The Wooden Gandhi

by Priya Khanchandani

Rather than telling a bigger story, heirlooms often echo family micro-histories and stand as monuments to generations of memories sewn together by blood. 

My own family never carried our pride or legacy in their possessions. They came to Britain from India after it was partitioned, having been left refugees of a newly formed Pakistan. My grandfather arrived first by boat with no more than a suitcase and the kurta on his back, his ticket bought with proceeds from the sale of my grandmother’s wedding jewelry. It is due to this material void that there is only one object of my father’s that I would like to survive us. 

I can picture it in my childhood home: a carved wooden figure of a man, no more than twelve inches tall and in a glass case with a wooden frame, stooped over a model spinning wheel. His brow is furrowed and the white cloth draped over him connotes the monumentality of classical sculpture. His only other attire is the pair of round glasses sitting at the end of his nose. Through them, he contemplates the wire spinning wheel with intensity. 

My father commissioned a local artist in Luton, England to make this wooden Gandhi figure in the early 1980s. He was born in Bombay just five years after the rebirth of India as a divided nation, when Gandhi’s legacy was at its peak. During the independence movement, Gandhi had called for local communities in India to produce homespun cloth, or khadhi, as a way to become self-governing as opposed to their remaining reliant on colonial structures. The image of Gandhi sitting at a spinning wheel recalls India’s struggle to achieve freedom from British rule through swadeshi, a spiritual imperative that involved protest through peaceful means.  

To my father, this figure displayed in the living room of his home in Britain was a souvenir of a time and place that was lost, reduced to the intangibility of memory and relived through Rushdie-esque fiction. It may not be the most arresting or singular object, but held within this glass case and the folds of Gandhi’s homespun cloth are the layered memories that my father keeps alive—memories of our family’s history and collision with a bigger picture—a sentiment worth saving.

Priya Khanchandani is a London-based writer, design researcher, and Development Manager at the Victoria & Albert Museum.