SEVAGRAM, India — Freshly scrubbed and neatly turned out in blue dresses and red ties, the girls of Holy Cross English High School came on a pilgrimage to this small country hamlet where the "Father of the Nation" once lived.
The pupils, 11 and 12, quietly entered the modest hut of adobe, bamboo and red roofing tiles where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi slept on a thin mattress on the floor. They viewed the wooden septic tank he cleaned with his own hands. In a showcase, they saw Gandhi's spittoon.
When the tour was over, Naveeda Ibban asked her pupils whether they would be willing to give up their clothes and other belongings to live like the man Indians honor as the Mahatma--"Great Soul."
"Yes, mistress!" the girls said.
Would they skip their favorite foods? Pass up television shows they like?
Again, the girls shouted "yes!" throwing their hands into the air.
Surrounded by such youthful idealism, the teacher from the private school 50 miles from Sevagram could not suppress a skeptical smile.
"Actually," Ibban said, "we really remember Gandhi-ji just once a year, on Shaheed Divas," or Martyrdom Day, the anniversary of his Jan. 30, 1948, assassination.
That is true not only for schoolchildren from Amravati. These days, in the land of his birth, the Mahatma is canonized, idolized and set on a lofty pedestal.
But that is not the same as being listened to.
Ironically, as Indian officialdom promotes the Gandhi cult, it also oversees the widespread neglect of many of the causes the "Great Soul" lived, worked and fought for.
In one typical example of the honors paid to Gandhi rather than to his message, the grinning, nearly toothless countenance of the 20th Century's most famous ascetic graces the 500-rupee bill, India's largest bank note.
That is one portrait of Gandhi that hundreds of millions of India's most destitute, the very people the Mahatma fought hardest for, cannot hope to hold in their hands.
If Gandhi could see India today, "he would commit suicide," said Suresh Pandit, 63, a retired teacher in Rajasthan active in grass-roots literacy campaigns.
Forty-seven years after Gandhi's murder at age 78 by a Hindu extremist armed with a revolver, government workers routinely keep his portrait garlanded with marigolds above their desks. When politicians make speeches about national unity, nonviolence or the need to prevent differing religions from dividing people--all leitmotifs of Gandhi's life--they often quote him.
And, when the ruling but now beleaguered Congress (I) Party needs to drum up votes, especially among minorities and the very poor, it brandishes the name and image of Gandhi, who once served as Congress president and who dominated its politics for nearly three decades.
But simultaneously, in the view of Gandhians, "what the people at the top are doing to the country is 100% against what Gandhi-ji would have wanted," one disciple charged.
Kanakmal Gandhi, 60, no relation to the Mahatma, is an accountant who works as the live-in director of Sevagram.
Founded by Gandhi as a model village in India's geographic heart, the one-acre site has been turned into a shrine and study center to keep the flickering flame of Gandhi's message alive.
But that is proving tougher than ever. These days, the $32,000 endowment allotted by the New Delhi-based Gandhi Memorial Fund is no longer enough to pay the salaries of Sevagram's 40 employees and the rising cost of bamboo and other building materials.
Last year, as a result of an appeal, an additional $160,000 was raised.
"Somehow, we're managing," Kanakmal Gandhi assured a recent visitor. "We're not as hopeless as the government."
For India, failing to live up to Gandhi's hopes and vision was, in retrospect, inevitable. After all, for this singular man, the ideal form of industry was the hand-powered spinning wheel, the \o7 charkha. \f7 The life he chose was one of labor, moral engagement and, later in life, sexual chastity.
For Gandhi, one of the best forms of medicine was a yogurt enema, and in his 70s he was still sleeping in a bed with naked girls to test his ability to withstand carnal temptation.
Even while he was alive, the barons of the Indian National Congress, the embryo of the independent Indian state, felt free to ignore his often lonely and eccentric point of view.
As one example, Gandhi advocated the spinning wheel so Indians could make their own homespun cloth, or \o7 khadi\f7 , to replace manufactured imports from England. At the time, that made cold political sense.
But Gandhi, who had a Luddite loathing of modern technology, went much further, seeing spinning as the foundation of the new economic and communal order that he founded Sevagram to help bring about. Many Indians demurred.
India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly rejected the economic notions of the Congress elder he affectionately referred to as "Bapu"--beloved father--as "a throwback to the pre-industrial age."