I was eight years old when Gandhiji left South Africa. I could not understand then the intricacies of politics or the meaning of the struggle which for two decades he had to wage against the authorities, but I have a very distinct recollection of the image that was stamped upon my young mind of the national hero whose name was a household word among the Indian community. I faintly realised in those early days the powers of the simple man who was to achieve in the fullness of time such miracles as even in their heyday warriors like Napoleon could only dream of. As the years went by I was able to assess the full power of the weapon of satyagraha which Gandhiji had perfected during his career as a public man in South Africa. When I reached the age of reason I began to make a deep study of the writings of Gandhiji, and although I became an adherent of his great principles, little did I think that it would fall to my lot to take up the flaming torch he had left behind. I was scarcely prepared for such a task; I did not feel inclined to be in the forefront of the struggle that began half a century ago. Yet when the call came, the response in me was instantaneous. It was the voice of Mahatma Gandhi calling for action. Without any preparation, without any experience, without the slightest hesitation, I threw myself into the battle. With faith undiminished in the righteousness of the cause we had espoused, I became, with thousands of my fellow countrymen a satyagrahi. I made the vow of reaching the goal that we had in view, no matter what sacrifice was demanded of us.
Two years ago when I was locked up in the prison of Newcastle, I spent my time reading My Experiments With Truth. I had read this book many times before, but inside the prison walls the words came to have a different meaning for me. It was in Newcastle that he started his epic march with thousands of men, women and children; and somehow I felt that I too was in the crowd that marched past across the Transvaal border in serried ranks. I said to myself that, if only the spirit that animated our people in those days could once again be mobilized, how nearer would we all be to the goal! It was true that Mahatma Gandhi was now in India and not in South Africa, but did it really make any difference? Had we not promised to be pure satyagrahis? And whether the master was in our midst or engaged in a bigger struggle elsewhere, we had to show the mettle of our pasture. It is to the credit of the South African Indians that in 1946, when we decided to take up the challenge, Gandhiji sent his blessings from India. I knew an intense moment in the struggle when I was sent to Pietermaritzburg gaol. Thirty three years before, this prison had the privilege of holding an august prisoner: Mahatma Gandhi. It was here that Gandhiji made a pair of sandals which he presented to General Smuts. The time for personal contact with the great leader had now arrived. I decided to fly to Wardha with Dadoo, in order to receive more precise guidance in regard to future plans.
Never before was my soul so wrapt in joy. I had come into the breach with a very warm heart, but the pleasure I felt then was of a different kind. It was the joy one feels in doing one’s duty. But to be with Mahatma Gandhi was like the vision of a dream. I was not going to meet a stranger. His teachings had become part and parcel of my life. His autobiography had been my Bible, and in my leisure time I have been reading it over and over again. Yet to meet one’s hero in flesh and blood was to be such a noble experience. During my airborne voyage to Karachi and Patna and then by train to Harla in Bihar, where Bapuji had proceeded to stop the rising tide of communal conflict, how many thoughts crossed my mind! I imagined flying to those regions where live only the choicest souls of the earth. When Dadoo and I arrived at Harla station, we were told that Gandhiji was putting up in a village a few miles away. The news of our arrival had preceded us, and we heard that Bapu was waiting for us. We were to have the privilege of being in audience with him for the whole day.
We were ushered in his room by Mridula Sarabhai. Gandhiji was sitting cross-legged with the spinning wheel in front of him. It was a quiet place. It appeared that we were the only visitors of the day. We had come to meet the Father of the Indian Nation, and the welcome we received was naturally that of a dear father to his affectionate children. We were in the presence of a king among men, and in an instant we felt the glamour of royalty in the house. We will never forget the warm smile which lighted upon both of us – the smile of the hero we had loved and admired for thirty years.
“Do you speak Gujarati, Naicker?” he enquired. I had to confess my ignorance of this language. “I understand your difficulties,” he replied. “Besides your own Tamil you have to study English, and therefore there is not much time left for other languages. Right, let us now do some talking.”
We gave him an account of the progress of the struggle, and were quite surprised to find that, in the midst of his multifarious activities, he had found time to keep in touch with the latest developments of our satyagraha movement. Speaking for myself, he certainly knew more of South Africa and its problems than I could boast of! We discussed every phase of the struggle, and at every point he intervened with observations that had the effect of illuminating the subject. Throughout our talk he kept emphasizing the central lesson of the satyagraha movement. He asked us always to remember that non-cooperation was not the weapon of those who found a shelter in a negative attitude of life; it was a most positive action leading straight to success if the principles were not compromised on the way. India recovered her freedom by clinging to the principles of non-violence. South African Indians, he said, would see the milky way, if they followed the example of the mother country. He also advised patience. Success never comes in a flood, he said. He was particularly glad to know that even the children in South Africa had done their part in the latest struggle. He asked us to give his blessings to all of them. The long session was coming to an end. The gentle voice of Mridula Sarabhai announced that it was the scheduled time for rest, and it was not for Bapu to say ‘no’. When we took leave of him he asked us to come again after we had completed our tour in India.
When we met for the second time, after six weeks, he was the guest of Dr. Syed Mahmud in Patna. From his rooms, across the wide lawns, we could see the beautiful banks of the holy Ganges. We reached the place long after the time which is normally scheduled for visitors and interviews, but Bapuji, in his great kindness, decided to see us. He was eager to know the response we had met from the various leaders in India, and he was glad to learn that everywhere we had received enthusiastic assistance. The plan for our campaign was drawn up by him personally. We were going away with his blessings, and this made our work all the more easy. He invited us to walk with him on the lawn, and while walking we gave him an account of our meetings all over India. At dusk we parted. He was good enough to enquire about our sleeping arrangements. “Will you sleep out in the open?” he asked. We answered in the affirmative. Before we separated Dadoo asked Bapu if we could attend his first prayer meeting. “Yes,” he said, “if you can afford to be up at four.”
We were feeling the strain of our various journeys throughout India. The climate also contributed to our fatigue. Bapu’s doubt about our early rising was fully justified. We had a sound sleep, and we were only awakened by the hearty laugh of Gandhiji, when he saw us in our beds after he had finished not only the four o’clock prayer but his half an hour’s walk. Leaping over our bed, he asked us in that affectionate voice, which I can scarcely describe, if we had a good sleep.
By his death, Gandhiji has come nearer to us. It is not in a spirit of mourning that we must honour the memory of the great departed. It is our pride and our delight that he was born on Indian soil. It will be our privilege to follow his teachings. In the realization that our outlook will be informed by his ideals lies the hope of the whole Indian race. Let us strive so that his message may find practical application in the heart of all mankind.