The Gandhi Test
Two bright orange sofas and two green single chairs formed a semi-circle against a large window that could easily pass for a door if it had been downstairs. A big television screen perched on the opposite wall in permanent sleep. Even though it was called the family living room, it was the most underused part of our house.
Hardly anyone ever sat there. The house was another reason I had suspected that my parents did not plan for me to be an only child. Why would they build a house that big otherwise? Certainly, five bedrooms and three living rooms could not have been originally intended for a family of three.
On one side of the wall was a huge mahogany cabinet with decorated glass doors. It held tiny memories of Dad’s many travels around the world. A young Arab boy riding a camel and a crystal Bud Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, from Dubai; a Maasai couple from Nairobi; Eiffel Tower from Paris; Ijambulo, the lion cub, from South Africa; two hand-painted ostrich egg shells from Tanzania; the pyramids and the Sphinx from Egypt; the Tower Bridge and the bright red telephone booth from London; the Statue of Liberty from New York and several others. For every country he visited, Dad ensured he brought back something. Mum and I had also made important contributions to what Daddy called his museum of mementos, even though we did not travel as much.
Mum was responsible for the decorated plates, which she got from China; and I, the soft camel with a jingle bell that I bought when we travelled to Dubai some years before. Daddy had suggested we moved to the living room. Mummy peeped in about an hour earlier to say breakfast was ready. He did not like to eat in his room. He said it would leave the place smelling of food. He also said he did not feel like going down to the dining area. I followed Mummy down to the kitchen to bring some of the food upstairs in a tray.
It was a simple meal of akara, bread and a bottle of Coke. That was his favourite weekend breakfast. He would tear open the loaf of bread and stuff two or three akara balls into it. He would close it back and squeeze tight to crush the balls into the bread.
He would say he was making an akara bugger. Mummy would tease him and say, “You can take the man out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the man.” He would respond with an indifferent shrug and say, “Na you sabi, city girl.” Mummy was of a different background from Daddy. Her parents were middle class and relatively comfortable.
She attended a Federal Government Girls College, while he attended the village secondary school. She had a degree in Nursing from a University in the UK, while he went to university in Nigeria. They met when he was writing a story on road accident victims as a cub reporter. She was a young nurse working in the Accident and Emergency ward of the hospital. He told me that at the time they met, he had only a pair of jeans and two shirts.
She also earned more salary than him. But even the meagre salary he earned would not be paid, sometimes up to three months. It was however, a case of love at first sight for the two of them. They got married about a year after they met. “Now, what were you saying?” Daddy asked in-between mouthfuls of akara burger.
Crumbs of akara and bread fell on the floor and he bent to pick them up into the tray. “In your letter, you said I should always try to do the right thing. And… you also said if I was ever in doubt about right and wrong, I should apply the Gandhi test. So, what is the Gandhi test?” “Have you ever heard of Mahatma Gandhi?”He asked.
Yes, he was once President of India; he had these Harry Porter glasses,” I said and formed two zeroes around my eyes with my hands. “I wondered why he went around in a white bed sheet though. Was he so poor?” Dad laughed.
“Gandhi could have made all the money he wanted if he was so inclined. But he chose to live a life of poverty to demonstrate that a human being does not really need much to survive. A contented person is a very rich person. Also, Gandhi was never a President. He fought for his country to gain independence from Great Britain.”
Oh yes, I forgot that in India they only have Prime Ministers not Presidents. Was he the Prime Minister?”I asked. “No, that would be Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of Indira Gandhi, who also became the prime minister. Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister after independence. Mahatma Gandhi did not want political power for himself.
But he was a great leader of his people and a thinker. He said so many wise things. He was the one that said you can tell that what you are doing is good or bad if you want other people to know about it or not.” “I don’t understand.” “What Gandhi meant was that if you’re doing something and you don’t mind other people knowing about it, then it’s likely that what you’re doing is good. But if you’re doing something and you would not want other people to know about it, then it’s most likely that what you’re doing is bad.”
“Ah, I get it now Of course, if I tell a lie or cheat in an examination, I would not want anybody to know about it.” Daddy took a quick sip of his Coke, which he drank straight from the bottle. He said the gas was better retained when you drank from the bottle. “Exactly.
But why? Why wouldn’t you want anyone to know?” “Because I would be ashamed.” “Exactly the point, my darling. The question we should always ask ourselves, if we are ever in doubt, is: this thing I am about to do, would I be proud of myself if other people knew about it? Would the people who love and respect me be proud of me and still respect me if they found out what I did?” I understood what he was trying to say and I nodded several times to indicate this. But Daddy would not stop.
Sometimes, he tended to over-explain things. I thought he would make a good teacher. “I must say though, that I think Gandhi must have had in mind only people who have a sense of shame.” He threw up his hands and shrugged. “You know, some people are shameless.
They can do anything, without minding what others would think about them. Do you know what I call people like that?”He asked. “What?” “Animals; they are animals.” I laughed. “Oh, Daddy!” “Yes, they are animals. Because only animals behave anyhow they like, guided only by their instincts. No morals, no ethics.”
Ethics and morals, Daddy, are they not same thing?”I asked. “They are closely related. Ethics have their foundation in morals. Ethics are rules that guide a person’s behaviour based on moral principles. Ethics are principles of right and wrong that guide the way we behave.
Although there are general rules that apply to everyone, but a group of people or even individuals can develop their own standards of ethics. But in the end, they are all based on the same universal notion of right and wrong, on the same moral principles. What is considered to be cheating, may vary from one society to another. But I cannot imagine that there would be a society where cheating is considered a good thing.”
So, what is considered as stealing may not even be the same everywhere. But every society considers stealing a bad thing.” I added, to show I understood what he was saying. He smiled. “You are a smart girl.” “Thanks Daddy, I am my father’s daughter after all,” I said and we both laughed.