Gandhi Comes Alive

Light And Shade

-Sushila Nayyar

MANY people seem to think that a sense of humour is , incompatible with a serious or religious bent of mind.

Therefore they are sceptical when they hear that Gandhiji never misses an opportunity to crack a joke and have a good laugh. "How can he possibly laugh and joke when he is carrying such a heavy burden on his shoulders?" ask others. Gandhiji's reply is that he is able to shoulder the burden because of' his ability to laugh under all circumstances. "If I had no sense of humour," he said to a friend recently, "the attacks that I have had to face would have killed me long ago., But I have a living faith in God, and so long as He guides my footsteps, I do not care what people say about me. I take it lightly and can laugh even with those who laugh at me. This is what keeps me going."


I have often been struck by the way Gandhiji is able to adapt his conversation and his jokes to his company. With children he jokes like a child, with the young people, he is a young man, with old people he is old, with politicians he laughs and jokes about politics and with householders about their domestic affairs. But a careful observer can note that in all his jokes there is an undercurrent of seriousness. Even while joking he never says a thing that he does not mean, and not a word escapes his lips that may be termed frivolous.

One can always learn something by listening to Gandhiji's talk irrespective of whether it is light or grave. I well remember how once at the Sabarmati Ashram a girl came for the evening walk, with half her sari stained with ink. She had broken her ink pot, spilled the ink on her clothes, and had been too lazy to go and change afterwards. Gandhiji greeted her with a smile: "Hullo, you have brought Ganga and Jamna together." Everyone laughed at the remark. The children were curious to know the meaning of what Gandhiji had said. He explained to them how the waters of Jamna look darker than the waters of Ganga, how the two come together at the Sangam at Prayag, and still one can discern the two currents distinct from each other for some distance. The joke became so much the richer for the instruction it brought them.

At the time of the Rajkot Satyagraha, Shri Kasturba insisted on going to Rajkot to fill the breach caused by the arrest of Shrimatis Maniben Patel and Mridula Sarabhai She had been mothering Ramdas Gandhi's little son for some time. The boy had become very attached to her and would not leave his grandmother's side even for a little while. After her departure for Rajkot he was disconsolate and cried for 'Motiba' (Grandmother) all the time. Nobody could manage him, and Gandhiji was too busy. But he had to take up the matter in the end. He sent for the child and told him that he would soon be with Motiba'. The little imp was at once all smiles. Gandhiji took out a mala (rosary) and gave it to him. He told him the story of little Dhruva, and then advised him to sit down in meditation in imitation of the child saint. When he had done so, Gandhiji told him to tell the beads repeating 'Motilal' each time. If you do that with absolute concentration and without a break, Motiba will be with you in person." And so little Kana sat down with eyes closed, counting the beads in all seriousness, with all the concentration that he was capable of. The family had a little relief and could attend to their work. From time to time little Kana would open his eyes and complain: Motilal has not yet come." Gandhiji reprimanded rum in mock, seriousness: That is because you interrupt your meditation time and again. In this way she won't come at all." And so the fun went on for two or three days. In the meantime Gandhiji had made arrangements for the boy to be sent to his mother at Dehradun!


His laughter has at times the quality of tears in it. Many of us can laugh when all is going well, but Gandhiji's sense of humour does not leave him even in the midst of adversity and sorrow. No one who saw him laughing and joking with the visitors on the day of Shrimati Kasturba's cremation, could have imagined what her passing away had meant for him. It created a void that could not be filled. As Gandhiji himself Said more than once, after sixty-two years of companionship he just could not adjust himself to life without her. Yet he would not let his grief be seen. He had been sitting !before the burning pyre from the early morning without food or water. Towards the evening someone suggested that he might retire and have some rest and nourishment. But he laughed and said: ,"If after sixty-two years of companionship I leave her now while the cremation is unfinished, Ba will never forgive me. Who does not remember, how Ba could sometimes scold, and how like a sport he let her exercise her prerogative to be his own and everybody's good-humoured laughter? The secret of his ability to smile even Under the weight of the most crushing sorrow, as he often explained, lay in his abiding faith in the goodness of God.

"It is easy enough to smile when life flows forth like a song.

But the man worthwhile is the man who can smile

When everything goes dead wrong."

In illness too he keeps a smiling face and can appreciate a good joke. That sometimes misleads those around him. During his illness at the Aga Khan Palace, the Government. of Bombay sent their Surgeon-General to report on his condition. Out of his inborn courtesy Gandhiji greeted him with a friendly smile. He laughed and joked with him, and the temporary animation of the patient's face deceived the doctor. He went and issued a reassuring bulletin, which he had to contradict within 48 hours after seeing the pathologist's reports. These reports disclosed a dangerously low kidney efficiency, and resulted in the Government deciding to order his release unconditionally.

After his release his irrepressible high spirits some-times created difficulties for his doctors and attendants. People, when they saw him cheerful and smiling, thought that the doctors were unnecessarily alarming the public. They took the law in their own hands and entered into long tiring conversations. The result was that when he went to Juhu after three days stay in Poona, he was at his lowest; and stricter rules had to be enforced in order to ensure a more satisfactory convalescence.


That reminds me of an interesting conversation that Gandhiji had with a homoeopathic physician who was trying to elicit his symptomatology. The physician first questioned him about his family history. When and what did his father die of, he asked. "He had had a fall, developed fistula, and died at the age of 65," replied Gandhiji. That did not help. The physician proceeded: "What did your mother die of?" Gandhiji: "She became a widow and died of a broken heart." It was no good. The physician was not getting what he considered helpful replies. Seeing a bottle of jaggery on Gandhiji's table, he asked: "Do you like sweet things or pungent?" and add, "I think you like sweets." "I have a sweet tooth," replied Gandhiji, "but I could gorge myself with bhajias and fritters." "Oh yes, no one likes only sweets," remarked the physician indulgently. Gandhiji interrupted him: "Don't say that. I have known Brahmins who will take huge ladus (Sweet balls) by the dozen with-out any bhajias."

The physician was getting a bit impatient. 'In homoeopathy, they say, the prescription depends upon the patient's symptom complex. He had been trying to interrogate Gandhiji as carefully as he could, but he was not meeting with luck. Still he was hot going to give up easily. "What about your memory?" he asked. "As rotten as you can imagine," replied Gandhiji. "I have lost the memory for details. I have often envied my friends who could roll out whole poems after reading them once." "If you can give me that gift, I shall become your unpaid advertising agent," he added with a twinkle in his eye. "God alone can give these gifts, Mahatmaji," replied the physician. "1 cannot do so, however much I may like your offer." "Then give it to me without my offer," said Gandhiji. "Do you remember the occasion when years ago you went to visit the Mission Hospital at Hardwar? I took you round," the physician proceeded especially emphasizing the last part of the sentence. "Yes, I remember visiting the hospital at Hardwar," replied Gandhiji. ,The physician was very pleased and quickly put in. "Then your memory is quite good." "No," replied Gandhiji, "I have a very poor memory, and I do not remember you at all."

The physician felt discomfited. He had been jotting down his observations. He now handed the sheet to Gandhiji for verification. It ran: "Temperament very intelligent, given to philosophic and religious studies " Gandhiji put a big question mark before the data on temperament. The physician asked: "Is it all right?" "How should I know?" replied Gandhiji. The irrepressible Dr. B. C. Roy, who never missed the opportunity of exchanging good jokes with Gandhiji, was sitting nearby. He put in: "To these you should add one more; i. e. the habit to question any allegations of virtue." The physician smiled.' "That is modesty," he remarked. "Modesty has never been my weakness," Gandhiji interposed, and there was a roar of laughter.

The physician next inquired whether the homoeopath knew some others whose names had been given to Gandhiji. He knew them and had great regard for one of them, who, he said, had been his patient. "How can you have regard for a .physician if he is a patient himself?" put in Gandhiji. "Well, Mahatmaji, everyone does fall sick sometimes," replied the physician. "And sickness does not come because of what we do ourselves. It comes as an inheritance from our parents." "Surely, I have not inherited hookworms from my parents, nor the germs of dysentery," remarked Gandhiji. The physician felt nonplussed. In a more serious vein Gandhiji then proceeded: "It was regard for the memory of the late C. R. Das and Pandit Motilal Nehru which had led me to seek homoeopathic aid. They had always wanted me to give it a trial. I have no faith in it. My own preference is all for nature cure. I have sought your aid because I have no faith in allopathic medicines, and because I am "not strong enough to have faith in God and what the five elements can provide." In the end the physician said: "Mahatmaji, I do not think you need any medicines. Regulation of your diet is all you require to get strong." Before he rose to go, he mentioned to Gandhiji about a pupil of his who was very keen on meeting Gandhiji. "She is a sweet Gujarati girl, Mahatmaji, and I would like to bring her to you if you permit me," he said. "All Gujarati girls are sweet," replied Gandhiji. "No, Mahatmaji, say all girls are sweet," corrected the physician. But Gandhiji was in a playful mood. "No," he persisted, "it is claimed as a specialty of Gujarati girls. But mind you do not run away with her." "How can you say such a thing, Mahatmaji?" said the poor man in holy horror. "I am sixty, I cannot run away with anyone at this age." But Gandhiji was bent on teasing him. "I know of a man who ran away with a French girl after the age of sixty," he said. Everybody had a good laugh. "This is how I bring down my blood-pressure," remarked Gandhiji when the laughter had subsided. And besides some innocent entertainment, he had gained a friend.


As an illustration of how Gandhiji can make people laugh away their blues the following may be cited. Years ago an esteemed lady friend and co-worker allowed herself petulantly to make an irresponsible statement about him. On the report being referred to her for verification she replied: "Ask your own heart to verify it." In reply he wrote the following post card which I reproduce from memory:

"Dear Mother Superior,

I must address you like this. You are so solemn. I must laugh or I shall burst. How is my poor heart to tell me what your tongue whispered into somebody's ear?"


He has an unfailing, ready wit. I have never known him to be discomfited in repartee. During his incarceration in the Yeravda Central Prison in 1930, he once ordered a knife to be made in the jail workshop. It was done in a hurry and with unskilled labour. The next day the following little dialogue took place between him and the Superintendent of the jail:

Gandhiji : "So this is your proud handiwork."

Supdt. : "Well, you insisted on 'Swadeshi'."

Gandhiji : "Yes, but not Yeravda."

On S. S. the Rajputana by which he voyaged to England to attend the Second Round Table Conference, a number of fellow passengers (mostly Europeans) had formed a club. It was named "The Billygoats". They also ran a typed news sheet, entitled The Scandal Times the title being a fair index of the contents. The members one day took it into their head to "offer their greetings to the Mahatma". Their spokesman, somewhat the worse for drink, after presenting the latest issue of The Scandal Times with the good wishes of the members of the club, asked him to "read it carefully" and "give his opinion" as to its contents. "For, Mr. Gandhi," he continued tipsily, "I must have it before I go down to my cabin for my next glass of whisky." Gandhiji scanned the sheets, remove~ the paper fastener with which they were fastened, and quietly returned them with the remark: "I have extracted the most valuable part from it." The tippler' beat a hasty retreat, well pleased with the joke.

The little children of the Sabarmati Ashram used to address him questions every week which he would answer. His extremely laconic replies sometimes exasperated them. One of the bolder spirits expressed the grievance on behalf of his comrades thus: "Bapuji, you always tell us about the Gita. In the Gita Arjuna asks just a one-line question and Bhagavan Krishna rolls out a whole chapter in reply. But you answer our full-page questions with just a word or a sentence. Is it fair?" Quick came the reply: "Well, Bhagavan Krishna had only one Arjuna to deal with, while I have a host of Arjunas on my hand, and each one of them a handful. Don't I deserve sympathy?" And the little :Arjunas laughed. The grievance was drowned in' the joke.

TOn his release from the Aga Khan's Palace in May last Pandit Malaviyaji sent a wire of greetings expressing: "Every hope He will let you live hundred years to serve motherland and mankind." Gandhiji's reply was characteristic. In the course of his A.I.C.C. speech on the 8th of August, 1942, he had made a humorous allusion to the possibility of his living for a hundred and twenty-five years. He had often been reminded by friends about that remark as a "public commitment" to live for a hundred and twenty-five years. His reply to Malaviyaji ran: "Your wire. At a stroke you have cut off twenty-five years. Add' twenty-five to yours!"


His good humour is so catching that it led the late Maulana Mohamed Ali once to make a grievance of it. "Mahatmaji, you are very unfair to us. We come to you full of grouse, to quarrel with you. But you make us smile and laugh in spite of ourselves. So our grouse remains unventilated, and you think that it is, all right with us. And he quoted the well-known couplet of Ghalib to describe his dilemma:

Most people think that when Gandhiji meets to discuss political questions with his colleagues, the atmosphere must be very tense and solemn. The fact is that these meetings are often a picnic of wit and humour. Here is an illustration. C. R. and Gandhiji were discussing a letter which Gandhiji had addressed to Mr. Churchill containing his celebrated retort courteous to the latter's description of him as "the naked Fakir"!

C. R. I am afraid your letter will be misunderstood. It was a naughty letter.

G. I don't think so. I meant it seriously.

C. R. You have touched him on the raw by rubbing in a past utterance of his, of which he is probably not very proud.

G. No. I have taken out the sting by appropriating his remark as an unintended compliment.

C. R. I hope you are right.

G. I am sorry, I can't return the compliment!


Even his most devastating retorts have the quality of benevolence. They leave no sting behind. At the Second Round Table Conference Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, in announcing the signing of what is known as the "Minorities' Pact", argued that they represented 46 per cent of In9ia's population. Therefore the Congress claim stood repudiated by about half the population of India. It was a plausible argument, and the House was on the tip toe of expectation when Gandhiji rose to reply:

"You had a striking demonstration of the inaccuracy of this figure," he remarked, referring to the speeches of the women delegates. "You have had on behalf of the women a complete repudiation, of special representation, and as they happen to be one-half of the population of India, this 46 per cent is somewhat reduced!"

To a host of press correspondents who besieged him when his boat touched the shores of England on the same occasion, he retorted when a reference was made to his unconventional attire. The fashion here is plus-fours, I prefer minus-fours!"

Only once have I known anyone to get away with the last smile at his expense. It was in 1931, on board S. S. the Rajputana. He was indulging in a little swagger about his paternity bump, of which he has a grand conceit. He claimed that he could hold the baby of Shuaib Qureshi (now in Bhopal State Service) better than anyone else, and proceeded to make good his claim 'with a faked grimace. The baby smiled its sweetest, blandest smile as quietly it came into his arms..Quickly Gandhiji returned it to its nurse, the baby still smiling but the grimace gone!

N.B. I am indebted to my brother, Shri Pyarela1, for some of the anecdotes.

New Delhi, June 1946.