coincidence. Not once but many, many times.
‘You won’t believe it… at the very same moment as…’ is how I have narrated my CEs (as I like to think of ‘coincidence experiences’) to family and friends. And then, business as usual taking over, have forgotten all about them.
One CE I can never forget.
Millie Graham Polak (MGP) was a remarkable woman. She and her husband Henry S Polak knew Mohandas Gandhi, barrister, and Kasturba Gandhi in South Africa. Henry worked with Gandhi first as his legal partner and then as his political associate. Henry and Millie Polak lived in the same home as the Gandhis, using the same kitchen, toilets and living room. When you do that you not only get to know each other well, you also get on each others’ nerves. The book has a lot to do with nerves.
Henry was a cautious follower of Gandhi, Millie an entirely incautious observer and critic. She wrote a book in 1931, well within Gandhi’s lifetime, on his “home-life” called Mr Gandhi: The Man. With Joseph Doke’s early memoir of Gandhi (1909) and Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas (2006), it carries an exceptionally authentic character study of Gandhi. I first read it in London when I was working at the Nehru Centre. As I laid the slim volume down, I could see Millie was a fantastic raconteur whose words were as sharp as her eyes. More, that she was psychic. Is that a pucca term? I do not know. But I know — all of us know — what ‘psychic’ means. Millie could not just see things and people with laser clarity but see around people and events as well.
Millie describes an episode when, one evening in Johannesburg, she and Gandhi were walking out of the Masonic Lodge after
he had finished a speech. She noticed in the dimming twilight a figure standing in the shadow of the building’s outer door. And she did obviously not like what she noticed with, as it turned out, good reason. Gandhi, to Millie’s astonishment, went straight up to that man and linking his arm in the man’s, began saying something quietly. She saw him, after a while, handing something over to Gandhi who then rejoined Millie. The rest is best described in Millie’s words:
MGP to Gandhi: What did the man want — anything special?
MKG: Yes, he wanted to kill me.
MGP: To kill you? To kill you? How horrible? Is he mad?
MKG: No, he thinks that I am acting traitorously towards our people; that I am intriguing with the government against them, and yet pretending to be their friend and leader.
MGP: But that is all wicked and dreadful. Such a man is not safe; he ought to be arrested. Why did you let him go like that? He must be mad!
MKG: No, he is not mad, only mistaken; and you saw, after I had talked to him, he handed over to me the knife he had intended to use on me.
Gripped by the book, I thought we ought to arrange a reading from that work at the Nehru Centre. But who was to do it? To my astonishment, within a day or two of this, I was honoured by a call from a beautiful woman I had never heard of before. “I am Ruth Rosen… I do readings for the radio… And, yes, incidentally, I am a great admirer of your grandfather…” Further conversation led me to the fact that she had South Africa connections herself. I know a CE when I am in one.
Ruth Rosen went on to do a remarkable reading from Millie Polak’s book to a rapt audience, interiorising Millie in her performance in a way only she could have. For me Millie Polak and Ruth Rosen became one person.
Some two years later, I was in South Africa posted, rather incredibly to me, as our High Commissioner. Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria were coming alive to me. Re-reading Millie Polak’s book right in the country where it was written was priority. And one day as I sat at my desk turning the pages of the book four years or more since I had first read it, the phone rang.
‘… Is that Gopal?’
‘Yes, that is right…’
‘I am Ruth… Ruth Rosen… you might remember…’
Now, ‘goose pimples’ is a clichéd term. Never having seen the quacking creatures’ skins, I do not know what the term really means. But if it means that unexpectedly, suddenly all over you erupt a hundred or more little bobs, I was having goose pimples.
“Ruth !… Hi!… I can’t believe this… I say it is great to hear from you…But listen…you will not believe me… I am at this very moment reading — guess what ? — Millie Polak !….”
“No!... I mean… How can you be....?”
“God knows how! I really am... Look, let me rustle the pages of the book into the phone… ”
“No… no… I do not mean that I do not believe you…just that it is so unbelievable….”
“… but Gopal… You see… How shall I say this… I am ringing actually to ask… as you know the world of publishing… no… this is crazy…”
“Do go on…”
“I am ringing to say… to ask… if you could think of a publisher who would be interested in a manuscript written by my husband…”
“Oh... is it… a novel?”
“The manuscript is about… it is on… now you won’t believe me… the subject of… Coincidence…”
I do not know what ‘horripilate’ means. But I did not care then, I do not care now about the word’s meaning. I knew the actual thing. CE.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal