Volume 15 Number 2
A Gamble Which Paid Off
01 April 2002
The world lay at RD Mathur's feet as a young man - and he decided to give everything to try and change it. He talks to Mary Lean.
What turns a child of privilege into a student agitator? Or makes a budding politician throw up everything to devote himself to a campaign for moral and spiritual rearmament? Looking back on 74 years of turning points, RD Mathur has no regrets: 'When I made my gamble on God I thought I had lost everything. But today I have the joy of knowing that he has given to me way beyond anything I could have hoped for.'
Mathur was born in 1928 in the Himalayan princely state of Sirmoor, where his father was first the tutor and then the finance minister of the young Maharajah. When his father walked the streets, the people used to prostrate themselves, and their respect extended to the nine Mathur children. Servants carried RD's books to school for him and he claims never to have tied his own shoelaces until he went to university. When her sons got too much for his mother, she'd summon an elephant from the Maharajah's stables to take them for a ride.
The children were forbidden to go into the poor area of the town. One day Mathur disobeyed and was horrified to find children looking for food in the garbage heap. 'I asked my mother, "Why are these people having to do this, when we throw away so much food?" She told me to go to my room and study, and not to waste my time on such questions.'
University in Benares and then Delhi liberated Mathur from this protective cocoon. He threw himself into activism in support of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign to get the British to quit India. 'I dreamt of the day when we would build a land of milk and honey where no Indian was hungry.'
His political convictions hardened in Delhi, where he helped to organize a 5,000-strong student march on the Viceroy's Palace. The police stopped the procession and a British officer told Mathur to disperse the crowd within ten minutes or face the consequences. When he tried to argue, he was kicked and pushed away. 'I decided then that even if I had to give my life I would not give in,' remembers Mathur. The police opened fire and three of his closest friends were killed.
'In my heart I swore that I would not rest until I had taken revenge and got the British out of India,' says Mathur. But when Independence at last came, at midnight on 15 August 1947, he stayed at home rather than joining the jubilant crowds. 'I was wishing that my friends were there to see that day.'
The joy of freedom was rapidly clouded by the horrors of Partition, as millions of Hindus and Muslims fled their homes in Pakistan and India and as many as 200,000 died in intercommunal riots. Mathur's future wife, Prabha, then aged 11, was one of the refugees and witnessed the murder of family friends. Mathur saw murders too. 'Fear and greed turned men into beasts.'
Disgusted by the new government's ineffectiveness, Mathur called a student strike. On its eve he joined the crowds at Mahatma Gandhi's daily prayer meeting. 'To my surprise he urged the students to give the government a chance.' Mathur called off the strike and returned proudly the next day to tell Gandhi what he had done. Gandhi pricked his bubble by telling him to concentrate on his studies and leave politics to his elders.
As he watched 'yesterday's heroes' jostling for position and lining their own pockets, Mathur was increasingly persuaded by the Marxist analysis offered by some of his professors. 'We had removed the colonialists. Now we needed another revolution to remove the capitalists. But I was too much of a democrat to accept totalitarianism.' These views put an increasing strain on his relationship with his father, who had by now retired to Delhi.
When he left university, Mathur wanted to go into politics. Instead, with the backing of the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mathur convened the conference which led to the foundation of the United Nations Students Association (UNSA) of India. He was elected its first Secretary-General and soon found himself gaining recognition and status.
In 1952, he convened a UNSA convention for all Asia. At a friend's request, he provided seats for some foreign visitors, who were in India as part of an MRA campaign. In their turn, they gave him tickets for a musical play they were staging. A cancelled appointment with a cabinet minister enabled him to attend, and he enjoyed it enough to arrange for a special performance for the 400 foreign delegates to the convention.
The play was an Oklahoma-style musical about a family feud over a water supply. Its message of reconciliation niggled away at Mathur's conscience. 'The thought kept going through my mind that I was a hypocrite because I talked of the classless brotherhood of the world, but I couldn't live in harmony with my family.' He lay awake struggling with the thought that he must do something about his relationship with his father.
'I was not a man of prayer or God. But I went into a corner and said, "God, if there is a God, I'm at a crossroads."' When he chickened out of his first attempt talk to his father, he prayed again, this time without the 'if': 'God, I need your help'.
His second try was more successful. 'I sat down on the couch next to my father and it was like a flood pouring out - all the things I had hidden from him. I asked his forgiveness. There was a silence. And then I saw two tears coming from his eyes. The man I had thought was a dictator, who would never understand me, told me that he was lonely. "I have not known how to communicate with you and today you have broken that wall." It was so unexpected.'
Some days later, Mathur had a chance to pour out his anger and hatred of the British to Peter Howard, an English member of the MRA group visiting Delhi. Howard listened for three hours and then invited Mathur back to continue the conversation next day. When they resumed, Howard told Mathur how ashamed he was of his compatriots' behaviour in India. 'But I hate to see a patriot like you spend the rest of your life with the wounds we have inflicted on your soul. You are meant for greater purposes.'
'After a long silence,' remembers Mathur, 'I began to feel how small and petty I was for having nurtured that hate that had become like a liquor bottle that I couldn't get rid of.' The two men agreed to work together to 'remake the world'.
This decision led Mathur to accepting an invitation to visit Europe, where MRA was playing a part in the reconstruction and reconciliation which followed World War II. He planned to return to stand for parliament. But, to the distress of his father, the few weeks stretched into a year, then another, and finally to ten. Mathur had come to the conclusion that India had enough politicians, and that a better world depended as much on moral and spiritual change in people's motives as it did on political and structural change. His convictions took him all over the world with MRA campaigns.
Mathur's roving lifestyle, with no salary or long-term security, was not conducive to marriage - particularly under the Hindu arranged system. In 1957, when his travels took him through Delhi, his father pointed out that custom dictated that he could not arrange marriages for RD's younger brothers until he had arranged one for RD. Mathur procrastinated, but eventually, on his next visit to Delhi, agreed to go ahead. The marriage was arranged with unheard-of speed, so that Mathur - and his new wife - could meet a commitment in the US three weeks later.
It seemed only wise to warn his bride about his unconventional lifestyle while she still had a chance to pull out, but tradition did not encourage premarital tête-à-têtes. Mathur enlisted his sister-in-law who invited both families to the cinema and then swapped seats under cover of darkness so that the couple could sit together.
'As the movie rolled, I explained to Prabha that I had no salary or bank account, but that I had never slept without a meal or a bed. I told her that I expected to be able to sustain her in the way I had been sustained. She was silent for 15 minutes. Then she said, "I do not know what your life is and what your work is, but if it is something which is satisfying for you, I will stand by you." That in my mind confirmed that God and his guidance merge with tradition.' He has no recollection of the film!
Prabha, says Mathur, is the 'heroine' of his story. In 1965, when their first son was on his way, they returned to live in India. In the years that followed, they helped to establish the MRA centre at Asia Plateau, Panchgani, which has won national recognition for its training courses in values for managers and workers from industry, army personnel, teachers and students.
The Mathurs have two sons and four grandchildren and until recently, when their eldest son took up a post in Germany, the three families have shared a home in Delhi. Its name, appropriately enough, is 'Samarpan' - 'total surrender'. For, as Mathur says, 'When I face God I'll be able to say that I trusted him fully until the last day. '