Vignettes from the life of Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi

Vignettes from the life of Mahatma Gandhi, from National Herald on Sunday’s special issue on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation, October 2, 2018

Vignettes from the life of Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi
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Mahatma Gandhi: The ‘Walker’

Gandhi’s daily routine included walking nearly 18 kilometres (11.2 miles). He averaged 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) during the Dandi march, and walked a total of almost 80,000 kilometres (49,710 miles) throughout his campaigns from 1913 to 1938. That’s enough to walk around the world twice! Gandhi loved walking and often called it the “prince of exercises”. As a student in London, he saved money by walking several miles every day. Gandhi also had a strong passion for cycling. When he moved to Ahmedabad in 1915, he rode his bicycle from Gujarat Vidyapith to Sabarmati Ashram. In Johannesburg, South Africa, he was the first person to oppose and protest a law which discriminated against people cycling on the streets.

Mahatma Gandhi: The ‘Writer’

He was a compulsive letter writer. He would switch to writing with his left hand when the right one got tired. He is said to have written over half a million letters in his lifetime and received at least ten times more. The letters reveal his affectionate as well as ‘mischievous’ self. Sarojini Naidu was addressed as ‘My Dear Fly’ and signed off as ‘Little Spinner, Spider’, etc. or ‘My Dear Bulbul-e-Hind’ or ‘My Dearest Mirabai’ or even ‘My Dear Ammajan’; Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was addressed as ‘My Dear Idiot and Rebel’ combined, and he signed off as ‘Tyrant’. Padmaja Naidu was addressed as ‘My Dear Lotus Born’, Sushila Nayyar as ‘Stupid Daughter’. Rev CF Andrews was perhaps the only one to address him as ‘Dear Mohan’ and Gandhi addressed him as ‘Charlie’.

Mahatma Gandhi: The ‘healer’

On a winter evening in 1939, Parachure Shastri, Sanskrit scholar and poet who had spent time in prison with him in the Yerawada jail in 1922, called on him. He had contacted a virulent form of leprosy and wanted to end his life but before doing so wanted to deliver the yarn he had specially spun for Gandhi. But Gandhi persuaded him to stay back overnight. In the morning, Gandhi told other inmates that it would be his life’s challenge to nurse Parachure to health and by refusing refuge he would compromise with his conscience. The next day Parachure was moved to a hut right next to Gandhi’s. In the midst of visits by top political leaders, he found time to personally clean his wounds at least three times a day.

Water and whiskey

Gandhi converted many westernised Indians into adopting a ‘swaraj’ lifestyle—notably Motilal Nehru who gave up his Saville Row suits for home-spun khadi. He was also almost convinced, but not quite, to give up his daily peg of whiskey. The Mahatma questioned Motilal over his claim that, ‘Water has been called pure. But whisky is made after being thrice distilled. It is therefore purer than water.’ The two exchanged lengthy letters to argue their respective points. Similarly, while visiting Santiniketan, he saw Tagore eating loochi (Bengali puris) and remarked that eating white flour fried in ghee was ‘poison’, to which Tagore replied, ‘It must be a very slow poison. I have been eating it for almost half a century now.’

Allah-u-Akbar

It was Eid on 18 August 1947. While Punjab descended into anarchy upon the announcement of Radcliffe’s award the day before, Hindus and Muslims wished each other ‘Eid Mubarak’ in Calcutta. On August 21, Gandhi was happy to note that the Indian and Pakistani flags were being flown side by side at his prayer meeting. During the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi and Shaukat Ali had chosen three national slogans: ‘Allah-u- Akbar’, ‘Bande-Mataram’ and ‘Hindu-Musalman ki Jai’. Gandhi was delighted that the last cry was being revived. On August 23, he described ‘Allah-u- Akbar’ as ‘a soul-stirring religious cry’ that had a noble meaning and urged Hindus to utter the cry with their Muslim friends.

August, 1947

Ignoring the celebrations in New Delhi, Gandhi chose to spend Independence Day fasting and praying with those who were poor and obscure. The information and broadcasting department of the Government of India asked him for a message. The Father of the Nation simply said that ‘he had run dry.’ He abandoned his plan of going to Noakhali on August 11 to work for ‘the return of sanity’ to Calcutta. On August 13, he moved into a Muslim home in the Beliaghata area of Calcutta in the company of Suhrawardy. To those who distrusted the Muslim League leader, he said that he had known Suhrawardy since the Faridpur political conference where Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das had taken him in the era of non-cooperation.

Independence Day

The Chief Minister of West Bengal visited Gandhiji and asked him how they should celebrate Independence. Gandhiji bluntly said, “People are dying of hunger all round. Do you wish to hold a celebration in the midst of this devastation?” The British Broadcasting Corporation asked his secretary to help them record a message from the one man the world thought really represented India. Gandhi told them to talk to Jawaharlal Nehru instead. The BBC were not persuaded: they sent the emissary back, adding, as inducement, the fact that this message would be translated into many languages and broadcast around the globe. Gandhi was unmoved, saying: “Ask them to forget I know English.”

More from less

In his book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi ji defined the principle of sustainability as, “More from less for more”. Gandhi’s famous Salt March, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, began with the Dandi March on March 12,1930. As he travelled on the 24-day-long, 390-kilometre (240 mile) march to produce salt without paying a tax imposed by the British, a growing number of Indians joined him along the way. When he broke the salt laws at 6.30 am on April 6, 1930, it sparked widespread acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians. Gandhi used walking as a tool to organise his fellow Indians. When asked for advice, he once told someone, “I hope you are careful about eating. You may use a bicycle, but you should also walk daily.”

Mahatma Gandhi: The Cyclist

After a small accident on bicycle, Gandhi wrote to his friend about bicycle maintenance. “The bicycle incident yesterday was not a happy one. A carpenter will always keep his tools ready for use. A typist will keep his typewriter in good repair and a rider will keep his horse in good stead. Similarly, a bicycle should always be kept clean, oiled and ready for use. Otherwise, don’t have a bicycle at all”. Another time, Gandhi wrote to a friend, “If, however, you are determined to work in the city, you should stay in the city. You are not strong enough to go to the city and return on bicycle,” clearly not amused at the friend’s insistence that he wanted to migrate to the city.

Mahatma Gandhi: The ‘Rebel’

In 1916, less than a year after his arrival in India, he was invited by Annie Besant for the inauguration ceremony of Banaras Hindu University. Gandhi delivered a sharply-worded speech. He sharply criticised the use of English, the filth that was allowed to gather around India’s temples, the civic sense of railway travellers, and admonished the maharajas present for the jewels they were wearing. He accused them of stealing wealth from the poor farmers and, to cap it all, even blamed the chief guest, Lord Harding, for creating ‘a wall of distrust’ by surrounding himself with heavy security. When he asked the Viceroy to ‘go home to England’, this was so unexpected that Annie Besant, seated on the dais, shouted at Gandhi, asking him to stop.

Overdressed King

In 1931, he had gone to London for the second Round Table conference. King George V held a reception for the delegates at the Buckingham Palace. The King was not in favour of inviting Gandhi but the India office told the King that Gandhi could not be excluded. Gandhiji went to the Palace in his usual dress. The Secretary of State for India requested His Majesty to avoid mentioning India’s politics when he met Gandhi. But sure enough the King said, “Mr Gandhi, I will not have you disturb my empire.” Gandhi replied, “Your majesty, I am a guest and it would be improper to get into an argument.” When he came out, he was asked, “Mr Gandhi, what did the King say about your dress? Gandhi replied, “Well, he was wearing enough for the two of us.”

Blame Game

Gandhi and Lokamanya Tilak were to address a meeting in Godhra in 1917. Gandhi was on time, as always. Tilak arrived late. Gandhi was respectful towards him but couldn’t hide his unhappiness about the delayed arrival of the Maharashtrian leader. “The Lokamanya was half an hour late,” he said, “If the country’s Swaraj is delayed by half an hour, he should take the blame for it.” He was a stickler for punctuality and would rarely brook any delay. His life moved around the clock and on the rare occasion when he did get late, he would apologise profusely. But his respect for others’ time is something that his countrymen could never quite understand, giving rise to the ‘Indian Standard Time.’

Conversion in prison

In 1922, Gandhiji was sent to a prison in Yervada, near Pune. The British did not want Indian convicts inside the prison to come in contact with Gandhi. Therefore, they assigned an African as his prison mate. The African convict did not know either English or any other Indian language. Once a scorpion stung the African on his hand. He screamed out in pain. Responding instantly, Gandhi poured water to clean the wounded area and sucked at the wound to remove the poison. Gandhi applied tincture on the bite-wound and tied a bandage around it. Deeply moved by his prison-mate’s care and helpfulness, the fellow convict turned a “devotee” and learnt to spin the charkha.

Meat at the ashram

Dr Syed Mahmood, a leader of the freedom struggle in Bihar, visited Gandhi at the Sevagram Ashram. He was quite ill at the time. Gandhiji insisted that he stay back at the Ashram to recuperate. Dr Mahmood hesitated. He had been advised that chicken soup was necessary for him to get better but only vegetarian food was cooked at the Ashram. Gandhi however didn’t think that that would be a problem: “The members of the ashram will surely understand. They might not eat meat but they must learn to offer it to others when necessary. We will get chicken soup made for you here. I won’t listen to any more of your excuses. You will be in my charge. I’m a doctor too! Just watch how quickly you will recover,” he is said to have told Dr Mahmood.

The shoe trearment

While boarding a train once, one of Gandhiji’s shoes slipped off and got wedged between the carriage and the platform. He tried to pull it out but failed. When he was unable to pull out the shoe out, he took off the other shoe as well and threw it at the spot where the first one was stuck. To the astonished passengers, he replied, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.” This anecdote is often narrated to highlight an important aspect of the Mahatma’s life, non-attachment. When we are not attached to anything, we are free, he would explain. If someone were attached to his shoes, his whole train ride would have been caught up in a web of anger, despair and hopelessness.

Respect others

A man traveling by train to Porbandar, in the same coach as Gandhiji, did not realise that the old man in his coach was Mahatma Gandhi. So, all night long, this man lay down on the berth, occupied the entire space and left Gandhiji with barely enough room to sit upright. However, Gandhi did not fight, nor did he complain. As the train pulled into Porbandar, the man mentioned that he was going to see the famous Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji still remained silent. As Gandhiji descended from the train to a welcoming crowd of thousands, the man fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness. Gandhiji, of course, blessed and forgave him, telling him only that he should be more respectful of others, regardless of who they are.

Gandhi and MS Subbulakshmi

Gandhiji was an admirer of the legendary singer MS Subbulakshmi. In 1947, Gandhiji wanted to listen to devotional songs by her. She was not in a position to travel to Delhi for the recital on Oct 2. It was decided to record the songs and send it to Delhi. She recorded six devotional songs but Gandhiji wanted to listen to one of his favourite songs which began with ‘Haritum Haro’. When she said she was not familiar with this song, Gandhiji said he would listen to her even if she stammered while singing. The recording was ready by 3 am and was flown to Delhi. Barely three months later, Gandhiji was shot dead. On hearing of the assassination, Subbulakshmi fell unconscious. And she did not sing this bhajan ‘Haritum Haro’ for a long time.

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