Sarojini Naidu on a 30-year friendship with Mahatma Gandhi, ‘lord of infinite compassion’

Sarojini Naidu (far right) with Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi in London

Freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu’s writing on her first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, which commenced a friendship which never wavered through 30 years of common service in the cause of India’s freedom

Curiously enough, my first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi took place in London on the eve of the Great European War of 1914. When he arrived fresh from his triumphs in South Africa, where he had initiated his principle of passive resistance and won a victory for his countrymen who were at the time chiefly indentured labourers, over the redoubtable General Smuts.

I had not been able to meet his ship on his arrival, but the next afternoon I went wandering round in search of his lodging in an obscure part of Kensington and climbed the steep stairs of an old, unfashionable house, to find an open door framing a living picture of a little man with shaven head, seated on the floor on a black prison blanket and eating a messy meal of squashed tomatoes and olive oil out of a wooden prison bowl.

Around him were ranged some battered tins of parched groundnuts and tasteless biscuits of dried plantain flour. I burst instinctively into happy laughter at this amusing and unexpected vision of a famous leader, whose name had already become a household word in our country.

He lifted his eyes and laughed back at me, saying: “Ah, you must be Mrs Naidu!” Who else dare be so irreverent? “Come in,” said he, “and share my meal.”

“No, thanks,” I replied, sniffing; “what an abominable mess it is!”

In this way and at that instant commenced our friendship, which flowered into real comradeship, and bore fruit in a loving, loyal discipleship, which never wavered for a single hour through more than thirty years of common service in the cause of India’s freedom.

Sarojini Naidu: “Like Gautama Buddha, [Gandhi] was a lord of infinite compassion; he exemplified in his daily life Christ’s Sermon from the Mount of Olives; both by precept and practice he realised the prophet Mahomet’s beautiful message of democratic brotherhood and equality of all mankind”

How, and in what lexicons of the world’s tongues, shall I find words of adequate beauty and power that might serve, even approximately, to portray the rare and exquisite courtesy and compassion, courage, wisdom, humour and humanity of this unique man, who was assuredly a lineal descendant of all the great teachers who taught the gospel of Love, Truth and Peace for the salvation of humanity, and who was essentially akin to all the saints and prophets, religious reformers and spiritual revolutionaries of all times and lands?

Like Gautama Buddha, he was a lord of infinite compassion; he exemplified in his daily life Christ’s Sermon from the Mount of Olives; both by precept and practice he realised the prophet Mahomet’s beautiful message of democratic brotherhood and equality of all mankind.

He was—though it sounds obsolete and almost paradoxical to use such a phrase—literally a man of God, in all the depth, fullness and richness of its implications, who, especially in the later years of his own life, was regarded by millions of his fellow men as himself a living symbol of Godhead. But while this man of God inspired in us awe and veneration because of his supreme greatness, he endeared himself to us and evoked our warmest love by the very faults and follies which he shared with our frail humanity.

I love to remember him as a playmate of little children, as the giver of solace to the sorrowful, the oppressed and the fallen. I love to recall the picture of him at his evening prayers, facing a multitude of worshippers, with the full moon slowly rising above the silver sea, the very spirit of immemorial India; and, with but a brief interval, to find him seated with bent brows, giving counsel to statesmen responsible for the policies and programmes of political India, the very spirit of renascent India demanding her equal place among the world nations.

But, perhaps, the most poignant and memorable of all is the last picture of him walking to his prayers at the sunset hour on January 30, 1948, translated in a tragic instant of martyrdom from mortality to immortality.

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday; it was updated online at 2.48 pm on September 30, 2018 to correct the photograph

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