January 29, 1948. It had been a demanding day. He could not have complained, though. It was he, after all, who had turned each day of his into a gruelling work-machine.
Yet, this one had been exceptionally so. Visitors had come, as usual, including the staff photographer for Life, Margaret Bourke-White.
The riots’ fury had abated but the air over New Delhi still carried frenzy.
A group of survivors from a brutal attack on India-bound refugees at the railway station in Gujarat, Sind came that afternoon to where Gandhi was staying. Birla House on Albuquerque Road (now Gandhi Smriti, Tees Janvari Marg) was a house of anxiety, of anguish. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would come, fatigued but fighting. As would deputy prime minister Patel, dejected but dauntless. And people — regular people — would gather there, particularly in the evenings when Gandhi would join a public prayer and speak for some 30 minutes (or less) to the congregation.
The 79-year-old man was supposed to be snatching a few minutes’ rest before his prayer meeting on January 29 when the Bannu group arrived, demanding to meet him.
Confronting Gandhi, one of the angered men said:
“Why do you now take rest?...You have ruined us…We are beside ourselves with grief…”
“My grief is not less than yours…”
After they left, he resumed working at his papers. The draft new ‘constitution’ for the Congress was occupying him. That took care of the remaining hours of the afternoon and evening.
In his post-prayer remarks to the congregation, Gandhi asked those present: “Why do you presume that because I am a friend of Muslims I am an enemy of Hindus and Sikhs?” He referred to his conversation with the enraged visitors from Bannu and said: “One of them — I did not ask whether he was a refugee — said I had done enough harm already and that I should stop and disappear from the scene… He said that I might go to the Himalayas… I cannot run away because anyone wants me to run away. I have not taken to service at anyone’s bidding. I have become what I have become at the bidding of God. God will do what He wills. He may take me away. I shall not find peace by going to the Himalayas. I want to find peace in the midst of turmoil or I want to die in the turmoil. My Himalayas are here.”
Two sentences from that speech of his stand out:
“He may take me away.”
And “My Himalayas are here.”
What was that “here”?
It was a country, his country, one that was calling him its Father. It was free now but divided, a society that was hurt and angry. Run by leaders any country could have been proud of, his deeply beloved political heir Jawaharlal Nehru and his unconditionally trusted lieutenant Vallabhbhai Patel. Gandhi worried that the temperamental differences between these two stalwarts would hurt the governance of a traumatised India.
The prayer meeting — his last — over, Gandhi wound his way back to his ground floor room at Birla House. Pyarelal records, on reaching his room, Gandhi said “my head is reeling” and then, pointing to the unfinished draft Congress constitution, said to his niece-in-law Abha, “Yet, I must finish this”. He worked on that and other papers until late. It is 9.15 pm when he prepared to lie down. Plans for a possible visit to Wardha for a meeting with all his lieutenants and associates being organised by Rajendra Prasad was also on his mind.
Grand-niece Manu describes the same scene thus: “Bapu was extremely exhausted…he said, ‘My head is reeling. I am again and again getting the thought, Where am I? What am I doing? How can one bring peace in this present atmosphere of violence ?’”
Pyarelal and Manu tell us that an agonised Gandhi then lay himself down and while waiting for the end-of-day call by his son Devadas , repeated a verse from Nazir:
Hai bahaar-e-baagh duniyaa chand roz
Dekh lo is kaa tamaashaa chand roz
(Short-lived is the splendour of Spring in the garden of the world/Watch the brave show while it lasts)
Gandhi and a ghazal? And on just ‘the day before’? He never ceases to surprise. Pyarelal and Manu have separately recorded [Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (1958) by Pyarelal and End of an Epoch (1962) by Manu Gandhi] that a little after this, 48-year-old Devadas Gandhi came in for the end-of-day conversation (in Gujarati, of course) between father and son. Others present in the room would not quite go away when the two were speaking but they gave the two ‘space’.
Devadas writes : “There was more conversation… and I would have invited the usual ‘crowd’, even at that hour, had I tarried. So, preparing to leave, I said: ‘Bapu, will you sleep now?’ ‘No, there is no hurry. You may talk for some time longer if you like.’ As the talk continued, a severe fit of coughing convulsed Gandhi. Manu asked him to try a penicillin lozenge. He declined. No surprise there. When he got his voice back, he said to Manu: ‘…If I die of a lingering illness… it will be your duty to proclaim to the world, even at the risk of making people angry with you, that I was not the man of God that I claimed to be… If someone were to end my life by putting a bullet through me — as someone tried to do with a bomb the other day — and I met this bullet without a groan and breathed my last taking God’s name, then alone would I have made good my claim…’”
Death, that of the countless hundreds of thousands killed in riots, and very clearly, his own imminent one, had dominated his thoughts on this, the ‘day before’.
But was he readying to go? He certainly was not.
“He may take me away,” yes.
A line in the same ghazal says Kuuch kaa saamaan kar… (Put your things together for the long journey). He had done that. No difficult task that, for him.
But being ready is one thing. Wanting to go is another. He did not want to go. At least, not yet.
Margaret Bourke-White had asked him earlier that day: Did he still cherish the wish and hope to live the full span of life? He had lost that wish, Gandhi said, in view of the prevailing darkness. He was, however, groping for light. If things took a turn for the better and the people responded to his call and co-operated to usher in a new era of peace and amity, he would again wish — indeed, he would be “commanded” to wish to live the full span.
He wanted to play his part, to be on his fast-moving feet again. There where “his Himalayas” were. Where work was. Where three bullets waited too, ready to stop him on his path. Only, as Ramchandra Gandhi has put it, to be stopped by him instead in their tracks.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)
*The views expressed by the author are personal