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141. The Prince of Beggars
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.
- Gandhiji, by Shri D. G. Tendulkar and Vithalbhai K. Jhaveri, 1944