Our first meeting with Gandhiji was at Marseilles, in September 1931, when he arrived in Europe for the Round Table Conference. We went to the :French harbour on an early morning with Romain Rolland's sister, and together with Charlie Andrews we spent part of the day on board the ship with the Mahatma.
"It was a great experience. When we left, my wife wished him good success in London, and he replied, smiling: "Behaviour is success,"a remark well summing up all his moral philosophy. We often quote it.
After the Round Table Conference we went to Paris to bring him to Switzerland, there he spent a week at Romain Rolland's house near Villeneuve.
We organized his lectures at Lausanne and Geneva, and shall never forget his reply to an old man who asked him if he was not discouraged repeating the same non-violent advice given by Christ two thousand years ago "without much success if we judge by history".
"How long did you say?" asked Gandhiji with his usual good humour.
"I said these things have been preached for twenty centuries in vain," insisted the old workman, who was a communist.
"Well," answered the Mahatma, "do you think two thousand years such a long time to learn something as difficult as to return good for evil?"
Gandhiji's part in human history will have shown that at least one nation agreed to fight for its freedom in a peaceful way thanks to his teaching and to the best spiritual tradition of the country. After such an event the world. will never be the same as before. Even Norway followed Gandhiji's inspiration in its resistance to the Nazi authorities.
After his Swiss visit Gandhiji and his party went , south to Brindisi to sail back home on the S. S. Pilsna, and we accompanied them to the Italian frontier at two hours' notice. It was during that journey in the train that he asked us why we did not visit India. We replied that the journey was too expensive.
"You probably think in terms of first or second class," he explained laughing, "but we only pay ten pounds each for our passage on deck and, once there, many Indian friends would open their houses to you."
We counted how much money we had in our pockets, and decided to seize the opportunity. We stayed in the train, went to Rome with the party and, there, got the visa and the tickets. We had no luggage, except a tooth-brush, and an umbrella, but we bought some bedding at Rome and sent a few telegrams to cancel lectures. Such an adventure is only offered once in a lifetime.
The journey on the S. S. Pilsna was wonderful. We all kept in row on deck, and Gandhiji was very jolly, full of wit, and very kindly teaching us about Indian ways, Indian food, and taking trouble for his friends: comfort with a real mother's heart.
They say that a great man is never great to his servant, and that illusions fall when you live near him. Well, Gandhiji is an exception to the rule, and he is still greater when you are his companions day and night. His humour and his kindness are unforgettable. We spent three weeks in close, intimacy, sharing all the details of daily routine on deck, even cleaning our common corner when the dogs of the first class passengers invaded it, and we found the Mahatma great as ever.
He does not impose an overwhelming or crusmI1g personality on you as other great men often do. He just makes the atmosphere absolutely honest and clear by his presence and his love. of truth. Who could ever lie to such a guide and friend, a real brother of men?
These three weeks with him on the S. S. Pilsna were a rare privilege, and such an introduction to India was unique. Gandhiji's love of his people is boundless, but never blind. Many times he repeated that his mission was to accustom men to use a better method, than war in their struggle for freedom. Indian self-government was not an end in itself: the nonviolent fight to achieve it was the occasion for a new experience in human history and a step towards abolishing war.
When a radiogram announced that a girl student had tried to murder the Governor of Bengal, he was as deeply ashamed as if she had been his own daughter, and felt himself responsible. His pain was hard to bear.
His description of Islam and of Muslims to us was the most generous we ever heard. He wanted us to understand the greatness of their religion and their sense of democratic equality.
A few days after Christmas we landed at Bombay, where huge crowds were waiting to welcome him back. The political situation was tense and the atmosphere revolutionary. Jawaharlal Nehru had just been arrested. Lord Willingdon refused to discuss such measures with Gandhiji. The Congress contemplated a new civil disobedience campaign as a protest.
At the mass meeting on the Maidan we could compare the Indian leader's tone with the language of nationalist leaders in Europe and with their brutal appeals to hatred. Gandhiji was reminding the crowds of their promise of nonviolence, and was asking every man and woman to be ready to give their life in protecting English officials and their families against any injury or insult. "We are not fighting them, but the system of government that employs them".
Staying with the same friends who were his hosts at Bombay, we could watch his patience and calm in very difficult circumstances. In the early morning there was a meeting for worship in a public square, where a silent mass of white-clad men and women squatted around their beloved leader. He only said a few words, mostly against fear, which is the chief cause of violence. If you are free from any dread, either of losing your possessions or your life, you can remain calmly brave and love your opponent while resisting his intrusions.
Early another morning before sunrise, we saw the police arrest him on the roof of his host's house, and two very tall officers standing on both sides of, the stairs with tears in their eyes. We shall never forget that scene. Even then he found time to scribble a few words of general introduction for us, a sort of Indian passport on a precious scrap of paper. It opened all doors through India and, while he was :in jail, at Poona, in that winter of 1932, we found his spirit and his inspiration alive everywhere from North to. South. Travelling third class and wearing khaddar, we made hundreds of friends in the trains.
Two testimonials impressed us specially. A woman with white hair explained why she and so many of her sisters had come out of their homes to take part in the Gandhi led movement, much against old. customs: "We felt that he would never ask us to do anything against love or truth."
In Calcutta, the great Poet of India, Rabindranath Tagore, told us what he thought was Gandhiji's greatest achievement: "He taught our people to cast away fear and so to ,free themselves from hatred and hypocrisy, for both go together."
The world owes a deep debt of gratitude to India for having chosen such a leader and shown mankind a way out of war in following his prophetic vision.
Neucbatel (Switzerland), 25-3-1946.