi has expired, the Gandhis are staying until May to continue their work. Arun hopes to start a Center for Non-Violent Philosophy in the U.S. To raise money for it, he says he may auction off some of his grandfather's personal papers, including his signed will and a letter written from prison in 1908. The Mahatma would approve, Arun believes: "My grandfather once said, 'My life and my work is my message, and that should be carried on. Nobody should rest until the tears from the last person are wiped out.' "

—Harriet Shapiro, and Jane Sanderson in Oxford, Miss.

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