The Mahatma was a presence in my life even before I was born. In August 1942, Mohandas Gandhi and other Congress leaders gathered in Mumbai’s Gowalia Tank to demand an end to British rule. At the Quit India meeting, my mother, then aged 18, told me that she sang “Vande Matram”. She was eight months pregnant – with me.

Some time later, when I was a child, too young to have any memories, I was taken to Gandhi to have him bless me, an elderly aunt told me. Gandhi’s spirit has stayed with me my whole life.

Our family’s reverence for Gandhi was the result of the association he had with my grandfather, Purushottam Kanji. That relationship has determined the way I have tried to live: the values that Gandhi propagated have deeply influenced me. It happened by natural course. My awareness of this osmosis has increased with age.

I recently recalled an incident when, as a schoolboy of six or seven, I came home from school in tears because the school bully had said something mean to me. My mother taught me a Gandhian lesson: “If he swore at you, the filth is in his mouth, not in your ears.” To this day, if I have an unpleasant encounter (something that happens far too frequently in the chaotic Mumbai traffic), I try to remember those words.

Decades later, in 1972, when I started a small-scale engineering workshop in Mumbai, I asked my grandfather how I should try to proceed. Two pieces of advice still ring in my ears. One, remember that integrity in your transactions will always work out well in the long run, he said.The other was to have empathy with my employees.

He recalled something Gandhi had once mentioned: “The happiest sight for me is to see a worker, tiffin box in hand, on his way to work and the same worker returning home in the evening with a smile on his face”. If all Indians had this kind of satisfying relationship with their employers, it would make for a happy nation, he had said.

The author's mother, Kokila Sampat.

Purushottam Kanji had graduated with a degree in economics from Bombay University in the mid-1920s. He was also an active sportsman and a reasonably good musician.

He was the eldest son of a Kutchi Bhatia family that had moved to Mumbai somewhere around the 1880s. My great grandfather, Kanji Karsandas, had achieved tremendous success trading textiles. Kutchi Bhatias had established themselves in trade and manufacturing, and along with the Parsis, are counted among the founding fathers of the metropolis that was Bombay.

Purushottam Kanji’s father had done well enough to own an entire section of Worli Hill, extending from the present-day police quarters and the Regional Transport Office to the Worli dairy. This property – about 18 acres to 20 acres of prime land – might still have been owned by my family had the colonial British government not requisitioned it during World War I for a few thousand rupees.

The family textile business kept flourishing, though, and Purushottam Kanji was deeply entrenched in it.

Gandhi’s return

In 1915, a momentous event occurred. After having spent 21 years working to help Indians in South Africa fight against injustice and discrimination, Gandhi returned to India. At home, Gandhi had made it his mission to work for the empowerment of Indians in both the social and economic spheres.

Self reliance, self respect for all Indians, ridding society of the evils of untouchability and bringing about gender equality were the thrust of Gandhi’s endeavour. The ultimate aim, of course, was Swaraj, self governance for India and freedom from over a century of British colonial rule.

Thousands of young men and women were drawn to Gandhi’s mission. Among them was the young Purushottam Kanji, who was known to his family and friends as Kakubhai. The family’s large bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Santa Cruz became a venue for social and political meetings. My mother, Kokila, Purushottam Kanji’s daughter, was born in this house.

She told me about several Independence movement leaders visiting Anand Bhavan, near Santa Cruz station, and even staying there for short periods of time. Jawaharlal Nehru and a young Indira had dropped in,she said. Subhash Chandra Bose, Jayaprakash Narayan, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asif Ali and Acharya Kripalani also visited the house, she said.

My mother recalled the clear manner in which Gandhi spoke to his audience, no matter whether he was addressing national leaders or common folk. The simplicity of his words, logical and strongly persuasive, was the reason his message was well understood and followed, she said.

Purushottam Kanji with his father, Kanji Karsandas, in 1949.

Around 1929 or 1930, Gandhi asked Purushottam’s father to spare his son “for the service of the nation”, my grandfather told me. It was a difficult decision for Kanji Karsandas to make because it would have a serious impact on the family business. A transition was the solution. Purushottam gradually eased himself out of the family business.

The family bungalow in Santa Cruz was sold. The extended family moved into three flats in Gilbert Building in Babulnath in South Bombay, a short walk from Chowpatty beach. (In 1964, under financial duress, Gilbert Building was sold. It now houses Bombay International School.)

In 1930, Gandhi set out on the Dandi march in Gujarat to protest against a new tax on common salt. He said it was an unfair cess because even the poorest people needed salt. In several other places, freedom fighters joined the protest by harvesting salt. Kakubhai led a group to do so on the shore of Mumbai’s Khar suburb. Kakubhai was arrested. He spent two years in Nashik jail.

For years after that, my grandfather preserved in a jar the salt he had made that day. I was the proud recipient of this memento and ultimately donated it to my school, New Era, where it was prominently displayed.

In 1935, Kakubhai took a holiday in Europe with his wife, son and daughter (my mother). When they were in Berlin, they saw Adolf Hitler go by in a motorcade. Years later, my mother would often speak about how in her lifetime, she had set eyes upon the kindest human beings and the wickedest ones.

She also recalled, always with great pride, the call from Gandhi to burn all British-made clothing in bonfires and replace it with handwoven khadi. She was a teenager at that time but was proud and happy to set her fine British-made clothes on fire. It was a moment of great national pride to make such a sacrifice.

The idea, of course, was to encourage the use of cloth made in India, either self-woven khadi or made in the few cloth mills that were in India and which employed Indian labour. This was a big boost for mills in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and elsewhere. Purushottam Kanji had a charkha and dedicated an hour each morning to spinning khadi. When my mother got married in 1941, she wore a sari made from thread that had been spun by her father. My grandparents wore khadi for the rest of their lives.

The author's parents, Hansraj and Kokila Sampat, in 1941.

After India became independent in 1947, Kakubhai was invited to be part of the Bombay State government on several occasions. I have seen several leaders and politicians visiting Kakubhai at home trying to persuade him to take up one ministry or other. His answer was always clear. “I worked for India’s freedom,” he would say, “but I am not a politician.”

In the early 1950s, Morarji Desai, who was chief minister of Bombay State, was finally able to persuade my grandfather to head the newly formed Bombay State Finance Corporation. Kakubhai, who was then living in Colaba, refused to accept the car that was offered to him as a perquisite of the job. He said that there was a convenient public bus he could take from home to the office.

In later years, Kakubhai was the chairman of the state Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which promoted the manufacture and marketing of both khadi and handicrafts made by small groups or individuals, particularly from the rural areas. Gandhi believed that encouraging and empowering the village folk in India was the way forward for India. KVIC was a step in that direction.

Long after India became free, my grandfather, who died in the mid-1980s, and I had several conversations about Gandhi, his methods and his own life. On one occasion he said to me, “In my opinion, Gandhiji was the greatest person to set foot on Earth after Jesus Christ.” He explained, “He loved his people unconditionally and was the ultimate man of peace.”

I also asked how Gandhi had influenced his life. “In every way you can think of,” he responded. Though I wish I’d had more conversations with him about what Gandhi meant to him, it was clear that Kakubhai’s own life was a reflection of the simple, strong values imbibed from being close to the Mahatma.

Kakubhai mentioned how Gandhi was constantly writing little notes to his associates about what he felt needed to be done. Gandhi did not want to waste paper so these notes were written on small bits of paper, on the backs of envelopes or in the margins of other notes he may have received. He was a conservationist at a time when the concept had not even been invented.

Gandhi’s messages, it would seem, were very practical. Sadly, he is now judged as being peculiar because of some of his eccentricities. Above all, he is vilified as having political ambitions and a personal agenda in independent India. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think the greatest problem for the generations that followed Gandhi was that he is very difficult to emulate and therefore is a cause of discomfort, especially to modern-day leaders. Why, within my lifetime have we gone from Bapu’s sane, simple message for India to confused turbulence and hatred?

Thankfully, Gandhi’s name and message are still valued in several countries of the world. Perhaps his common sense ideas will return to guide us into sanity. Maybe the pendulum will swing back.