Perhaps because of the cold, the park was completely empty. For several minutes, as I stood before this statue, there was an utter quiet -- all of London's millions muted by space and trees and a bulwark of enduring Victorian brick. The serenity of the scene was reinforced by the muted winter palette: iron gray, soft pale green, the pearly white of frost and breathy vapor.
Tavistock Square Garden is known as "the peace park," and Gandhi's statue is not the only tribute (or reparation made) to those who have tried to alleviate human suffering in this violent world. On the day that I was there, it was difficult to imagine it being anything other than what it was: quiet, still, contemplative. And yet: ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a bus was blown up just outside the park on July 7, 2005 and 13 lives were lost. Although I felt a deep peace emanating from that place, the world is constantly stirred up with anger, fear and all of the dire competitive aspects of staking a place and carving out the spoils.
Is peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?
Although Gandhi is only briefly alluded to in Slumdog Millionaire -- the film that swept the BAFTA Awards on Sunday night, and that I saw recently -- I keep thinking of him as I attempt to process the visceral experience of being immersed in the intense world of Mumbai. India: a rich stew of color, sound, smells and living things everywhere. Are there any quiet, muted corners in that great teeming city?
In England, one can absorb a sense of peace from the external landscape; but in India, I suspect that spiritual practices are so ancient and advanced precisely because they have to be enacted from an internal landscape.
The Slumdog Millionaire movie has been inaccurately billed as "feel good" by some media soundbites -- and I know of one person who had to leave the theater, quite unprepared for the assault on the senses and the emotional battering that the film delivers. Although the credits of the movie are certainly "feel good," it is a grueling journey to get there. I felt quite wrung out.
There is a happy ending of sorts, but as in the darkest fairy tales, it has to be earned through many trials. For Westerners, so intent on protecting on children from any small harm, it is shocking to witness what the central characters - who are young children, orphaned before the viewer's eyes - have to endure. Although the children show great resilience, humor, playfulness and loyalty, they are all scarred in various ways. Of course.
This morning, I was reading an article about an up-and-coming political leader in the United States and a phrase that he used - "prisoner of hope" - stuck in my mind. That phrase is further defined as "the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt." I think that Gandhi must have cloaked himself in a similar sort of armour. How else could he have believed that non-violence could liberate so many people? Although he knew that violence and hate would win many skirmishes, he had a deep belief that non-violence and love would eventually overcome.
There has been some criticism that Slumdog Millionaire portrays India in an overly negative light. Braja, who writes Lost and Found in India, addresses this notion in a post called "The truth about India." If the film is understood as a fairy tale or modern parable, I think that it makes sense to reveal the world as a dark place. I don't know if darkness is the yin or the yang, but it is the counterpart to light -- and those forces are everywhere, perhaps just a bit more obvious in a place like Mumbai.
Despite everything he experiences -- and these experiences are revealed ingeniously through the plotting of the film -- Jamal, the slumdog of the title, has a deep belief in love. That belief sustains him and gives his life focus. Whether you think of it as a guiding principle, or a "prison of hope," it keeps his spirit intact. He does overcome, in the Martin Luther King sense, although that is more of a process than an ending.
Life (as ever?) seems like a toxic brew these days. It always seems that we are slipping down, that the situation is worsening, that we are on the edge of disaster. (Same as it ever was, history might tell us.) The fiery landscape of Australia is just as present as the frozen playground of England.
Even so, it seems worthwhile to fix one's mind on peace, love and hope. It isn't an easy thing to watch - certainly not happiness at a bargain price -- but I would argue that Slumdog Millionaire is worth the effort.