Father had planned not to send his son to school but to have him learn dyeing. So he taught me at home up to the level of the fifth or sixth class, and then sent me for admission to the Kala Bhavan (art school) at Baroda, where he was well known and respected. Everyone there knew me as 'Bhave's son', but they could not admit me. They asked me how far I had gone in English and I told them 'up to the third English class'; since other candidates had got as far as 'intermediate arts', I had no chance. My father then began to teach me further himself, and finding that his lad spent more time roaming about than studying, gave me a lot of mathematical problems to keep me busy. So what did I do? I would concentrate on the more difficult ones which were set out in small type at the end of the text books, work them all out and leave the rest. Father realized that I grasped the subject, so he said nothing; and what I learned with him was all I needed up to the matriculation level. I would first finish my assignment in maths and English within an hour and then be off on my wanderings for four or five hours at a stretch. So finally in disgust Father dumped me in school.
There too I carried on in the same way. I not only went on roaming,
I pulled my friends out of their homes to join me and gave them no
chance to study. Babaji Moghe used to hide in some temple to study
and keep out of my way, but I would search for him, find him and
drag him out.
As a boy my two hobbies were reading and roaming. I would be off
whenever I got the chance. Another friend of mine, Raghunath Dhotre,
would always tell me that I had wheels on my feet. 'Vinya,' Mother
would say, 'in your last birth you must have been a tiger; for one
thing, you must have your daily round, and for another you have a
very keen nose, you can't bear the slightest bad odour.' So I soon
knew every street in Baroda, and I would be off at all times of day
or night-any time would do for me. I liked running too; I used to
run a lot, without any idea of the distance covered.
I once set out for a run at half past midnight, and took the road
past the Baroda Palace grounds. The sentry shouted his customary
challenge Hukum . . . Dar,1 but I took no notice and ran on. A
little later I returned by the same road. This time the sentry
stopped me and asked why I was running. 'For exercise,' I replied.
He retorted: 'Who runs for exercise at one o'clock in the morning?
You are up to mischief, you are a thief !' 'And when did a thief
ever come back by the same road he went out?' I demanded. He had no
answer to that and let me go.
One Diwali2 I spent hours during the three days of the festival
going into every little lane and side street in Baroda to see
whether there were any houses that did not display the festal lamps.
I did not find a single house in the whole city where no lamps were
burning. The Muslim houses too all had their lighted lamps.
I also used to visit the various temples. There was one temple close
to Kamathi-bag, whose deity I named 'Lord of Exams'. Our college was
nearby, and during examination days crowds of students would visit
the shrine for darshan, and to pray that the Lord would grant them a 'pass'.
In school and college my only concern was how soon the class would
end and I be set free. There was one occa- sion when the teacher
began to dictate notes. I wrote nothing, I just listened, and the
teacher noticed it. When he had finished the dictation he told me to
stand up and read what I had written. I stood up at once with my
notebook in my hand and repeated all I had heard. The teacher was
taken aback. 'Just let me see your notebook,' he said. I showed him
the blank pages. 'You won't be able to read what I have written,
Sir,' I said.
Mathematics was my strong subject. The teacher was fond of his
pupils and took great pains over his work. One day I consulted him
about an exceptionally difficult problem. He thought for a while and
then said: 'Come back to me tomorrow. In all my years of teaching no
one has posed such a problem before. I am so familiar with ordinary
mathematics that I could teach it in my sleep, but this problem of
yours is a different matter. I shall be able to give you an answer
only tomorrow.' These words made a very deep impression on me.
Our French teacher was of a quiet nature. He would never raise his
voice while teaching. Once he was taking roll-call while we were
writing examination papers. When my name was called out I, engrossed
in writing, almost shouted, 'Yes, Sir'. After finishing the
roll-call he came to me and said, 'I see, you were engrossed in
writing. Still it is not good to shout in this manner. Your tone
should have been gentle.' And then he added, 'I am telling this
because I love you.' This touched me deeply.
But some teachers, when the children can't work out their maths
problems, have a habit of slapping their cheeks. I wonder what a
slap has to do with mathematics? Is it that a slap on the cheek
stimulates the flow of blood to the brain, so that it begins to work
better and so solve the problem? Could that be the reason? When I
was a little lad, about twelve years old, one of the teachers in our
school used to cane the children a lot. He seemed to think that
caning was the only basis for knowledge. He had a long cane which he
kept locked up. We children didn't like caning, but what could we
do? Finally one day I managed to pick the lock and throw the cane
away. When the teacher found it gone he guessed, of course, that one
of us had been playing pranks, but he said nothing. Next day he
brought another cane, and I got rid of that one too. He got yet a
third cane, and that also I disposed of. Then he got really annoyed
and began asking questions to get at the source of the mischief, but
none of the boys said a word-they were all on my side.
In the end, however, the teacher did discover the truth, and having
found the culprit he had to devise a punishment. He sentenced me to
five hundred 'sit-ups'3 and told another boy to stand by and count.
The boy was a friend of mine and his counting went like this:
'one-two-three-four-seven-ten'. After a while he got tired and sat
down. I went on with my 'sit-ups', and soon he started counting
again, and told the teacher that the five hundred had been
completed. But I too had been counting in my head, and I knew I had
only done one hundred and twenty-three. So when the teacher told me
to stop and sit down, I said: 'The five hundred isn't finished yet,
Sir, only one hundred and twenty-three.' The teacher thought,
'Here's an honest lad,' and said: 'Sit down, you have already done
eighteen too many.' So I did sit down, but I didn't understand what
he meant. I puzzled over it and in the end got it: five hundred
meant five plus a hundred, not five times a hundred-and on that
reckoning, as the teacher said, I had done eighteen extra 'sit-ups'.
That was how that teacher took pity on me, and I have never
forgotten those figures.
Our English teacher once set, as the subject for an essay,
'Description of a Marriage Ceremony'. But I had never attended any
marriage ceremony. I couldn't describe it-what was I to do? So I
invented a story about a young man who got married, and all the
sorrow which befell him and others as a consequence. The teacher
noted on my essay: 'Although you did not deal with the set theme,
you used your intelligence,' and he gave me seven marks out of ten.
The Central Library at Baroda was then considered one of the best
libraries in India. During my vacations, after I had had my meal, I
would spend the afternoon there. Two or three hours would go by very
pleasantly; the librarian had given me free access to the books in
the library. During the hot weather I would take off my shirt and
sit reading stripped to the waist, until one day one the attendants
objected that my dress was not 'decent'; I ought to have the sense
to dress properly, he said. I told him that I dressed by the common
sense God had given me, and turned back to my reading, in which I
was soon absorbed.
But a complaint reached the Director that a student was sitting in
the Reading Room without a shirt and refus- ing to listen to the
staff. The Director was an Englishman; his office was on the third
floor and he summoned me there. I found him 'correctly' dressed in
shirt and trousers-but he had a fan over his head. He kept me
standing before him (as the English usually did in those days) but
as he was older than me, I did not find that humiliating. But then
he pointed to my naked torso. 'Why this?' he asked. 'Don't you know
what good manners mean?'
'Certainly I do,' I replied, 'in my own country.' 'And what is
that?' he asked. 'In this country,' I said, 'we don't think it's
good manners for one man to remain seated and keep another man
standing.' He was very pleased that a mere lad like me should have
answered so boldly. He at once gave me a chair, and I explained that
in India it is no breach of good manners to go naked to the waist in
the hot weather. This he accepted, and went on to ask me which books
I read, and then told the librarian to give me all the facilities I needed.
Then there was the celebration of the birthday of Shivaji. My
friends and I were discussing where it should be held. Shivaji was a
lover of freedom, I said, so we should celebrate the day in the open
air, not under any roof; we should go off to the hills and the
jungles. So that was settled, but then a difficulty arose: the day
was not a holiday. 'Well,' I said, 'we are studying Shivaji in the
history class. We might cut that class and go off into the jungle
then.' This was agreed; off we all went and held our commemoration
with all solemnity. On the way back we began to talk about what
would happen the next day, when we would surely be punished for our
absence. I suggested that we each take a quarter-rupee with us to
pay the fine.
In the history class the next day the teacher asked where we had
been, and we said that we had been to the jungle to celebrate
Shivaji's birthday. 'Couldn't you have done that here?' he asked. I
answered like a shot: 'Shivaji the freedom-lover can't be
commemorated in the halls of slavery !' The teacher didn't like
that. 'You'll all be fined,' he said, and we all put our hands in
our pockets and laid the coins before him.
In this way we had a lot of discussion and debate about special days
and important topics, and a lot of vigorous argument went on in the
course of our walks. There were about ten to fifteen of us friends,
and we all wanted to undertake some public service. After a time we
decided to give our group a more definite shape, and in 1914 we
formed a 'Student Society' which held regular celebrations of the
birthdays of Shivaji, Swami Ramadas and so on. We also had
study-discussion groups with talks on such topics as the works of
the saints, love of country, the lives of great men, the development
of character. At first we met in one another's homes, then later we
hired a room for a few annas. I began by asking Mother for the money
for the rent, but afterwards everyone subscribed. We got together a
good library, about sixteen hundred volumes of biography, travel,
history, science and so on. I had once given a talk on Mazzini,
which my friends still remember. In fact I used to be the main
speaker and I used to give talks with a serious sense of
It was in this Student Society that my public life began, and I
believe that the foundation of Gram Seva Mandal (Village Service
Society) by me in 1935 was, in a way, linked to that Society. I
certainly profited by all the study needed for the talks I
delivered, but the greatest boon the Society gave me was friendship;
the friends I made in it have remained my friends for life and have
never left me. In 1917 I returned to Baroda for its annual function,
and suggested that the Society should propagate the use of the Hindi
language. I wrote and told Gandhiji that I felt sure it would take
up the work and be ready to carry on in Baroda his campaign for Hindi.
After High School I went to the College. But I found the 'education'
being imparted there totally senseless. Once there was a notice
that the Principal was indisposed; so there would be no class on
that day. One of the students stood up and said, 'The Principal is
indisposed. Let Mr. Bhave take the chair.' So I took a class of
English poetry. What was there in that poem? It was just an average
poem with words like 'white foot, light foot'. What does one require
to teach such a poem? And the Principal was drawing a salary of Rs.
1200 for taking a couple of classes per week ! It was nothing but
loot. I could not interest myself in such studies. Ultimately I
Near our house in Baroda lived an old man who used to sit spinning
yarn by hand for the 'sacred thread'.4 I and my friends looked upon
him as a laughing-stock. 'What a relic of the primitive !' we would
say. In later years many of us joined Gandhiji; we too were destined
to spend our time spinning yarn by hand on the wheel !