For the Ashram children, Bapu was just a friend: Narayan Desai

Narayanbhai did some letter-writing for Gandhiji on the historic Baby Underwood typewriter presented by the legendary editor of Manchester Guardian C P Scott to Mahadevbhai

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Nachiketa Desai

My father Narayanbhai Desai had spent 24 years in Gandhiji’s ashram, from 1924, the year of his birth, till India got independence in 1948. After his father Mahadevbhai’s untimely death on August 15, 1942 in the Aga Khan Palace prison, Pune, and Gandhiji’s release, Narayanbhai did some letter-writing for Gandhiji on the historic Baby Underwood typewriter presented by the legendary editor of Manchester Guardian C P Scott to Mahadevbhai during the Second Round Table Conference in London.

I had not seen either Mahatma Gandhi or grandfather Mahadevbhai, as I was born much after their death. Since Narayanbhai, whom we children called Babubhai, was always on tour and could spend very little time at home, I got my first chance to accompany him during his lecture tour of Gujarat as part of the Gandhi Centenary Celebrations in 1969. It was then that I heard from him about his childhood memories of the ashram life and Gandhiji.

Father’s first recollection of his childhood memories was of the life in the Harijan Ashram which was located on the west bank of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. On the east of the Ashram was the Hindu cremation ground while in the north west was the Sabarmati Central Prison. Bapu, as everyone from children to the elderly called him, would often tell, “My ashram is beautifully located. On one side is the cremation ground while on the other side is the prison. The residents of the Ashram must not fear either of them.

Every morning and evening, Bapu used to walk up to the central jail and return to the Ashram. He would take along with him the ashram children. Bapu walked much faster than the child accompanying him. As they neared the jail, the child would shrug off Bapu’s hand from his shoulder and sprint to touch the prison walls first and shout, “Hurray, I’ve beaten you!” At times, Bapu would put full load of his hands on the shoulder of the child and challenge, “Now beat me if you can!”

Bapu’s was a disciplined life and he followed his daily regimen with clockwork punctuality and expected his Ashram mates to follow the same. The timings for morning prayers, lunch, dinner and evening prayers were followed strictly. If someone was late, the doors to the community kitchen would be closed.

Once, five-year-old Narayan, nick named Babla, arrived late for lunch. By the time he reached the community kitchen, the door was closed. Bapu was sitting close to the door. As if providence prompted the child, Babla started reciting Gujarati’s poet’s poem: Mangal Mandir Kholo, Dayamay, Mangal Mandir Kholo!” (Open the door, Oh Merciful, open the door!” Hearing this from a child’s mouth, a smile spread on Bapu’s lips and he opened the door, recalled Narayanbhai.

Narayanbhai also recalled how to discipline a naughty child Bapu would entrust some or the other responsibility on him such as making the child responsible for sounding the wake up morning bell of the ashram.

Plainclothesmen from the CID would frequently visit the ashram. One of them would cultivate children by offering them peppermint and ask, “What is Gandhiji doing these days?” Putting the sweat peppermint in our mouth, we would tell him with all our innocence, “These days Bapu is experimenting with chutney made from the bitter leaves of Neem.” And, the CID would promptly jot down this ‘intelligence report’ in his notebook.

Narayanbhai recounted how Gandhiji once used his technique of Satyagraha to pacify an angry six-year-old child. One close friend of Mahadevbhai, a prominent businessman from Bombay, had sent a hamperful of foreign made toys for Babla who came to know that Bapu had hidden them somewhere. An angry Babla led a delegation of children to Bapu who was busy dictating a letter to Mahadevbhai.

“Is it true that some toys have come for me?” Babla confronted Bapu.

“Yes, some toys have indeed come for you,” Bapu lifted his head and replied.

“Where are the toys?”

“There on the loft in that hamper,” Bapu said coolly.

“Then, hand over the toys to me,” Babla ordered.

“But first tell me how can we (you and me) play with foreign made toys when all of us are boycotting foreign goods?” asked Bapu.

By using the word “WE”, instead of “You”, Bapu left Babla speechless and gave up his claim over the foreign made toys.

Narayanbhai, who narrated over 118 Gandhi Kathas about the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi before audiences in different parts of the country and abroad between 2004 and 2014, was known to cite such anecdotes to explain the complexities of Satyagraha.

One such anecdote was about the habit of children to write letters to Gandhiji when he would be away from the ashram for some days, touring the country. In one of the letters, Babla complained that while Lord Krishna had given a very long reply to a short question from Arjun, why did Bapu give short replies to his long letters!

“While Krishna had just one Arjun to answer, I have to give answers to so many Arjunas,” quipped Bapu in his short reply on a postcard.

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Published: 02 Oct 2019, 9:00 PM