Gandhi Comes Alive

In The South African Days

-Millie Graham Polak

MANY of us who knew Gandhiji in the days. of long ago were aware that he had long had a deep interest in trying to heal a sick body-not only his' own, though with, that he was always experimenting, but just that of the many who were near or came to him for help. , :At one time he might have interested himself in orthodox medical science, though I cannot. say that he had ever made any real study of it. But orthodoxy was not for him, for, like all other things in his life, he sought to get back to what was to him the fountain-head of life and health., So he sought to treat an ailment by what was known as nature-cure methods.

After reading Just's Return to Nature, in which the 'author had devised a special simple method of nature-cure, Gandhiji was convinced that here were to be found healing and absence of ills. It was about this time that an unhappy expense made a profound impression upon him, and deepened his suspicion of the orthodox medical schops of thought and practice.

An Indian trader had a dearly loved son, who had become seriously ill. Only an immediate operation, said the doctor in charge of the case, could cure the boy. The operation was not considered to be a serious one, but the father was filled with fear and anxiety. He consented at last. to. the operation, but begged Gandhiji to be with him during the ordeal, and to help the family at. the time of trial Gandhiji consented to do so. The operation was performed at the boy's home one Sunday morning. When, later that day, Gandhiji returned to us-my husband and I were then living with the Gandhi family-it was evident that he was still labouring under a severe emotional strain. We learned, upon inquiry, that the boy had died under the operation. Gandhiji seemed to feel that the boy need never have undergone it-and, in any case, that it had been incompetently performed, and that he might have recovered under other treatment. He worried about this considerably, and I think that he felt that his agreeing to be present on the occasion was tantamount to advising, and, therefore, being partially responsible for, the operation and the unhappiness of the bereaved family.

This experience certainly increased his bias towards 'unorthodox' methods of healing, and engendered a strong dislike of the surgeon's life. Several of us who were closely associated with him at the time underwent experiments with earth-poultices, cabinet steam-baths to be followed by a I plunge into a tub of cold water, colonic irrigation, acid fruit cures, fasts, many different types of diet, and several other trials. Always these experiments were first carried out on himself and the members of his own family. Many cases of illness or discomfort were quite successfully treated in this. manner-a poisoned finger or a severely suppurating wound having made a remarkably quick recovery when treated with a clean, fresh earth-poultice. This same type of poultice, however, when applied to the stomach of my six-weeks old baby (who, like most infants, had a slight digestive trouble) proved not only a failure, but a real danger to the poor child. The shock of the cold compress produced a rigor and after my ministration had restored him to normal, I refused to have the method tested' on him again.

The cure that seemed almost miraculous to those of us who watched it was that for which he was responsible in respect of Mrs. Gandhi. She was at the Phoenix Settlement, in Natal, and Gandhiji was at Johannesburg, in the Transvaal After having been ailing for some time, she became very ill, and the doctor, who lived twelve miles away, had to be sent for late one night. Upon examination, he found her suffering from a bad attack of pernicious anemia. He considered her condition so serious that he asked for her husband to be sent for at once. Upon Gandhiji's arrival, and after being closeted with Ba for some time, he told us that she had placed herself entirely in his hands for treatment, and that he was going to 'look after her himself. The doctor, who had been' urging, orthodox dietary treatment, which involved breach of the customary vegetarianism, was dispensed with, much to his indignation, and Gandhiji set to work and treat his 'wife. She was given frequent small quantities of acid fruit 'and practically no other food at first, and, contrary to the expectations: of those of us who feared the consequences of such drastic treatment of a weak and desperately sick woman, the trouble was arrested. After a week or two, simple, non-stimulating food was taken, and Ba commenced to improve. In due course, a complete cure was effected.

In those days, Gandhiji accepted cow's milk as a valuable food, though already he was saying that, it was 'not a proper food for adults. Presently, he insisted that it stimulated the lower passions of man's nature. This line, of argument aroused strong opposition in me.' "If that be so," I said "then young children,. who are principally fed on milk, would be nothing but horrible little brutes, and you do not certainly believe that to be the case." However, he smiled tolerantly. Neither of us believed that the other was right. Shortly afterwards he took a vow never to drink again the milk of the cow and buffalo.

Since those days, doctors and surgeons played a bigger part ill Gandhiji's life. Even his fasts had to be carefully watched by his medical advisers, and probably only such medical care enabled him to retain for so long a hold on his physical body. And, too, he later learnt to distinguish between the moral consequences of taking cow's milk and goat's milk! I expect that he must often have thought back to the past and, in a way, felt that those days, full of hope and belief and strenuous endeavour, were rich in experiences and the knowledge that grew from them.

Our dietary experiments were many and various. For some time, upon. his advice, Ba and I cooked without ordinary refined sugar. Cooked fruits, puddings or cakes were sweetened with raw cane syrup. When this phase passed, we had a saltless table. Salt, Gandhiji contended, other than that contained in natural foods, was bad not only for health but for the character. But years later, he conducted the great anti-salt tax campaign in India, and he and many others endured imprisonment therefore. Tea was not to be used, nor any other stimulant. Abstention from tea was, I think, a real deprivation for him, for, until my husband had denounced it to him as a stimulant or a narcotic, he had much enjoyed his afternoon cup in his office. When in London on one of his missions on behalf of his countrymen, his tea-parties were a delight to many. He would then be his most human self, teasing, laughing, and seemingly enjoying the friendly intercourse and the tea. An imitation coffee, made from roasted and ground cereals or peanuts, was the usual evening beverage. I personally struck against some of these austerities and refused to be Bound or worried by them; whereat Gandhiji, with his usual affectionate smile, would cease to argue with me, though keeping strictly to his own regime, intent on working out his own dietary theories.

When Mr. G. K. Gokhale paid his historic visit to South Africa, in 1912, to investigate the Indian grievances there, my husband and I were no longer sharing a home with the Gandhi family, who were then living at Phoenix. A house had been placed at Mr. Gokhale's disposal by an Indian merchant. In all the arrangements for the distinguished visitor's comfort and convenience, Gandhiji entered minutely. When he discovered that Mr. Gokhale was suffering from diabetes, he and I used to char the bread and potatoes in hot ashes, so as to extract as much starch as possible. Mr. Gokhale never knew of these culinary efforts to preserve his health. Nothing was ever too small for Gandhiji, and the more menial the task, the greater dignity he imparted to it by his own great earnestness and simplicity.

In our talks in the South African days, I came to realise that Gandhiji believed very intensely that man's essential nature was divine, and that if it were to be allowed to develop naturally from birth, the divine in him would expand as a flower and his natural wisdom would grow and manifest direct from God. This being his profound belief, it is understandable that education, in its ordinary sense, namely, the imparting of information along scholastic lines was of secondary importance to him. Many were the arguments that I had with him. Yet we did have a little school at the Phoenix Settlement for a short time, which the children of the settlers attended. The teaching was very rudimentary and amateurish, for the teachers were 'without much training or skill. Nevertheless, it was something in the right direction, and Gandhiji was interested in the work.

A question that troubled him. somewhat during this period was ,how to convey the right Kind of sex-knowledge to the children under his influence as they were reaching puberty. He realised that children growing up in a free life close to nature might misunderstand the right use of the procreative faculties and that experimenting and abuses might easily take place. At length he procured what at that time were regarded as standard works on what a boy and a girl should know and how they should be informed. The then teacher at the school was an unmarried woman, so Gandhiji did not feel that he could ask her advice on the books 'without embarrassing her. Being the only other Englishwoman there, and a married woman, he asked me to help him. Soon after, owing to his rapid immersion in the political struggle, the little school was closed; and nothing further was done in the matter.

London, 12-3-1948.