Gandhi Comes Alive

At Sabarmati

-Prema Kantak

IT was on, the 26th of May, 1929, that I first entered the Satyagraha ashram at Sabarmati along with Gandhiji. Here are a few memories of the days I spent under his care till he started on the Dandi March next year.

He liked to sleep under the sky, unless it was actually raining. The other inmates of the ashram, who lived near him, generally liked to sleep in the open, but in the chilly winter they, took shelter of the roof and shifted their beds to the verandah. But he never flinched. There lay his cot in the open, in winter as well as in summer. I followed suit, and placed my cot outside at a respectable distance from his. He would often bid me good night with his favourite saying: "Now sleep the sleep of the innocent."

There was a parijat tree in front of his residence, at the ashram, which was known as Hridaya kunj (i.e. the Bower 'of the Heart). In the rainy days of July and August the tree put forth all its floral glory. Early morning one day I gathered all the delicate, fragrant red- white flowers with which the ground had been strewn . overnight, wove them into a garland, put it into a basket, I and covering it with the upper skirt of my sari, approached Gandhiji as he sat writing in his room.

"Mahatmaji, may I garland you?" I asked with some hesitation.

He looked up. "Why, is there any special occasion today?" he asked.

"Today is a grand holiday," I playfully replied. "I have gathered these lovely flowers of parijat from the garden, and made a garland for you."

"Where is it?"

"Here!" I showed the garland to him.

"Very fine! Now do this much for me. There are two patients in the ashram. When you have the satisfaction of garlanding me, take the garland at once, cut it I into two pieces, give one each to both the patients, and let me know afterwards how they fare. Do you agree?"

"I do," I said, and carried out his instructions."

Once there was a sport competition on the ashram grounds between students of the Gujarat Vidyapith and those of the ashram. The Iatter were beaten by a small margin. Gandhiji was present on the occasion for nearly In hour and a half. At the end of the match all the players gathered round him and asked him to say something to them. "I would say only this," said Gandhiji, that the defeated party should not be disheartened, and the victorious one should not feel elated." The remark was hailed with joy and laughter.

A month or so before the Dandi march in 1930, a smallpox epidemic 'broke out in the ashram. Gandhiji was opposed to vaccination, and parents in the ashram had not got their children vaccinated in deference to his opinion. When the epidemic broke out some children got severe attacks. Gandhiji ,took all possible preventive and curative measures which were approved of by competent doctors. Many of the patients were cured, but a few succumbed.

Gita was a girl of nine. Her soul flittered away while she was listening to her father who was reading the Gita at her bedside.

That night at 12 I suddenly got up. Gandhiji was sitting in his bed and was writing letters. The lantern was burning.

"Why are you writing at such an odd hour? Is it something very important? May I help you?" I asked him.

"No, no, you may sleep on. Let me go on writing," he replied drily, without turning his head.

I had no alternative but to sleep again. That light passed on. A few days later it was little Vasant's turn. He passed away while his father, Pandit Narayan Khare, was conducting the evening prayer of the ashram.

That night I again happened to wake at about mid- night, and saw Gandhiji sitting on his bed and writing, as on the previous occasion.

And again when tiny Meghji followed suit, some days later, and as before I saw Gandhiji burning the midnight oil, I could not keep to my bed, but got up, and approaching him straightaway asked: "Oh, Mahatmaji, why do you get so much disturbed on the nights of these deaths? Every time a child passes away, you get up at dead of night and bury yourself in writing!"

"What else can I do?" he replied with a sigh. "I can't sleep. These kiddies are fading away like little buds. I feel the weight of their deaths on my shoulders. I prevailed upon their parents not to get them vaccinated. Now the children are passing away. It may be, I am afraid, the result of my ignorance and obstinacy; and so I feel very unhappy."

"Is it the Mahatma who is uttering these words?" I said with a taunt. "You have made the correct diagnosis. You have applied correct remedies. Doctors have approved of your method of dealing with the disease. Now no one can resist death. If, after all, children die, who can help? But why should you, of all persons-you who always teach us to look to death as a friend and act in a dispassionate manner-should give way to attachment? It does not become a Mahatma. Why should your heart be so weak as that?"

"True," he replied," I admit my weakness." He mused for a few seconds, then looked up, and said: "However brave and dispassionate a man may be, can he not be tender-hearted as well?"

Next evening he poured out his heart before the ashramites and declared that, while he himself had no faith in vaccination, he did not wish to impose his opinion on others. If any parents wished to get their children vaccinated, he added, they were free to do so.

No one availed of this liberty, and after that day there was no fatal case in the ashram. It was a strict rule at the ashram that after 9 p.m. there should be quiet everywhere and lamps should be put off. Talking after 9 p.m. was prohibited. Occasionally, however, I saw Gandhiji himself breaking the rule. Mirabehn came to bid him good night, and at times Gandhiji talked to her for several minutes, even beyond the prescribed time limit. No one dared to speak about this or to give a timely hint to either of them: One night I heard a sister, who was my neighbour, talking loudly to a guest of hers after the bell was gone. When I drew her attention to the fact, she expressed her regrets, stopped the conversation, and went to bed. I then left my room and came to the compound to go to bed, when-lo and behold-there lay Gandhiji on his cot, talking to Mirabehn who was standing in front of him!

"Mahatmaji, the bell has gone," I told him.

"Ah! is it? I had no idea!" he exclaimed.

"Can a satyagrahi be so negligent?" I said. "behn too was chatting just now, when I had to pull her up." "She ought not to have, one so," he said.

"And what are you doing?" I asked, and added: "When you break the rule, others follow suit."

"If I break the rule, you must pull me by the ear and bring me to my senses," he said quietly. "I too must obey the rules, for my responsibility of abiding by them is greater than that of anyone else."

He at once put an end to the conversation, and went to sleep.

Sasvad, 23-10-1948.