Great work is the product of collaborative processes


Ian Desai explores the lives and history of the men behind Gandhi @ The Wilson Quarterly.
On September 4, 1915, in the sticky heat of late summer, Mahadev Desai and Narahari Parikh walked without speaking along the Sabarmati River, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, a city in northwestern India. Desai and Parikh were best friends who shared everything, so the silence between them was uncharacteristic. Their day, however, had been highly unusual, and they were both lost in reflection on what had transpired. When they reached the Ellis Bridge, which spanned the surging waters of the Sabarmati and supported a steady flow of carriage, mule, foot, and, occasionally, car traffic from the bustling city, they stopped and faced each other. They were both thinking about a meeting they had had a few hours earlier with a 46-year-old lawyer who had recently returned to India after living for two decades in South Africa.

Desai finally broke their prolonged silence: “Narahari, I have half a mind to go and sit at the feet of this man.” This statement, in which Desai contemplated abandoning his nascent legal career in order to devote himself to the service of someone he had met for the first time that day, changed the course of his life. It also helped change the course of history for a colonized nation seeking freedom and its entrenched imperial rulers. With these words, the 23-year-old Desai began a journey that would produce one of the most important partnerships the modern world has known. The lawyer they had met had extraordinary ambitions that were growing by the day, and he had started to assemble a team of gifted individuals to help him achieve his visions. That lawyer’s name was Mohandas Gandhi, and in Mahadev Desai the future Mahatma had found a crucial partner for his historic cause.

In March 2005 I was in Ahmedabad, now a major industrial metropolis. It had not rained for nine months, and the temperature hovered above 100 degrees. Although the room I was in felt like an oven, it happened to be a library housed in a museum on the site of Gandhi’s former residence, the Satyagraha Ashram. Wiping my hands clean, I reached for a book from the rusting metal case in front of me. Gently brushing off dust, cobwebs, and an insect from the surface of the volume, I opened it and examined the elegant signature on the inside cover identifying its owner as “Mahadev Desai.” What the signature didn’t tell me was that this book, along with several thousand others, was read, used, and shared jointly by Desai (no relation to me) and his boss, Mahatma Gandhi.
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