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11. Importance of small things
The huts in Noakhali are made of mud and coconut leaves. There are very few buildings of brick. The few that were there were burnt to ashes during the communal disturbances.
Bapu's headquarters in Noakhali was in a village called Shrirampur. The house was made of mud and its roof was thatched with coconut leaves, but friends had made every arrangement in it to make Bapu comfortable. But now everyday we had to move from one village to another. Many huts had been destroyed by fire, and when it rained, it came down in torrents, so it was impossible to spend the night under the trees. Bapu might walk on foot during his tour but where was he to stay? This was the problem that worried friends.
Among them, Satishbabu who managed the whole Gandhi Camp was the most worried. But being resourceful he constructed a folding hut which was at once artistic and useful. It had doors and windows, light planks of wood for sleeping on, some straw with a mat in case the ground was rough. There was also a small bathroom at the back. Bapu knew that Satishbabu was making a folding-hut but he did not realize that he was making a hut which he later described as "like a palace".
Bapu used to stay at Shrirampur. His real tour, however, began from Chandipur, a village two miles off. The area which was greatly devastated was about seven to eight miles from Shrirampur. As this would be a very long distance for him we halted for the night at Chandipur. This village also was not immune from the disturbances.
Before he started from Chandipur some ladies came and put the auspicious mark on his forehead and then our prayers began. Bapu had instructed me beforehand to sing Vaishnavajana to tene kahiye and substitute Christianjana, Parsijana, Sikhajana, Muslimjana and Harijanjana for Vaishnavajana at every repetition of the first line and he too joined in the song. This song was not sung daily but only on special occasions. He discarded his sandals in Chandipur. The reason he gave was: "When we go to holy places like temples or masjids or churches we put off our sandals and I have to go to Daridranarayana. I am going to people whose kith and kin have been looted, where innocent women and children have been slaughtered and where they do not have sufficient clothes to cover their nudity. To tread on such ground and to meet such people is, to my mind, a pilgrimage; so how is it possible to keep my sandals on?" While he said this, his heart was stirred to its depths like buttermilk in the process of churning. Even now his pathetic voice rings in my ears. Bapu's feet were even more tender than our palms; so his feet were often pierced by thorns and they became cracked.
Exactly at 7-30 a.m. he commenced his pilgrimage through betel nut and coconut forests, with one hand on my shoulder, a bamboo slick in the other and the song "Walk on Alone" of the Poet Rabindranath Tagore, on his lips:
"If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
Open thy mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away and desert you when crossing
the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
Trample the thorns under thy tread and along the
blood-lined track travel alone.
If they do not hold up the light,
When the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
With the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart
and let it burn alone."
This song in Bengali was sung everyday before setting out, and then all day long we went on singing hymn after hymn and Ramadhun. On the way Bapu saw places where bones were scattered about, huts had been burnt down and people had been killed; his heart was broken, only the hymns gave him solace.
On 7th January, 1947. at 9-30 a.m. we reached Masimpur where devastation had been indeed great. As there was no place for him to stay, the folding hut was put up. Entering it, Bapu observed minutely every nook and corner, up and down and sat down on one of the wooden planks and 1 started washing his feet. For a few moments he was silent and then said, "Have you marked what a lot of trouble Satishbabu has taken on this palace of mine? He has made it all in such small parts that even children can carry it from place to place. .So overflowing is his love for me! How can I exclusively enjoy his boundless love? So I have decided against this palace being carried to any other village. It can be used either as a hospital or for some other such purpose. I can be comfortable anywhere. Even if there is no house there are so many trees here to give us shelter. Let God do what He wills. Why should we worry about it? I have told all our workers who have gone into the villages that they should depend for all their necessities on the villagers only. They should look upon themselves as members of the villagers' family. They should not think that they were somebody and that they had gone to serve and oblige the villagers. If they entertained any such ideas they would not be able to carry on for a long time. If they fell sick they should use only such medicines as may be available locally or be prescribed by the local physician or in the last resort depend upon the five elements (earth, fire, etc.). This rule applies to me as well."
The next day Bapu did not allow us to carry the folding- hut. Thereafter he used to slay with one of the villagers. This enabled him to live with people of all sorts of both the communities. Hindus, Muslims, weavers, potters, barbers, blacksmiths, traders, Brahmanas, Harijans, etc. so much so that he stayed even with those who had indulged in killing in Noakhali. Bapu's presence helped in bringing about a change of heart. And it seemed as if the people too thought that by extending hospitality to him, they got an opportunity to atone for their sins in this very life and thus to get themselves absolved. Bapu considered himself fortunate to live with the people, and there was a glow of happiness on his face in spite of so much that was painful. Many said that they did not mind the outrage of Noakhali as because of it Bapu's feet had sanctified their villages!