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The Best Advice I Ever Had
By Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit*
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
The Best advice I ever had come from one of the greatest souls the world has ever known - Mahatma Gandhi - on a sunny afternoon a decade ago. Most people pass through a period of anguish when their belief in humanity is at a low ebb. I was in such a period. My husband had recently died. My deep sorrow over his loss was followed by the humiliating realization that in the eyes of Indian Law I had no individual existence.
Now as a widow without a son, I was not entitled to any share of the family property, nor were my two daughters. I resented this galling position. I was bitter towards those members of my family who supported this antiquated law. At this time I went to pay my respects to Gandhiji and say good bye before leaving for America to take part in a conference. After our talk he asked "Have you made your peace with your relatives?"
I was amazed that he would take sides against me. "I have not quarrelled with anyone", I replied, "but I refuse to have anything to do with those who take advantage of an outworn law to create a difficult and humiliating situation for me."
Gandhiji looked out of the window for a moment. Then he turned to me and smiled and said, "You will go and say good-bye because courtesy and decency demand this. In India, we still attach importance to these things."
"No," I declared, "not even to please you will I go to those who wish to harm me."
"No one can harm you except yourself," he said, still smiling."I see enough bitterness in your heart to cause you injury unless you check it." I remained silent, and he continued: "You are going to a new country because you are unhappy and want to escape. Can you escape from yourself? Will you find happiness outside when there is bitterness in your heart? Think it over. Be a little humble. You have lost a loved one- that is sorrow enough. Must you inflict further injury on yourself because you lack courage to cleanse your own heart?"
His words would not leave me. They gave me no peace. After some days of severe struggle with myself, I finally telephoned my brother- in- law. I would like to see him and the family, I said, before leaving.
I hadn't been with them five minutes before I sensed that my visit had brought a feeling of relief to everyone. I told them of my plans and asked for their good wishes before starting on this new stage of my life. The effect on me was miraculous. I felt as if a great burden had been lifted and was free to be myself.This small gesture was the beginning of a significant change in me.
Recently something happened to me. My guests of honour, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Lady Eden could hardly have been more important to me. As High Commissioner for India in the United Kingdom, I had planned everything meticulously, from the menu to the colour scheme of the flowers and the candles. When the guests had arrived and drinks had been passed twice, I signalled the butler to announce dinner. But still we waited. When for the third time drinks came round I excused myself and ran downstairs to the kitchen.
It presented a shocking sight. In one corner stood a frightened little kitchen maid, in another the housekeeper. At the table sat my cook, waving a ladle and singing, beating time with his foot. His eyes were glazed and he was far away in some other sphere. The table was littered with pieces of chicken.
My knees felt too weak to support me, but I asked in as normal a voice as I could command: "Why isn't the dinner ready?"
"But it is ready, Madame," my cook chanted. "All ready. Everybody sit down, sit down........"
I was furious. It was on the tip of my tongue to say. "Get out. You're dismissed!" when I thought of the counsel that had calmed me so many times. If I lost control, I would only hurt myself.
I pulled myself together. Let's get something on the table," I said. Everyone pitched in. The food served wasn't quite what the menu described, but when I told my guests what had happened there was chorus of surprise. "If this is what your cook gives you when he's drunk," someone exclaimed "what must he provide when sober!"
The relief in my laughter must have sounded a little hysterical. My perspective restored, I realized that a dinner party, however important, is not the pivot of existence.
To retain a sense of proportion is as important as being able to keep one's heart free from hatred. For all of us, no matter what our work, the advice Gandhiji gave me is meaningful, 'No one can harm you but yourself."

* Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, one of Jawaharlal Nehru's sisters, wrote this article for the Digest in 1955 when she was High Commissioner for India in the UK. She died in 1990.