“Grandfather Gandhi” Authors Speak at Texas Book Festival

Story by Rahul NaikPhotos by Tanya Xiong

The twang of a sitar paired with the accompaniment of tabla were a reminder that one can always find beauty in this world. The morning “raga” transported the room to the streets of Kolkata. Tears streamed from the eyes of a few members of the audience, elicited by the harmonic passion flowing from each musician, as they played the tranquil piece.

Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami and his son welcome Arun Gandhi with the playing of the morning raga.

The artists were Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami, a 17th generation Pakistani musician and former professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his son. Nizami’s grandfather had once played for Mahatma Gandhi, so it was only fitting for him to welcome Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, to Austin.

On October 25, Arun Gandhi, the fifth grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Bethany Hegedus, author of “Grandfather Gandhi,” spoke at the 2014 Texas Book Festival. Spectators crowded the main hall of the First United Methodist Church Family Life Center to see the children’s author and Gandhi speak about peace, nonviolence and their 10-year collaboration to publish the children’s picture book.

Gandhi grew up in racially divided South Africa, where he experienced extreme racism and prejudice first-hand. After receiving his education, Gandhi worked as a journalist for the Times New India for more than 30 years, and he currently holds the same position at the Washington Post. Over the course of his time living in India, he rescued abandoned children with his late wife, Sunanda. Together, the couple founded the M.K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, now located in Rochester, N.Y.

Hegedus, Gandhi’s fellow speaker for the evening, is a former youth educator, who serves as the Hunger Mountain Young Adult and Children’s Editor and opened The Writing Barn, a seven-acre writing retreat, workshop and event space in Austin.

Bethany Hegedus and Arun Gandhi at the signing tent autographing their book, Grandfather Gandhi.

Hegedus first saw Gandhi in New York City after he was invited to speak at New York City’s Town Hall, about his relationship with his grandfather, weeks after 9/11.

She had served as a fire searcher at the World trade Center on September 11, 2001. The grief from the horrors she witnessed that day followed Hegedus for months after. “After 9/11, I felt unworthy,” Hegedus said. Seeing Gandhi speak helped Hegedus her begin the process of healing. She said she had always sought to change and fill the world with good, and this served as another step in her process. In December 2002, Hegedus asked Gandhi to collaborate with her on the picture book.

He simply agreed.

Arun Gandhi's children's book, Grandfather Gandhi, spotted in the crowd.

Simplicity sums up the persona of Mahatma Gandhi’s fifth grandson. At the Texas Book Festival event, he rarely smiled or showed any emotion, yet his commitment to humanity emanated from his every word.

Gandhi explained how his grandfather taught him to control his anger and seek to solve all conflict through nonviolent means at a very young age.

“One of the first lessons he taught me is that violence is generated by anger,” Gandhi said. “It is important to learn about anger and how to use it in a constructive way. What is evil is the way we abuse anger.”

Gandhiji instructed Arun to make an “anger journal” as a child, not so that he could vent and become angrier, but so that he could come up with solutions to solving that anger.

“Anger is like electricity,” Gandhiji told young Arun. “[It] can strike, like lightning, and split a living tree in two…Or it can be channeled, transformed…Then anger can illuminate. It can turn the darkness into light.”

Arun Gandhi signing a book right after the panel.

It may only be a children’s book, but “Grandfather Gandhi” explores complex themes like lightness and darkness. The authors chose to impart their nonviolent message upon children because they believe young people hold the keys to the future.

“[Spreading the message of nonviolence] starts with teaching your kids,” Gandhi said.

Most adults could learn a lot from the various interactions between Gandhi and his grandfather. Understanding non-violence and how to go about spreading ideas without anger embodies the foundation of Gandhiji’s teachings.

“The tragedy is trying to change the world, being unable to do it and giving up because you can’t do it,” Gandhi said. “We don’t have to change the whole world. We can start by changing our neighborhoods and families.”

Bethany Hegedus, Arun Gandhi, Nizami and his son pose for a picture.

“Grandfather Gandhi” offers children a first-hand account of lessons taught by one of the most influential peacemakers who ever lived and serves as great introduction to Indian culture and its history. The 48-page picture book can be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, BookPeople and most other retail book stores.