By Tushar Bhatt
A late evening in February’s closing days, Jitendra T. Desai, Managing Trustee, Navjivan Trust, and a world authority on every word written by Mahatma Gandhi, walked in slowly into the house for our customary occasional dinner of khichdi. If he walked more languidly than normal, nobody noticed. But, we felt alarmed when he could not eat.
In four weeks, on March 21,2011, Jitubhai, as he was known, was gone. A silent type of cancer had taken its toll. Ironically, he was a silent public worker in the true Gandhian tradition. His family, handful of fast friends, a vast number of acquaitances and students were too stunned to believe without cross-checking twice.
Devoting his entire working life of more than 50 years, looking after treasury of writing by Gandhiji, he had never taken a vacation. Yet, every single day, he would leave bed at 4 a m, make a cup of tea and begin work reading, writing or editing huge cache of written words Bapu left behind. His day would end at 10 pm during which he would run Navjivan, teach at Gujarat Vidyapith and participate in dozens of Gandhian activities ranging from Ashram Shala to University.
Yet, he was so unmindful of his own image that his official bio-data available with his family is 10 years out of date. It does not contain his Vice Chancellorship, membership a number of national committees of education, rural development, journalism and public affairs. He wrote nearly 25 books finding time in his overcrowded scheduled. He was born in Navsari in South Gujarat on Novermber 26, 1938. He renovated Gandhiji’s Navjivan Trust, taking it from primitive treadle press to modern printing facility. He was so meticulous that hardly any mistake will escape his hawk’s eye.
In many ways, despite having a famous father, Thakorbhai Desai a long term freedom fighter and staunch follower of Gandhiji and Mr. Morarji Desai, Jitubhai never took any advantage of it. This son never rose on borrowed light. Jitendrabhai preferred the path of anonymity. He was born in Dhan Rashi according to Indian astrology but the wealth of knowledge and goodwill were his only claims to prosperity. He was so careful about public fund that he would not tolerate tiniest of irregularity. This earned him many critics and opponents.
He joine Navjivan Trust on a pittance of salary, refusing an offer from a major English newspaper for an Editiorial Job. He realized early in his life that a man should keep his knowledge ever expanding. He went to the UK for a two year course in printing technology, publishing and management at London college of printing. Among his books are practical volumes useful to printing professional as also on journalism. Still he excelled as a translator and brought into Gujarati many celebrated books including short stories by Leo Tolstoy.
But his creative activities remain a spare time activity only because he had to steer Navjivan on modernization trail. Wayback in 1940, the Mahatma decreed that Navjivan shall be a no profit no loss publication Mandir (Temple). Modernization demanded new investment, new skills and new machinery, building and other infrastructure. All this would make labour demand for better salary. Jitubhai could not ignore Gandhiji’s wish that his writing should be available to the people as low price as possible. Desai managed the tight-rope walking admirably. However, it left behind a plethora of court cases launched by the union. Desai’s equanimity of temper and his reticence helped him come through but it apparently to a toll on his creative side. He could have given Gujarati language many more original writings and authentic translations.
It is to the credit of the man that he wrote 25 books. The last one is a compilation of tributes to his late mother Subhdra, wife Tara and sister Kilbil. The interesting point is Desai’s mother never accepted his choice of Tara who came from Kheda District and was a disciple of saint Mota. Subhdraben lived alone. He had waited for seven long years to tie nupitals after that love affair had begun life from their school days. Yet, the sketch of his mother was without any bitterness or complaint. He and his wife both products of Gujarat Vidyapith kept making efforts all their lives to mend their relations with the mother but in vain. Thakorbhai as a father suffered the most because he could see justice in Jitubhai marrying Tara. Nevertheless, he could not ignore the fact that Subhdraben, an Arya Samajist and a student of Tagore’s Shantiniketan had stood by him through good and bad days of life. He could not ditch her. Yet ,he encouraged his son to leave house, marry Taraben and make his own life. The son and his wife followed his advice. Desai’s sister has some differences of opinion and kept away till the last but even about her, Jitubhai had no hard words.A highly developed sense of seeing the other side in a fair manner is a hallmark of spiritual evolution.
Personal life apart,Desai was neck-deep in journalism education at the Vidyapith and worked ceaselessly since 1982 on giving a rural orientation to the college education. Till he attained retirement age. He also rose to become vice Chancellor of his alma matar Gujarat Vidyapith and served the post for three years. Though he could have continued for another term he chose to step down. During the three years he brought about many changes in the administration of the Vidyapith. He had made a unique proposal for an institute to train Gram Sevak, Talaties, cooperative workers and village level functionaries basic skills of reporting so that a better flow of information could in emanate from the grass roots to the top. Many people think this is one of the major weaknesses of the Indian Planning. But before much could happen to the proposal, Desai retired and the idea was lost in the corridors of power.
Despite being a man whose many dreams had not even been articulated. Desai retained his sweet temple. A turning point came when his wife Taraben was snatched away the cancer 5 years ago, delivering a terrible blow to him. From that day on close friends felt that his desire to live started diminishing. Yet, when the full stop came, it came so unexpectedly that his departure has not yet sunk in the psyche of his acquaintances. Desai’s departure reduces the Gandhian content in the modern consumerist Gujarat.