Mahatma Gandhi remained brutally frank till the end

American journalist Margaret Bourke-White’s interview of Mahatma Gandhi became popular due to the quality of answers, Nobody knew at that point that it would also be Gandhi’s last interview

Mahatma Gandhi remained brutally frank till the end

Salil Misra

Few would deny that Gandhi enjoyed a very special relationship with journalists from the West, particularly from America. Their initial impressions about Gandhi stemmed either from ignorance or at best scepticism. This imparted a special dimension to the questions they asked him, and often created a deep introspection in Gandhi. In June 1942, some weeks before the launching of the historic Quit India movement, Gandhi was involved in a series of conversations with leading American journalist Louis Fischer at Wardha ashram. Fischer published the entire conversation in a book, A Week with Gandhi. Some years later, he came out with the first major biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. However, it was an interview with American journalist Margaret Bourke-White which reached great heights because of the quality of questions put to Gandhi and the answers he gave. Bourke-White, the official photographer for Life magazine, was in India during 1947 to capture on camera the monumental changes that were sweeping across India. In 1947, when India won its freedom and lost its unity at the same time, Bourke-White decided to write a book on India (eventually published as Halfway to Freedom in 1950) and wanted her last interview for the book to be with Gandhi. The interview was fixed for January 30, 1948. Nobody knew at that point that it would also be Gandhi’s last interview. Bourke-White’s knowledge of Gandhi, till that interview, was patchy and fragmented, by her own admission.

She had found him to be a bundle of contradictions. He represented the poor – the Daridranarayan – and yet chose to stay in the palace of the richest Indian, G.D.Birla, since 1947. He propounded his thesis of trusteeship, according to which, the propertied people should not behave like owners, but rather like trustees. They should use the property not to fill their pockets but for the good of the society. Yet, in Bourke-White’s view, Gandhi did nothing to persuade his capitalist friends to practise the creed of trusteeship. He wanted to remove poverty but without the use of modern technology which, according to her, had begun transforming the lives of poor people in the West. These and more were like riddles in her mind when she approached Gandhi for an interview. She decided to confront Gandhi with these questions and test her own thesis of a ‘self-contradictory Gandhi’. During her trip, Bourke-White had taken many photographs and was very proud of two pictures of Gandhi spinning the Charkha. She wanted his autograph on the pictures. “It would cost you Rupees five each,” Gandhi said. She paid the money and told him of her plan of writing a book on India for which she wanted to interview Gandhi. He extracted a promise from her that she would report his words accurately and not misquote him, as had often happened in the past. Bourke-White promised that she would use his words exactly as he spoke them. Gandhi had just got over his fast and looked very weak and frail. Upon seeing him, she asked him what seemed to her a very silly question: “You have always stated that you would live to be one hundred and twenty-five years old. What gives you that hope?” Gandhi’s answer startled her: “I have lost that hope…because of the terrible happenings in the world. I do not want to live in the darkness and madness. I can’t continue…” But suddenly his mood changed and despair gave way to hope: “But if my services are needed…If I am commanded, then I shall live to be one hundred and twenty-five years old.” Bourke-White then turned to the question of his views on trusteeship and its feasibility: “Who among the Indian industrialists is functioning along those [trusteeship] line?” Gandhi’s firm and categorical answer again startled her: “No one that I know.” But he was optimistic that someday the businessmen would see the truth of his ideas and would be converted to them. “How long will it be before it happens?” Answer: “Who knows the future?” Margaret Bourke-White, during her many interviews, had noticed a trait in many Indian leaders and gave it a name “the blind eye”.

The “blind eye” surfaced itself when the leaders chose not to look at those facets of reality that went against their stated principles. Or, even if they did look, they did not co-relate the realities with the principles. There were times when she found traces of this trait even in Gandhi. She also observed that Gandhi had no ambition to re-shape the structure of society; he only wanted to re-shape the individual human heart. But for Gandhi, the inner change of heart – either of the poor people or of the kings – must always be by conversion, not by coercion. As Gandhi said, he did not want to do it like Hitler. All this intrigued her. Gandhi placed a huge premium on a particular trajectory of transformation but advocated a method which made the transformation very difficult – if not altogether impossible – to achieve. How could Gandhi be sincerely committed to both the objectives and also the methods which made the objectives difficult to achieve? All this only helped to intrigue her further and she got even more perplexed during the interview than she had been before. However, it was towards the end of the interview, particularly during his answer to her last question, that she noticed her own attitude towards Gandhi undergoing a change and she felt that she was in the presence of a “new and greater Gandhi.” Bourke-White discovered that all the inconsistencies she had attributed to Gandhi faded away and gave way to a great unity and consistency in all his thoughts, beliefs and action. Bourke-White asked Gandhi a question that had been in her mind for some time: “I asked Gandhiji how he would meet the atom bomb. Would he meet it with non-violence?” The incredulity in her tone was quite palpable. “Ah, ah!...how shall I answer that?…I would meet it by prayerful action…He emphasised the word action and I asked him what form it would take.” Gandhi answered, speaking very slowly and emphasising each word: “I will not go underground. I will not go into shelters. I will come out in the open and let the pilot see I have not the face of evil against him…The pilot will not see our faces from his great height, I know. But that longing in our hearts that he will not come to harm would reach up to him and his eyes would be opened… [The War is over but] it is a question now whether the victors are really victors or victims…of our own lust…Because the world is not at peace…It is still more dreadful.”

The interview was over. The time was up and Bourke-White rose to leave. How to say good-bye to Gandhi may have been a question on her mind. A few days earlier she had met Ram Krishna Dalmia, the leading industrialist and one of the three captains of industry she had chosen to interview, G.D.Birla and J.R.D. Tata being the other two. When the meeting with Dalmia ended, Bourke-White extended her hand for a handshake. But Dalmia refused, saying, “Only the husband should touch a woman’s hand.” This memory may have been fresh in her mind as she decided to say good-bye to Gandhi from a distance. “I folded my hands together…But Gandhi held out his hand to me and shook hands cordially in a Western fashion. We said good-bye and I started off. Then something made me turn back. Perhaps it was because his manner had been so friendly. I stopped, looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Good-bye and good luck’.” Only a few hours later, this man who believed that even the atom bomb should be met with non-violence was struck down by pistol bullets. And from those who were at his side in that dark moment, we know that as he fell, his hands were raised in prayer and the word ‘Ram’ – meaning ‘God’ – was on his lips.

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Published: 2 Oct 2019, 9:30 AM