As he watched a meagre gathering meander through a Girgaum street on Wednesday morning, trailing an urn of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes on its journey to immersion in the sea off south Mumbai, German radio producer Jean-Claude Kuner wondered aloud: “Gandhi has now vanished from the lives of Indians, is it?”
The ashes, which began the journey at Gamdevi’s Mani Bhavan museum, were the last known physical evidence of a man whose unique politics earned him admiration around the world and the grand title of ‘Father of the Nation’ in India, while inspiring leaders from Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela to launch movements that would alter their countries.
But the morning of January 30, also the 60th anniversary of Gandhi’s death, threw up little evidence that this was, in some ways, the last journey of the great man. For Mumbai showed it had little time for the 20-minute padyatra.
At 10.45 am, as the urn was lowered into the sea by Gandhi's descendants and politicians, Girgaum Chowpatty, witness to milling crowds during events like the Ganesha immersions, was near bare.
Member of Parliament from Bandra Priya Dutt was a rare politician to join in the 8 am prayer at Mani Bhavan and then walk alongside the garlanded mini-truck displaying his urn, against the backdrop of a banner with his last words after being shot in the chest, ‘Hey Ram’, as hymns mingled with the sound of traffic.
Other VIPs — Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Maharashtra Governor S.M. Krishna and Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil — simply arrived at the seaface in cars with tinted windows drawn up.
Dutt said the tiny numbers left her amazed, and disappointed. “These were Gandhi’s ashes. I felt like I was walking beside him. It was a historic moment,” she added. However, the crowd of a couple of hundred included many believers, who felt the pull of history.
These included Hasmukh Solanki, in the city from Ahmedabad, taking days off from his job in a textile mill. Solanki, who serves on a workers' union founded by Gandhi in 1928, said: "This is a unique opportunity. Who would have thought Gandhi's ashes could have emerged like this. I had to be here."
Historian J. Naik recalled the January 30, 1948, assassination, when he was in a school in a village in Goa. "We were under Portuguese rule, and just chanting 'Gandhi amar rahe' was enough to land us behind bars," he said. "So today, on this padyatra, I feel like a desire has been fulfilled."
"Shouldn't more people be here to honour him?" he added. Dutt drew hope from the revering faces and folded hands in the windows of the buildings lining the street.
"You could see the emotion, especially in the faces of the older ones. It is time to recreate that sense of connect," she said.