Gandhi Comes Alive

Reminiscences Of Gandhi

Since 1915
- Hansa Mehta

THE first glimpse I had of Gandhiji was in December 1915 when he attended the session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay:' He had returned from South Africa in the beginning of that year, and gave an account of the position of Indians in that country and the battles he had waged to improve it. He was hardly audible. Clad in his Kathiawadi dress he looked unimpressive and out of place in the midst of the frock-coated and top-hatted gentry who formed the bulk of the Congress members in those days.

Years passed. I went" abroad, and as students we discussed the happenings in India. The non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhiji in 1920-21, came in for, much.' criticism, in particular Gandhiji's appeal to students to leave colleges. Some of the students who had left colleges in India came to England to join the universities there, and we could not understand this action on their part. In 1921, I returned home and landed the very next day after the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, had reached Bombay. At Gandhiji's bidding this visit of the Prince of Wales was to be boycotted. The boycott. resulted in a terrible clash in Bombay 'between the loyalists, mostly Parsis, and the Congress people. The Government of India was very much annoyed with Gandhiji, I,especially as the boycott was a great success., They waited for the Prince Of Wales to leave the shores of India before they arrested Gandhiji. When the news spread about his arrest there was. terrible tension in the country. I remember to have written an article later f-or a paper in England under the caption "Peace of the Grave!" Gandhiji was removed to the Sabarmati Jail, and people from all parts of the country poured in Ahmedabad to have a last darshan of him before he was thrown into prison or transported. I remember to have joined a batch of women from Bombay. We were taken inside the prison walls where Gandhiji was sitting. Shrimati Sarojini Naidu was there and introduced me to Gandhiji. This was the first time I met him face to face. He sat talking and laughing while all those around him looked sad and miserable. Nobody knew when we would see him again. It I was a most pathetic scene. I was moved to tears and could hardly speak or reply to questions he was asking. There must have been something terribly pathetic about him, for I always felt deeply moved .in his Reference whenever I was with him.

In 1930 his march to Dandi made history. Every day during the march he held crowded meetings of men and women to whom he explained the meaning of his movement. I t was at one of his halts in a village that he called a special meeting of women whom he wished to harness in the service of the country. He had different plans for women, and called this special meeting to explain them to those who were anxious to I serve. Women from all over the country were invited. Some of us had gone from Bombay. He sat on a raised platform under a huge tree bunyan or mango tree I forget which-and we all sat round him. His face was I exultant with the joy of action. He spoke for an hour asking women to take up the picketing of foreign cloth shops and of liquor shops. After his speech he invited questions in order to clarify and solve our difficulties if any. We had many questions to ask. Why boycott all foreign cloth and not British cloth only-that was a question in the minds of most of us. Gandhiji explained that our fight was for principles. Swadeshi Dharma meant encouragement of all indigenous products and boycott of I foreign goods. We were asked to begin with foreign cloth.first as much money violated the very principle of ahimsa on which our fight was passed. British goods and other foreign goods came under the same category, and we should not single out British goods only. Then came questions about picketing liquor shops. How could women do it? These liquor shops were frequented by low people, They might insult women, they might attack them. How could women talk to such ruffians and persuade them not to drink? Gandhiji smiled his bewitching smile, He had a way with women and knew how to handle them. He desired women to be brave and face all these difficulties., He gave examples of women, who had done heroic deeds in the past and asked us to emulate them. Did not women wish to see India free? How could they daunted by such imaginary fears? He won in the end as usual. His persuasive powers were wonderful, and we agreed to do the picketing. I remember when we had promised to do!

He always attracted large crowd wherever he went. It was obvious to most of us that these men and women who came for his darshan came only to satisfy their religious hankering or out of curiosity. There were few among them who really understood his message or what he stood for. I wished to know how he felt about these crowds. We were travelling in the same compartment from Poona to Bombay. He had come down from Panchagani, and on his way had met with such big crowds at Wai that it was with great difficulty that he could get away. To my question as to what he felt about this madness on the part of the people he said that he was not at all happy about it. He deplored the lack of discipline and lack of consideration shown by the people. He confessed to the failure of the Congress to instil this very essential quality into the people. I then asked him if the Congress was not responsible for encouraging indiscipline among the young people. I told him what had happened in 1942 when even school-children were asked to leave schools and engage themselves in activities like stone- throwing etc. Gandhiji could not approve of these activities, and felt hurt at what had happened. However, he pointed out that it was not the Congress who was responsible but those persons who in the name of the Congress were carrying on such activities. He agreed that they were exploiting the name of the Congress to achieve their own end. At Kalyan where we got down there was a large crowd waiting, and in spite of all precautions Gandhiji was nearly crushed that day and was rescued from his worshippers and admirers with great difficulty.

The last time I saw Gandhiji alive was on the day he broke his last fast, i.e. 20th January 1948. I expected to see him resting in bed after his ordeal but was very much surprised to see him sitting and spinning. He looked tired and exhausted and had to stop now and again for breath, and yet he insisted on finishing his allotted work. We all tried to persuade him to rest and put aside this I self-imposed task in view of his utter exhaustion. But he was adamant. In reply to our importunities he merely I smiled the smile of a naughty child as much as to say that we were wasting our breath. He propounded the theory that a man must work in order to earn his food. And since he had started taking his food that day he must also start working!

A few days later when I entered that same room again I saw him lying in bed taking his last rest. His face did not betray the violent end he had met with. It was I beautifully calm and serene. After the fitful fever of life I he slept well. What could one feel but moved to the very depths of one's heart in the presence of such peace, the supreme triumph of an enlightened soul?

Baroda, 14-9-1948.