Gandhi Comes Alive

In London And Delhi

-John Haynes Holmes

I first heard of Gandhi in 1922-more than a' quarter of a century ago. I had at that time never heard his name, but found it by chance in a magazine article which told the story of his achievements in South Africa. From the moment I read this epic tale, Gandhi became the hero of my life, the saviour of my soul. I proclaimed him, in a sermon which unexpectedly went to India and beyond, "the greatest man in the world". How abundantly was my faith vindicated in all that the Mahatma did and! said in the crowning glory of his career!

Of course, I got into touch with Gandhi. Thus, I wrote him letters-very presumptuous on my part, it now seems. But Gandhi responded, and I became his friend and follower. Soon I was receiving and reading the weekly copies of Young India. How excited I was when the chapters of his autobiography began to appear in the columns of this paper. I at once cabled-Gandhi, asking if I might have the rights to publish this work in the pages of a weekly paper, called Unity, which I was editing at that time. He agreed at once, and the autobiography was thus printed in full here in America. I later secured its publication in an abbreviated form as a single volume edited by C. F. Andrews. The publisher argued that Gandhi was not well enough known in this country to justify the printing of the original text of so extended a work. Now there is a spate of volumes about the Mahatma, and among them is the autobiography in full.

All this while I was close to Gandhi, but had never seen him. It happened, by mere chance, that I was in Europe in the summer of 1931, which will be remembered as the year of the Indian Round Table Conferences in London. Picking up a German newspaper one day I read, to my vast astonishment and delight, that Gandhiji was on his way to attend the Conference. Instantly I abandoned all my plans of travel on the continent, and hastened to England. I could not miss this unexpected opportunity to meet one whom I had so long revered! There, in Eng- land, I met Charlie Andrews and Reginald Reynolds, and together we went to Folkestone to meet the distinguished traveler from India. It was a cold, foggy, rainy September day-typical English weather in the fall. I can remember shivering as I stood on the pier-partly from the chill which penetrated my bones, and partly from sheer nervousness at the prospect of at last coming face to face with the great Indian, my friend.

The Channel boat was delayed by the fog. But suddenly we saw her nose pointing through the heavy curtain of mist and rain. At last she was made fast to her moorings, the gang-way was down, and I was the first aboard. As I entered the cabin I saw Gandhiji sitting cross-legged on his bunk. Instantly he arose to greet me,. and held me in. his embrace. Then, as his first word, he said: "Why didn't you meet me at Marseilles?" the port where he had disembarked to cross the continent by train. He laughed with eager merriment as I tried to explain that I felt I had no right to intrude upon him unduly. "You should have come," he said. "Then we could have talked."

But the train for London was waiting, so we must hurry. I remember my consternation as I watched Gandhi going out unclad, as it seemed to me, into the cold and wet of one of the worst days I had ever seen in England. He wore only a loin cloth, a cotton shawl over his shoulders, and leather sandals on his bare feet. Someone, as solicitous as I, had raised an umbrella over his uncovered head. I trod behind him as we made our way from boat to train, and thought how grotesque he looked. This was a very different figure from that presented centuries before by Julius Caesar and William of Normandy, when they landed on these shores to conquer England. But here was a greater and nobler conqueror, destined for mightier deeds. Yes, how little did I know that, in less than sixteen years, India would be free and Gandhiji's victory won!

On arriving in London we went at once to the Friends Meeting House, where a good audience had gathered to receive the distinguished visitor. Then there was the long drive out to the East End, to Kingsley Hall, where Gandhi was going to stay, as the guest of Muriel Lester, during his attendance on the Round Table.

With this there began a week when I was with Gandhi at intervals each day. Certain memories stick right out! Thus there was the bright, sunny Sunday morning when I talked alone with Gandhiji on the terrace of Kingsley Hall. I recall how he enjoyed the warm sun, and how happy he seemed to be. Later on, I spent a late afternoon with him on the same terrace as he ate his frugal but nourishing supper. Then there is the Sunday evening when a group of us, including tenement mothers from the neighbourhood, gathered about the Mahatma while he talked to us about prayer as an exercise of the spiritual life. I think also of our meeting in St. James's Palace, where the Round Table sessions were being held, when we discussed pro and con the question of his coming to America. " It was after this discussion that Gandhiji took me in his automobile for the long ride out to Kingsley Hall. There were other occasions when I saw him. I shall 'tell them in detail some day. But all too soon there came my sailing date for America, and I had to say good-bye.

As I look back upon this week in London, I am amazed that I saw so much of the Mahatma, and came so close . to him. Here was one of the busiest men in the world. Upon him lay the burden of India in her quest for national independence. Here in England he was attending the dally lessons of a conference of momentous significance. In this conference he was grappling with the world's greatest empire and, therewith was challenged to make decisions, interpret policies, and offer leadership which affected the fate of millions of human beings. Gandhi sat at the centre of the council table. He was pressed upon from every side-there was no incident or instant which was, free of responsibility. Yet he seemed to find it easy to meet and talk with this unimportant clergyman from America, and to show him a hospitality which seem- ed to spring from a heart which had not a care in the world. A part of the explanation lies in Gandhiji's humility, his utter lack of pretension or pose. He had no need of spending time to maintain his dignity or parade his importance. He was as simple as a child, and thus free to do what he would. Along with these qualities, of course, went an affection, a love of people, a concern for courtesy and kindness, which made him accessible to all who would know his spirit and walk in his way. In all that week in London, there was not a moment of hurry, not a trace of impatience. On the contrary, there was a constant serenity and calm, a sweetness of temper, an unquenchable good humour, which made him the most attractive and lovable of men. In all that seething city, with its noise, confusion, and hurrying crowds, there was at least one man who, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, was "self-poised and independent still"

Years passed, and I could reach Gandhiji only by letters. The correspondence continued at long intervals. I had a feeling that I had no right to bother the Mahatma with frequent communications. I must write only when I had something definite to say. He always answered my letters, sometimes by his own hand, sometimes by dictation to a secretary. I hoped that I might see him again, but this seemed more and more unlikely as time went. The war imposed a kind of final veto upon Gandhi's travelling west, or my travelling east. Then came to me, right out of a clear sky, the invitation of the Watumull Foundation to go to India on a lecture-trip to the schools and colleges. I accepted at once-and wrote joy- fully to Gandhiji of what had happened. I shall never forget his reply-the precious letter in which he wrote:

"You have given me not only exciting but welcome news. The news appears to be almost too good to be true, and I am not going to believe it in its entirety unless you are physically in India."

I left America for India on September 18, 1947, and arrived in Bombay, after ten days in England, on Sunday, October 5th. On the Saturday following, I addressed an enormous mass-meeting at Chowpatty beach in celebration of Gandhi's birthday. On the following day, I went to New Delhi, and there met the Mahatma twice. The first time was on the very day of my arrival in the capital. To my astonishment and delight, I learned that he had already arranged an appointment in anticipation of my coming, and I must go round at once to Birla House, to see him.

I was ushered promptly into his presence-in the little room where he was tragically fated to die within a few weeks. He seemed to be troubled by a bronchial cough, and was wrapped in a cotton shawl, high about his neck. This fell away as we talked, and I saw his chest and arms. I was amazed at what seemed to be his superb physical condition. His skin was like a baby's, his muscles firm and stout. I told him that he looked better than when I saw him last in London, seventeen years before, and was pleased to be told that he was ten pounds heavier than he had been at that time. We talked easily and in formally together. I did not press him on the great and distressing events of the hour. Of course I expressed my deep sympathy over the disorder, violence and bloodshed which had been raging in the land, and could see how great was the grief in his own heart. But he was not overborne. His courage was as great as ever. And he trusted still in God. I t was an amazing experience to see this man whose single influence was bringing peace again to his stricken land, and all so quiet and simple. Here was the pure spirit, burning as a clear flame upon an altar, to shed light in darkness.

The night of this first day I went to the six o'clock prayer-meeting in the garden. The thought came to me, as I saw no police or soldiery in the place, that assassination would be easy. But surely there could be no violence in this lovely place and on this sacred occasion. Nor would Gandhi seek the protection of arms. The hundreds of persons present were all worshippers, of different races, religions and languages, but one in the spirit of the Mahatma. Their reverence was a beautiful thing to see.

I saw Gandhiji a second time at the end of the week. I was leaving for South India, and then for a long trip east- ward to Calcutta. I confidently expected to return, and see Gandhiji for one last, long communion of mind and heart. So this was just a good-bye, and to me a kind of benediction. Gandhiji was tired that afternoon-he received me without appointment, and to the interruption, I fear, of important work. But he was never more gentle and kind, and his conversation was full of vigour. But I did not stay long. As I rose to go, he told me that I must surely see him again. I promised to come back, if my schedule permitted. But, alas, I never saw him again, but had to content myself with a long letter of farewell, written from Calcutta.

I had a leisurely journey, flying the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean. I stopped a few days in Tokyo, a week in Honolulu, five days in Los Angeles, then by train across the continent to New York. I went promptly to my study, to take up the work which had long been awaiting my return. And there, right on top of my great accumulation of mail, was a long letter from Gandhiji, placed there reverently by my secretary, that this might be my welcome home.

A few days later-the assassination! And the greatest chapter of my life was closed.

New York, 1-10-1948.