There is something about Gandhi.
When the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation put up a website sometime in September announcing that it was going to re-enact the Dandi March on its 75th anniversary, it did not expect the response it got.
Why did so many participants turn up?
Replies and applications came in from all over the world, clearly showing that for many reasons Mahatma Gandhi still draws people like no other. Some of the participants share their thoughts:
Marcher No 1
K Satyanarayana, a resident of Hyderabad, proudly wears Badge No 1 (every participant has been given an identity badge with a number that is now running at over 600).
"A friend of mine in America saw the site and sent it to me sometime in late September. I think it had just come up. I saw the site and immediately downloaded the forms and sent them to the MGF office in Mumbai the same day," he said.
"I knew the moment I saw the site that I was going to take part in this march. Nothing was going to stop me," he said.
Satyanarayana, who retired from active work a couple of years ago, works as a consultant and runs an NGO working to eradicate child labour. "I am here because I want to show that Mahatma Gandhi is still relevant today," he said.
It is a statement that echoes around: the Mahatma remains relevant today.
It is the reason that this march has drawn so many people from different walks of life. Many cannot take part in the entire 26-day journey.. But all of them want the privilege of at least participating for a day or two in the yatra.
The number of participants are expected to shoot up on the weekends when many who are not part of the yatra turn up.
'Giving up everything because he said so!'
Gaurang Desai, a resident of Mumbai, has a dream.
"When we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Dandi March I want to to be there to take part; though by then I will be 75 years old. Then I can proudly say that I participated in both the 75th and 100th anniversary marches," he told rediff.com.
Gaurang Desai deplores the fact that few people today take Gandhiji seriously, including the Congress party. He hopes that by holding such events, his ideas will be revived and his message of peace and tolerance carried across the country.
"No one today can even imagine the kind of effect he had on people. It was magical. His wishes became their commands," he said.
Desai recalls that in his childhood he was moved by a story he heard from his father about a school teacher who heeded Mahatma Gandhi's call.
"This man was a poor school teacher earning a small salary. He had three sons, and a fourth was on its way. One day, he came across Gandhiji, who told him to leave his job and work for the nation. The teacher was very worried; how would he feed his wife and his children. His wife was illiterate and could not work. One day his wife asked him why he was so worried and he told her what Gandhiji had told him," narrated Desai.
Desai continued: "You know what his wife told the teacher? She told him, in Gujarati, 'Bapu told you to quit the school and work for the country, didn't he? So why should you even think about it. Do it right away.'
The teacher then said, 'But how will we live, what will we eat?' The wife told him, 'Don't worry about that. We will manage somehow. But you must listen to Bapu.' So the teacher immediately quit his job and began to take part in social and political activities."
Desai paused, a lump in his throat. "Just imagine the effect that Gandhi had that people, rich or poor, would give up everything just because he told them to do so. But more important, is there any leader around today for whose sake we would give up everything simply because he tells us to?" he asks.
There is no need for a reply because the answer is obvious.
"And you know the best part of it all," continues Desai, "The teacher was worried about his children, their food and education and very survival. Yet, the family did well. Two boys became engineers, one a chartered accountant and the last a doctor. How much better can one do? It is almost like in obeying Gandhi, he was blessed and his worst fears taken care of," said Desai.
"I have never forgotten this story. And I never will. It tells us why he is so great! And by taking part in this march, I believe that in my own small way, I am helping spread the message of the Mahatma, something that is very important today," said Desai.
The tallest of them all!
One of the biggest attractions of the march is a lanky American. At 6'6", he literally towers above the rest of the marchers. With long blond hair and a Jesus Christ style beard, it is hardly surprising that he is often besieged by curious onlookers during the march.
Joshua Trost of Chicago has also earned a reputation in the first two days as one of the most helpful persons, who serves water to the other participants during the breaks.
He intends to be there for all the 26 days. "I am here because I am against all forms of violence, and I hope that from this march I learn something that I can use back home," he told rediff.com.
In the United States, Trost is an active participant of the anti-war movement, which seems to have little effect on the Bush administration's campaign in Iraq.
"This is a war for oil and we need to fight it," said Trost. "The best way of doing that is by taking the message of Mahatma Gandhi and insisting all objectives can be achieved through non-violence and fairness," he said.
For Revaz Farok Ardeshir, who is of Indian origin, the Dandi March is more about rediscovering his roots.
Revaz, 24, was born and grew up in California; for years India was this distant land that he visited every now and then, usually to meet relatives.
"I spent my childhood trying to be more American than the Americans themselves and I realised that I was wrong. Now I want to discover my country, my people. What better way of going through the villages than on this Dandi March," he said.
Revaz, a student of political science, is even considering returning to India for good. "One of my uncles has a business in Calcutta, maybe I could join him," he wonders, then adds, "But before that, I need to learn Hindi."
It is the same story for Anjali Adukia, who works for Indicorps in Gujarat. She has been in India for about six months and is wondering about staying on for good.
It is a sentiment Revaz understands. "You know in the US, Indians really have two options: you either try and become an American by trying to become like the whites; or you stay in your Indian areas simply cut off from the rest of America. Both are doomed to failure and cause immense frustration and that is when returning to India seems such a wonderful option," he said.
Comparing Gandhi and Mao
Another foreign couple drawing much attention are Shang Quan-Yu and Tang Lu. Shang is a professor of modern world history, specialising in India. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he is researching on Gandhi.
When the opportunity came up, he didn't want to miss the chance to walk down the famous road.
How does he compare Mahatma with Mao Zedong, contemporaries who led ancient civilizations along strikingly different routes?
Shang replies without hesitation: "Both are great political leaders, of that there is no doubt. But the Mahatma is also a great spiritual leader."
According to Shang, it is this spiritual aspect of the Mahatma has is seeing a growing interest in him in China, with ever increasing numbers seeking to understand the Mahatma's message.
Shang also believes that the Mahatma's spirituality -- his insistence on non-violence, his call for simplicity, his concern for the poorest and the downtrodden -- will remain relevant for all people and times.
Tang is a journalist who has taken leave to study the cooperative movement. She is currently based in Anand, Gujarat, which is home to the world's largest cooperative movement. Anand is on the Dandi March route.
No legs, so what?
If there is one person who is inspiring the rest of the marchers it is Vasantrao Pawar.
A resident of Bhopal, Pawar lost his legs in an accident years ago. He chose to wheel himself all the way to Dandi.
"Initially, many persons told me that I would not be allowed to participate and I got very angry," he told rediff.com.
"So I met a Congress leader in Madhya Pradesh and told him that he must ensure that I can participate."
Pawar proved that not having legs is really no handicap. He is totally independent; getting down and up his wheelchair without any help, doing all his daily chores without assistance. Pawar insists he has the stamina to withstand the rigours of the march.
"I have gone all the way to Vaishno Devi (located high in the mountains in Jammu) on my own, so why should this be a problem," he asked.
It was not. Pawar took a train from Bhopal to Ahmedabad, arriving just a day before the scheduled march was to start and insisted that he be issued a pass, which the MGF did.
And though the Dandi March will involve a tricky bit where the marchers have to cross a river marsh on foot, he is gung ho about it.
"The others have assured me that they will carry me across and I am not worried. I am sure I will get across and I will be in Dandi with all the others," he said triumphantly.
Pawar has a wife and two children, who have stayed back in Bhopal. There is no doubt that the Mahatma would have approved!
'I am only worried about my insulin shots'
Vinod Naik was a hassled man on March 11. He had just flown in from South Africa (he resides in Lanesia, near Johannesburg) to take part in the Dandi March hoping that was not too late to register.
No problem: the MGF told him that they would issue him a pass and that he should deposit his bag with them so that it could be trucked to the night halt destination, leaving him free to walk with no bags to carry.
Naik, whose ancestors came from Gujarat, said he had a concern. He said he had diabetes and had to take injections every morning and night to keep his sugar level in control.
The problem was that his insulin doses needed to be kept in a cool place. The MGF was clearly caught off-guard: how to ensure that the medicine chest is kept cool in a truck that is traveling through the blazing heat of Gujarat.
Naik was worried. He was keen to participate. And if storing his medicines were a problem, he would have to miss the event.
"Gandhi is so important in South Africa. There should be somebody from that country," he said.
Finally, arrangements were made to keep the medicine chest in one of the air-conditioned cars that would accompany the marchers. And a happy Vinod Naik was seen marching along briskly with the rest.
Mahatma and Netaji
Participating in a section of the march was also Bollywood scriptwriter Atul Tiwari.
Tiwari has written the script for the film Netaji, directed by Shyam Benegal and due for release in May.
He is keenly aware of the much spoken about quarrel between Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose, which he says is more imagination than fact.
"Everyone remembers that Gandhi and Bose did have differences in 1940, but few remember that for years before that they agreed on most issues and that Bose looked up to Gandhi as a father figure," said Tiwari.
He pointed out that when Bose first became Congress president in 1939, Gandhi backed him; only after Bose wanted to side with the Germans in World War II that differences cropped up and Gandhi opposed Bose's candidature to the Congress presidency in 1940 (Bose won the election; but after that Gandhi threatened to resign from the Congress. Bose quit and soon escaped from British custody to join hands with the Germans).
He points out that it was Bose who gave the title, Father of the Nation, to Gandhi (incidentally, it was another famous Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore, who gave the appellation Mahatma to Gandhi).
"If Bose really had problems with the Mahatma, would he have given him such a title?" asks Tiwari.
Tiwari said that the title was given after Bose sent an emotional and desperate plea to Gandhi to raise the banner of revolt against the British even though the war was on.
"If you read that message, it is like a child appealing to his father. It is so emotional."
What history records is that Gandhi did not heed Bose's request.
But as discerning historians point out, the very fact that Gandhi gave the Quit India call in 1942 (when World War II was very much on and the Allied victory then by no means assured) actually meant that he had accepted the message and advice of Bose, almost like a father who listens to his rebellious son during a crisis.
After the Quit India movement, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the British left India.
"The problem is that our politicians like to look at history partially, never fully, and always pit one against the other; whether it is Ambedkar versus Gandhi or Netaji versus Gandhi or even Bhagat Singh versus Gandhi," said Tiwari.
"But the truth is that despite all their differences, all of them had tremendous respect for each other. And every one of them would agree that Gandhi could rally the masses like no other."