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Where grow Gandhi's seedlings?

Travelers at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the world's busiest train stations, days after it was attacked.
Travelers at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of the world's busiest train stations, days after it was attacked. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / December 7, 2008
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On a muggy March afternoon three years ago, I sat at a desk in the sheltered silence of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and looked for lessons, not from the energetic embrace of Mumbai, just beyond the window of my room, but from an elusive idea more distant.

I had spent the previous several days walking with hundreds of Indians, Hindus and Muslims among them, in the historic footsteps of the spiritual leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, known to many as the Mahatma. His insistence on nonviolent action nearly a century ago challenged British rule of India and traditions of conflict around the world. From dawn until dusk on those days 75 years after the Mahatma led his salt march, we plodded across the arid farm flats of coastal Gujarat state, northwest of Mumbai, and encountered in villages and cities scars of struggles begun long before Gandhi's time.

Gandhi said: "There is no hope for the aching world except through the narrow and straight path of nonviolence."

After the march I traveled from the city of Surat by train, a trip of a few hours that threaded southward from Gujarat into the increasing urgency of the peninsula that is home to millions in Mumbai. It was night, and through the windows of the crowded train compartment came only hints of the city. Mumbai is staggered by luxury high-rises and shanties, and more, and the approach seemed an epic journey, passing from one era to the next, from one life to another, before the train finally stopped at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. VT, as it is known to Mumbaikars - it had the name Victoria Terminus Station for more than a century - is one of the world's busiest train stations.

I arrived near 9 p.m., and the platforms were still softly seething. Imagine, then, the terror of the week before last, when two gunmen strode through the terminal at more or less the same hour and opened fire on the crowd of commuters.

Several other attackers quickly targeted a crowd in a cafe, occupants of an orthodox Jewish center, and patients and staff in the Cama Hospital. The men rampaged into the opulence of two hotels, the Oberoi and the Taj. Karambir Kang, the manager of the Taj, was reportedly able to help some guests escape, but not his wife, Neeti, and two young children, who died in the blaze. More than 170 people were killed across the southern stretch of the city, and many more injured. The victims were Indian and foreign, rich and poor.

Quickly, from Mumbai's streets to the world's capitals, people have demanded to know what comes next.

Gandhi said: "Nonviolence, which is a quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain."

As I sit at this desk in Boston, I think not so much of my room at the Taj but of the days walking in Gujarat. In 1930, Gandhi, his head shaven, his slight body swathed in robes, set out with followers from the city of Ahmedabad to cover 241 miles in 26 days. His immediate goal was independence for India. Arriving at Dandi, a settlement by the Arabian Sea, he leaned and scooped salt in defiance of a British tax.

Time does not turn so easily, and on Gandhi's trail in 2005 people still felt many of the tensions of his lifetime. In 2002, more than 50 Hindus died in a train fire in the city of Godhra that was said to have been set by Muslims. Retaliation by Hindus turned to riots that killed hundreds of Muslims and forced thousands from their homes.

During the Mumbai attacks, one of the gunmen faced a line of hostages on the 20th floor of the Oberoi, and reportedly said, as an explanation for his actions: "Remember Godhra?"

At the edge of the Arabian Sea, before Gandhi's walk and since, there are no urgent hours, no clamor and clash of people all around. No windows provide separation from the wider world. With salt and sand below, open sky overhead, comes first one soft moment, then another.

Gandhi said: "Nonviolence is a plant of slow growth, growing imperceptibly, but surely."

Tom Haines, the staff writer for Travel, can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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