During his travels, Gandhiji played the role of an accomplished beggar. He was welcomed by crowds almost at every station. People flocked towards his compartment to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Mahatma. How could the distinguished National Beggar let such golden opportunities slip by in passively acknowledging the devotional greetings of the crowd? He must charge the 'price' for his darshan and so his begging hand was immediately stretched out of the window. "One pice for the Harijan !" called out Gandhiji, and the people experienced glow of joy and satisfaction in placing copper coins in his palm. When one hand was full, the other was extended, and Gandhiji smartly collected a decent amount at every station, even during nights. A clever and experienced beggar as he was Gandhiji took special care to learn at least the word for 'pice' in every language. He did not fret or fume at the crowds if they woke him up with vociferous cries of 'Mahatma Gandhiki Jai !' The beggar of a poor nation could not afford to lie sleeping while there were people clamouring to give him 'alms'. And so quietly he got up, opened the window if it was closed, and commenced his work of collection.
I have witnessed scenes when, sometimes being unusually tired, Gandhiji did not wake
up at a certain station. A few persons entered his compartment and shook him up
despite protests from the members of his party, and after placing some coins in
his hands walked away with "Mahatma Gandhiki Jai !" Gandhiji smiled, again lay
down on the berth and fell into deep sleep.
When an ordinary beggar receives any coin he feels delighted; but in the case of this
strange Prince of Beggars, people feel obliged in placing coins in his hands.
Sometimes an old, decrepit woman in torn and tattered garments would with great
difficulty make her way through the crowd, put a pice in Gandhiji's palm, look
at him intently with devotion for a while and thread her way back.
It was, perhaps, early in 1937 when the Congress was still wavering between
office-acceptance and non-cooperation, that a journalist enquired with
curiosity : "Bapuji, will the Congress accept office ?" "Why, do you wish to
become a minister ?" asked Gandhiji with a good-humoured chuckle. The poor
correspondent was nonplussed and began to recede into the background. But
Gandhiji would not let him off so easily. "Will you please let me use your hat
as my begging bowl ?" he asked. Of course, the hat was immediately surrendered
and Gandhiji instantaneously stretched it before the owner himself to begin
with. And the would-be minister had to surrender amid laughter a few silver
coins too. What a queer and extraordinary beggar this half-naked Fakir was !
It is said that beggars cannot be choosers. But this rule did not apply to Gandhiji.
With him, in fact, it was just the reverse. If you were wealthy, he would demand
gold and silver; if poor, an honest penny; if you could spare no coins, he would
ask you to pay in hand-spun yarn; if you could not do even that you have to fast
and save and pay. Gandhiji was an inexorable beggar, a hard taskmaster. And yet
so sweet, so loving, so forgiving.