Gandhi Comes Alive

Some Reminiscences of the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Romain Rolland in 1931

-Madeliene Rolland

ONE of the most precious memories of my life is that of the visit which Gandhi paid to my brother, on his way back from the Round Table Conference at London, in 1931. We were then residing in Switzerland, near Villeneuve, at the eastern end of Lake Leman. We had long looked forward to this meeting, and more than once we had been disappointed. What was, therefore, our joy when we received a wire announcing that the Mahatma would arrive on the 6th of December!

We were tenants of two small villas at ten minutes distance from Villeneuve, enclosed within a large park and separated from each other only by their own small gardens. It was in one of these villas, the further of the two from the road, that we arranged to offer Gandhiji and his party our modest hospitality with, however, the advantage of complete independence.

On Sunday, the 6th of December, as night was Coming on, Gandhi arrived by train from Paris. It was com; it was raining. My brother, still suffering from an attack of bronchitis, was unable to go to the station to welcome his revered friend. But he was waiting for him at the threshold of the Villa Lionnette when Gandhi, enveloped in his big white shawl and followed by friends, some Indian and some European, appeared. My brother moves forward, his hands held out; Gandhi, pressing his cheek on his shoulder, puts his arm around him in a moving brotherly embrace. A few words of welcome are exchanged, and we take on: guest. to the upper floor where a room almost unfurnished is reserved for him, with one window overlooking the Lake I and two others the beautiful Alps of Savoy, the wide valley I of the Rhone against the background of the glaciers of the Dent du Midi.

It is there that he will stay during his all too short visit, I from that Sunday evening of December 6th to the following from Friday, the 11th; there, too, that the morning and evening prayers will usually be held; there that, seated at his spinning wheel, he will receive the many visitors of all races and all strata who will stream in ceaselessly. Hi!son Devadas, his disciples and secretaries, Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal, and the devoted Mira supervising everything, will share the other rooms.

Henceforth, letters, telegrams, messages, telephone calls (the latter, fortunately, received only at the Villa Olga) will keep up uninterruptedly. Now it is Lausanne reminding the Mahatma of his promise to address several meetings; then, Geneva, notified of his visit later, feeling desperate at having to take second place and claiming the immediate presence of Gandhi at a large public meeting; then there are all the press correspondents, most of them ignorant enough of the real life and teaching of the master; and above all come ail the fervent admirers of non-violence (amidst whom, of course, there are a few prompted by curiosity) requesting interviews and vying with each other in offering the greatest service. Two reverend fathers place ,their car at the disposal of Gandhi during the entire period of his, stay; a young musician, every morning at dawn, plays the violin under his windows; a Japanese artist comes hurrying from Paris to make sketches; school children bring him flowers; and on the eve of his departure the choir of Villeneuve will sing popular songs in the garden, including the celebrated Ranz des Vaches (Calling the Herd), that song which even more than the national anthem touches the heart of every Swiss away from his motherland, arousing patriotic love coupled with a feeling of home sickness. And let me not forget to mention the Syndicate of the Milkmen of Leman who, even before Gandhi's arrival, had phoned to express their desire to supply milk to the "King of India"!

Amidst that seeming confusion, Gandhiji remains calm and smiling,! punctual at every one of the engagements he makes, and yet managing, somehow, at dawn or during any moment of leisure in the course of the day, to slip out of the house and to stride briskly along through the neighbouring country, accompanied by. the faithful Mira, but watched by photographers hidden behind trees and followed (we blushed to witness this!) by British and Swiss policemen, entrusted, so they pretend, with "protecting" him! On Wednesday afternoon, he asks to be driven by car to a ,mountain village where he calls on an old peasant woman whom Mira had known when she was still Madeleine Slade and used to come to us at Villeneuve; that old woman spins and weaves her own garments; and so Gandhi is happy to shake hands with her, to sit at her loom and to fraternize 'with her before proceeding along the steep road up to Leysin where he says a few words to the tubercular students of the University Sanatorium.

But before all else, he gives preference to his daily interviews with Romain Rolland for which he sets aside jealously two to three hours. Is not that the sole reason .for his having come? And so, sometimes in the morning and sometimes at the end of the afternoon, he will go across "the little garden of the Villa Lionnette and enter through the gate that of the Villa Olga to go up to my brother, since he does not wish the latter, in his indifferent state of health, to be exposed to the cold and dampness of a specially' rainy season. Then, Romain Rolland at his desk and Gandhiji facing him cross-legged on a settee, talk to each other as if alone, for the rest of us are silent listeners-Mira, Mahadev, Pyarelal, my future sister-in-law and myself. We .are there only to take notes or to be called upon as interpreters. They discuss the grave problems which they have at heart. My brother describes for Gandhi the tragic situation of Europe: the sufferings of the people oppressed by dictators; the drama of the proletariat who in their desperate effort to break the shackles of an anonymous and . ruthless capitalism and pushed forward by their legitimate aspiration for justice and freedom, see only one way out, that of rebellion and violence. For man in the West is by education, by tradition and by temperament unprepared for the religion of ahimsa. Gandhi listens, reflects..When he answers, he reaffirms his unshakable faith in the full power of nonviolence. Yet he understands that to convince sceptical Europe the concrete example of a successful experiment in non-violence would be necessary. Will India furnish it? He hopes so many are the burning topics that are touched upon during these intimate talks, in the course of which the two speakers open their hearts without any reservation. At times their conclusions vary; yet always they commune with each other through their common love for humanity, their identical desire to alleviate its misery, their fervent search for Truth, in its multiplicity of aspects.

On Tuesday the 8th and on Thursday the 10th, the Swiss Pacifists (headed by Edmond Privat and Pierre Ceresole organized public meetings in Lausanne and Geneva, respectively. Gandhi, refusing the motor car which is offered him, takes the train to Lausanne, traveling in third class, as his custom is. There a large crowd awaits him, eager to hear him speak, and receiving enthusiastically the answers that Gandhi gives to the various questions put to him at the public meeting, answers which are remarkable for their precision, their clearness, for the presence of mind they show, as also for their biting frankness. But the two private gatherings at Lausanne are more moving still. Of these one is set apart for his personal friends; at which Pierre Ceresole, founder of the Civil International Service; states to- Gandhi his point of view on' the practice of non; Gandhi gives to the various questions put to him at the public meeting, answers which are remarkable for their precision, their clearness , for the presence of mind, they show, as also for their biting frankness. But the two private gatherings at Lausanne are more moving still. Of these one is set apart for his personal friends, at which Peirre Ceresole, founder of the Civil International Service, states to Gandhi his point of view on the practice of non violence. Ceresole (that noble personage who has just passed from the scene) believes that he can reconcile with his duties as a loyal citizen his passionate fight against war and militarism. He thinks that, if a conscientious' objector refuses to comply with the obligation of compulsory military service, because to him it represents a maleficent and destructive force, he owes the State voluntary service; beneficent and constructive, in exchange for the protection it gives him, and hence should pledge himself to assist the victims of national and international calamities. On this basis was created the Civil International Service. Gandhi, on the other hand, explains that for him there is only one logical attitude possible towards a militaristic Government, and that is total non-cooperation. A painful and perplexing inner conflict for a sincere soul who in all loyalty, as in all humility, cannot and does not wish to resolve it on the spot.

The other private gathering, held in a church, is for the representatives of the Pacifist groups in Switzerland. It is permeated by a religious atmosphere which becomes more striking still as Gandhi speaks of his experiences and explains -how he passed from his first definition of God, "God is Love," to "God is Truth," and finally to "Truth is God."

Meanwhile the public meeting at Lausanne, which had been broadcast, was having its repercussions. Gandhi's voice. had aroused echoes throughout Switzerland as well as abroad. Some of his statements had awakened fear in the minds of the narrowly conservative. Furthermore, Gandhi !lad dared to protest openly against the way in which his words and even his motives had been misrepresented by two of the leading newspapers of Switzerland. These did not forgive him. Overnight the press, until then rather favourable changed its tone. As a result the public meeting at Geneva took place in an atmosphere altogether different from that which had prevailed in Lausanne. On Thursday the ,10th of December, the large amphitheatre of Victoria Hall was filled with a dense crowd among whom one could sense conflicting tendencies. The upper bourgeoisie were there, capitalistic and militaristic, and hence hostile to Gandhi; some Socialists, sceptical and curious, wanting to hear him speak of social problems; and some Pacifists, his followers; Most of the questions raised were but. traps behind their insidious simplicity. One of them brought up the. case of a neutral country, such as Switzerland-what should it do faced with foreign invasion? Must it not defend itself, and therefore did it not need an army? In a tranf1uil' yet firm voice Gandhi answers: "An army is useless: It would be enough to have all citizens, men, women and children, making of their bodies a wall against the enemy;' And if the latter should be barbarous enough to butcher them, their death at least would bear good fruit."

The other question refers to the class struggle. And Gandhi answers: "Labour does not know its own power. Did it know it, it would only have to rise to have capitalism crumble away. For Labour is the only power in the world." Such statements fill the bourgeoisie with silent fury while most of the audience applaud.

One can understand, however, that such declarations by Gandhi were looked upon as dangerous by the authorities and commented upon with indignation by the press. It is very likely that, if the departure of the Mahatma had ,not already been fixed for the next day, his expulsion as an undesirable, might have been considered.

That same day, Gandhi, indefatigable and having taken only a few minutes' sleep on the hard, benches of the third class compartment, was back in Villeneuve to have one more talk with my brother, in the short free interval before the evening prayers. !These were held on this day, in the ground floor of the Villa Olga, so as to allow Romain Rolland to be present. Afterwards, in the silence which followed the last hymn, my brother, accompanied only by Gandhiji, Mira and myself, went up to his little music room. There, at the request of the Mahatma, he played on the piano an andante movement of a symphony of Beethoven, an invocation without words to the Deity, by the religious soul of the great composer. For Gandhi knew that it was through Beethoven that Mira had known Romain Rolland, and, that it was to Beethoven therefore that he owed his faithful disciple.

The following day, Friday the 11th of December; the sun, which on the previous days had hidden itself, flooded the country, revealing to our guests for the first time the mountains and glaciers clear of mists, and the sparkling lake. That morning there took place the last interview, even more intimate and more affectionate than the preceding ones. Then the preparations for the departure. The good weather fortunately permitted my brother to go to the station. On the square, a sympathetic and curious crowd had gathered, as also friends who had come to greet Gandhiji who was to cross through Italy, halting at Rome, before embarking at Brindisi. My brother had warned him against the tricks of the Fascists who might try to get hold of him and thereby compromise him. To protect him my brother had succeeded in having Gandhiji invited to stay at Rome with a friend whose integrity was beyond doubt and whose. hospitality was therefore above any possibility of suspicion.

We stand beside those who are about to leave us, reflecting sadly on the fact that most likely in this world we shall not see each other again, yet deeply grateful that Providence should have granted us the privilege of living a few days near Gandhi, to feel the radiance of his presence, as also to be richer through the affection of new spiritual brothers, for it was thus that we looked upon Mahadev, Pyarelal, Devdas..

Then, Gandhi, coming towards my brother, gives him a farewell embrace and gets into his compartment. We stay a long time looking at Mira who waves a last good-bye. The train starts, carrying our friend towards his destiny of earthly trials and spiritual victories.(Translated, from the original French, by Shrjmati Sophia Wadia.)

Paris, 14-2-1946.