Book Extract: A touch of ‘truth at any cost’

The Harijan tour takes Gandhi, in 1934, through the Karnataka and Tamil countryside, Orissa, Bengal, Assam, then turning westward, to Bihar, Punjab and western India

Gandhi arrives in Delhi with members of his staff to confer with Viceroy Lord Linlithgow on the question of the World War II, 12 October 1939. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gandhi arrives in Delhi with members of his staff to confer with Viceroy Lord Linlithgow on the question of the World War II, 12 October 1939. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Title: I Am an Ordinary Man: India’s Struggle for Freedom (1914–48)

Editor: Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 456

Price: Rs 999 (hardcover)

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In Bangalore, on 4 January 1934, at a public meeting, a girl, 18 years old, came up to me with a request for an autograph. As I took up my pen, she made another request: “Please give me a motto also.” Laughing, I wrote, ‘Truth at any cost’. She was very pleased and touched my feet with her head.

In Somanahalli on 6 January.

Boy: I want your autograph, please.

I: What will you give? I want rupees.

Boy: One rupee.

I (seeing and touching his earrings):

What are these?

Boy: You can take them.

I: Have you your father’s permission?

Boy: Yes. He will not object to my

giving them to you.

I: You have so much independence! (and then taking the earrings) You don’t want them. Do not put on earrings hereafter. Do not ask your parents for new ones. (Giving him the autograph) What is your name?

Boy: B.V. Thimmappa.

I: How old are you?

Boy: 13.

I: So, you have independence at 13.

I had not.

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We were at Badagara in Malabar on 13 January. I cannot recall a scene more touching. I had just finished my speech. In it I had made a reasoned request to the women present for their jewellery.

I had finished speaking and was selling the presents received when gently walked up to the platform Kaumudi, a 16-year-old girl. She took out one bangle and asked me if I would give my autograph.

I was preparing to give it, when off came the other bangle. She had only one on each hand. I said, ‘You need not give me both. I shall give you the autograph for one bangle only.’ She replied by taking off her golden necklace.

This was no easy performance. It had to be disengaged from her long plait of hair. ‘But have you the permission of your parents?’ I asked. There was no answer. She had not yet completed her renunciation.

Her hands automatically went to her ears and out came her jewelled earrings amid the ringing cheers of the public, whose expression of joy was no longer to be suppressed. I asked her again whether she had her parents’ consent for her sacrifice.

Before I could extract any promise from the shy girl, someone told me that her father was present at the meeting, that he was himself helping me in my bidding for the auctioning and that he was as generous as his daughter in giving to worthy causes.

I reminded Kaumudi that she was not to have her ornaments replaced. She resolutely assented to the condition. As I handed her the autograph, I could not help prefacing it with the remark: “Your renunciation is a truer ornament than the jewellery you have discarded.”

I had the peculiar pleasure that day of being in a part of French India—Mahe. I had had the pleasure of visiting Chandernagore in Bengal more than once but this was my first visit to French India in this part of the country.

But for the difference in the uniform of the police and the French language I read here and there, I could notice no difference whatsoever. An important temple in this place had been thrown open to Harijans, and I congratulated the trustees on their having performed this very simple religious duty. I was presented with a purse and an address in Hindi.

Gandhi addresses a gathering 
of ‘untouchable’ Dalit people, whom he 
called ‘Harijan’, during his anti-untouchability tour,  August 1934.
Gandhi addresses a gathering of ‘untouchable’ Dalit people, whom he called ‘Harijan’, during his anti-untouchability tour, August 1934.
Keystone-France

When the earthquake occurred in Bihar on 15 January [1934], I was in Calicut. Devadas, who had been released on 2 January, and Lakshmi, came and met me. Lakshmi’s delivery was to take place in Delhi.

At a public meeting in Calicut, held at the beach at 6 p.m. and attended by 15,000, I spoke of my visit to Kalpetta and said: This morning they took me to a most beautiful bit of Malabar; they took me up the hills with the most romantic scenery… and I recalled a hymn—I think it was composed by Bishop Heber.

But whether it was composed by him or some other bishop, this is the line that I single out from that hymn for your edification. It is said that, as he was approaching this western coast of India, involuntarily, this line came to his lips, or to his pen: ‘[Where] every prospect pleases, man alone is vile.’ Poets can never be confined in cages of [even] their own construction.

Poets write for eternity. Their words are charged with a meaning of which they have no conception when they utter or write them. Scented breezes come from plantations that nature has designed for man in Malabar. But through untouchability, he has violated Nature and thus become vile.

On the 16th, I had discussions with the Zamorin of Cochin about untouchability and temple entry. A meeting was scheduled with shastris, but a message came from them saying they would agree to talks if I would spend days upon days talking with them and then, in Sanskrit! So, that meeting could not take place.

I was in Alwaye on 17 January. I said there my message is simply this that Savarna Hindus, who have been considering themselves superior to those whom they have called untouchables, unapproachables, invisibles or Avarna Hindus, should realise that this arrogation of superiority has no sanction whatsoever in the shastras.

Gandhi addresses his followers at 
Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari’s house at Daryaganj in Delhi, March 1931. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gandhi addresses his followers at Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari’s house at Daryaganj in Delhi, March 1931. (Photo: Getty Images)

If I discovered that those scriptures, which are known as Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Smritis, etc., clearly showed that they claimed divine authority, then nothing on this earth would hold me to Hinduism. I should throw it overboard as I should throw overboard a rotten apple.

On 24 January, in Tirunelveli, addressing a gathering of 20,000 persons at the municipal market, I mentioned for the first time the Bihar earthquake, reports of the magnitude of which had, by now, reached me. I called it a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins.

In Tuticorin on the same day, I again said the earthquake was a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed and are still committing against those we describe as untouchables, Panchamas, and whom I call Harijans.

From 30 January to 5 February, I was in Coonoor in the Nilgiris. I wrote to Ba, who was still in Sabarmati jail, the day I reached Coonoor. […] I wrote: ‘As a result of the earthquake in Bihar, between 20,000–25,000 people have died. Hundreds of thousands have become homeless. There has been a loss amounting to crores of rupees.’

I was not affected by posers such as “why punishment for an age-old sin” or “why punishment to Bihar and not to the South”. My answer was, “I am not God.”

On 2 February, I received a letter from Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore). We had come upon a fundamental difference. I wrote to him saying I did believe that super-physical consequences flow from physical events. How they do so, I did not know.

[…]

Mary Chesley came to Wardha around the middle of December.

She asked me a few questions.

MC: Do you believe your guidance comes from subconscious reasoning or God?

I: From God—but subconscious reasoning may be the voice of God.

MC: How do you understand what is God’s guidance for you when it is a question of choosing between two good things?

I: I use my intellect on the subject and if I don’t get any strong feeling as to which of the two I should choose, I just leave the matter, and before long I wake up one morning with the perfect assurance that it should be ‘A’ rather than ‘B’.

MC: Have you had any mystical experiences?

I: If, by mystical experiences, you mean visions, no. I should be a fraud if I claimed I have had such. But I am very sure of the voice that guides me.

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