Confronting the Mahatma reveals the greater truth of his principles of non-violence
My father was a farmer and we grew cotton. While we were not rich, we had a comfortable living just on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. I had enjoyed a carefree childhood playing with the village children and under the care of loving parents. It was a happy home and while we knew that the British ruled our homeland, it was not of any real significance. Generations of our ancestors had served one master or the other. The Maharajas, the Moghuls and even our village head, all expected some kind of obedience, so it was easy to transfer that dependence and loyalty to the British.
During those first five years of my live, I had not even seen a ‘British sahib’ though my mum often spoke of our ‘Queen Victoria’, and my teacher showed us a painting of her at school.
It was when I was five and a half, that an incident happened that would change the course of my life and would set it on a path where I would see great struggle, offer immense sacrifice and live to see eventual success. As a nation we would find freedom and eventually become ‘independent’.
I remember one afternoon, when the villagers came running to our home. They brought my father in their bullock cart. His white kurta was stained with his blood and his left eye had been swollen shut. My mother began wailing even before she came out of her room. The villager explained what had happened, for my father who was still in shock, was unable to speak for himself.
The two villagers who had accompanied my father to the city to sell out cotton had witnessed it all. They were boarding the train at Ahmedabad station when my father was stopped from entering, even though he and his men had bookings. When he asked that they permit him to enter, he was pushed to the ground. When he tried to reboard his compartment, he was beaten up by the guards who were accompanying the niece of the local ‘sahib’. They told him that no Indian could travel in the same compartment as the Sahib’s niece. My father should have let it be, but remembering a similar incident that occurred with Gandhiji, he was determined to make a stand. A stand that ultimately cost him his left eye.
My father never regretted that move. Instead he called it the day ‘he truly began to see’, because for the first time he saw India for what she was, a mere mistress to an alien monarch.
Two days after that incident, there was much anger among the villagers and I too carried a rock to throw at the next ‘sahib’ that crossed my path. Many spoke of burning their homes and of abductions. My father remained calm, but did not object to what was being suggested.
On the fourth day after the incident, I heard great commotion coming from the road leading into our village. There were more than twenty people coming on foot. At the front was a strange man, skinny, bald, wearing glasses and a plain white dhoti. I heard someone call out, ‘Gandhiji is coming!’ I ran and hid behind my father, and watched as the villagers began to gather around my father too.
As the man reached my father, I saw my father rise. It was the first time that he had stood up since he was brought home after the attack. He tried to touch the man’s feet but was instead pulled into his embrace. And the man said, “You silly man, did my experience not teach you anything?” Then after a smile he added, “But I am glad, you stood up for your right!”
Gandhiji spent that evening at our home along with his twenty followers. We had a simple communal meal and everyone helped in cleaning up. Then we sat outside as someone sang Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, one of Gandhiji’s favourite bhajans. Our courtyard was already full, but more and more people kept coming from the neighbouring villages. Finally there were too many to fit inside our walls, so we gathered around the local well instead.
There, Gandhiji talked of his dream of a free India, of an independent India and of his wish to see the British leave Indian soil. Seated near my father, I shouted, “Then let us all throw stones at them and make them go away!”
Gandhiji froze and looking directly at me said, “And that will make you no better than those that hit your father”.
He then added, “To kill for freedom will legitimise killing after freedom”.
When I continued to maintain my silence he added in a softer tone, “Do you not see child, that ‘an eye for an eye’ will make the whole world blind?”
He continued, “I need volunteers who will fight for a free India, but they must come with the commitment to non-violence and a promise to honesty. If there is anyone here who cannot commit to these principles, do not join my cause. Do not pollute it with hatred and anger. I wish to free my homeland, not enslave it to a greater evil”.
My five-year-old mind could not decipher its true meaning, but I know that the rock fell from my hand and I have never lifted one up again.
The entire gathering chanted with one voice, “We give you that promise, Bapu. Lead us to independence and we will follow as your non-violent army!”
And so, I too gave my pledge. I walked in the Dandi Salt March alongside my parents. I visited my father in jail on so many occasions, that I almost felt incarcerated too. I even learned to weave cotton on a charkha or spinning wheel as Bapu did. I wrote patriotic songs and I only wore a white garment.
At every step of this movement, I knew that history was being made and that I was a part of it. I was part of an India that had served its queen with love and devotion, but which now wanted to respectfully severe those ties and stand on its own. An India that wanted to decide its own future with ‘Self-Rule’!
I am now 83. Like Bapu, I walk with a stick and I wear glasses. Like him, I sit in my little home, spinning the wheel and watching independent India revolve around me.
I still have great hopes for the country that was so loved by ‘the father of the nation’. I have dreams of it being restored to its former glory. But I have great fears too. That just as Bapu was gunned down when the country most needed him, I fear my free India will be enslaved by greed and corruption. The only way to stop this is to keep that struggle for non-violent alive.
This is a work of fiction. Most conversations are part of the author’s imagination.