City Life – Vijay Chauhan, The Dishwasher

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Vijay Chauhan, The Dishwasher

Tracing Mahatma Gandhi’s complex legacy.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Has Vijay Chauhan, 24, learnt anything new about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi after working as a dishwasher in the canteen of Gandhi Peace Foundation for almost three years? “Yes, I have,” he says. “These are used plates and there I have to wash them.”

Sixty-one years after his death, The Delhi Walla finds Gandhi’s legacy reflected in the life of this young man, but not in the way the Mahatma could have imagined.

Reclining on a canteen chair, with the mid-morning light streaming in through screened windows, Mr Chauhan is enjoying a break from work. Gandhi Peace Foundation is a brownish-red building tucked in a peaceful spot near ITO. Breakfast is over and lunch is yet to be served. A few old men in khadi are talking at the other table.

Despite being a college dropout, Mr Chauhan, who lives with his mother and siblings in Najafgarh, is very articulate. “I’m no Gandhian, just a temporary employee,” he says. That is an understatement. Where Gandhi was a strict vegetarian, Mr Chauhan cannot have a meatless meal. Where Gandhi advocated khadi, Mr Chauhan claims he has never worn that cloth. “Never got the chance,” he says, dressed in blue jeans and black T-shirt, both from Palika Bazaar, an underground market better known for selling porn DVDs.

Employed in an institution that concerns itself with the Gandhian ideology of simple living, Mr Chauhan’s world-view does not exactly coincide with that of Gandhi.

The Mahatma had always said that the country’s future lies in villages. Not for Mr Chauhan, whose village is in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populated and very poor state. “There’s no water, no power, no jobs there,” he says. “In Delhi, you could get it in a mall, or with the Metro or some place else, but you do get one.”

Is he happy washing dishes?

“Look, it’s easy to enjoy life with the family income,” Mr Chauhan says. “But you realise the worth of a coin only when you yourself start doing hard work.”

And Mr Chauhan does work hard. Every morning, he takes a bus to Dwarka Mor, then a Metro to Mandi House, from where it is a not-so-short walk to the Foundation, where he reports by 7 am. The commute gives him time to think — not about the tenets of simple living, but about that typical urban aspiration — of owning a flat. And he wants that in Dwarka, a suburban neighbourhood in West Delhi (“less pollution, nice societies”). His other ambition is to work in a mobile phone company.

Mr Chauhan’s choices are not exactly Gandhian. “We always hear people talking about how Mahatma Gandhi had said that if someone slaps your cheek, then offer the other one,” he says. “But I’ve never really heard him saying that. How could I believe in it?”

Yet, Mr Chauhan feels the impact of that man’s values. “I’m a scheduled caste, and there was a time when high caste people would stay away even from the shadows of my ancestors,” he notes. “Today, I share meals with a Brahmin without any fuss. That became possible because Gandhi talked against untouchability.”

This doesn’t make Gandhi a poster boy in Mr Chauhan’s room. That space belongs to film star Shah Rukh Khan. “I’m crazy about him, though mum thinks he stammers like a goat,” he laughs. Is Shah Rukh cooler than Gandhi? He weighs his reply before saying, “Um, Gandhi is a legend. That’s why you see him on currency notes.” This is Mr Chauhan’s daily connection with the man who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”