'As a Hindu, he is incapable
of ignoring the threat to his culture that arises from forced
By now he has established a routine. Rising at four, he finishes
his morning prayers, takes a glass of hot water containing honey,
and works at correspondence for two hours or so until dawn. At
7:30 he sets off on the day's walk across newly plowed dew-soaked
fields to the next village on his itinerary.
The Gandhi march is an astonishing sight. With a staff in one
hand and the other on his granddaughter's shoulder, the old man
briskly takes the lead as the sun breaks over the horizon. He
usually wraps himself in a hand-woven shawl,
as the January mornings are cold enough
for him to see his breath. But he walks barefooted despite chilblains.
This is a fashion he started in order to relieve a blister, but
continued because he liked the idea of walking as Indian pilgrims
Clustered about him is his immediate party:
his Bengali interpreter, a professor of geography at Calcutta
university; a Sikh attendant who fawns as much as Gandhi will
permit; a retired engineer-turned-swamy and one or two youths.
The dozen Indian press men who are following this trek, walk behind.
Sometimes this little body of the faithful, like other truth-seekers
before them, sing of God as they walk. His name here is Ram. A
squad of policemen, detailed (against repeated protests from Gandhi)
by Muslim League Premier H S Suhrawardy to accompany and protect
the Gandhi party, mix with the group.
As the sun begins to climb, villagers from places along the way
join the trek. They come by twos and fours or by dozens and scores,
swelling the crowd as the snows swell India's rivers in spring.
They press in on the old man, while their children dance around
the edges of the moving body. Here, if I ever saw one, is a pilgrimage.
Here is the Indian --and the world's idea of sainthood: a little
old man who has renounced personal possessions, walking with bare
feet on the cold earth in search of a great human ideal.
Sometimes a new arrival drops to the ground in front of Gandhi
in an effort to touch those feet, but the big Sikh gently lifts
up the man. As Gandhi nears the day's destination, another
crowd from that village surges toward him, singing their own hymns,
waiting to greet and welcome him. They lead him to his new hut,
where three or four peasant women give him
the special Bengal greeting,
a high, warbling trill that I have heard nowhere else.
This is the Gandhi march, one of
two highlights of the Mahatma's day and the act that has caught
the imagination of many co-nationalists, and particularly co-religionists.
After arriving at the new village, Gandhi rests while his granddaughter
bathes his feet. He meets his hosts. Then, at 9:30 he gets a massage
and bath, and at 11 he takes a meagre lunch
which is usually a boiled paste of scraped and ground vegetables,
moistened with a glassful of hot milk. After another rest (during
which he indulges himself in his widely known 'nature cure'
consisting of mud plasters on his forehead and stomach), Gandhi
works at correspondence and interviews until time for evening
In his daily prayer meeting Gandhi meets the world; this is his
best platform. Welcoming all who will come to his open-air meeting,
he proceeds through a ritual that reveals his eclectic faith.
One by one, the audience hears an extract from Buddhist scriptures
(suggested by a Japanese monk who stayed at Gandhi's ashram until
he was interned at Pearl Harbor); several recitations from revered
Hindu writings; ashramite vows (truth, nonviolence, nonstealing,
celibacy, nonpossession, removal of untouchability, etc.); readings
from the Quran; a Zend Avesta (Zoroastrian)
quotation; a hymn which may be Hindi, Bengali,
or some Christian song in translation; and a joyous tuneful recital
of the name of Ram, to the accompaniment in cadence of hand clapping.
This devotional exercise is followed each day by a talk in which
Gandhi gives expression to almost any thought exercising his mind.
Listeners may hear of village sanitation, women in purdah, Hindu-Muslim
relations, reactions to the latest Muslim
League resolution, a hint as to what new course the Congress will
adopt, and observations on London's policy. Taken together, reports
of these after-prayer talks furnish perhaps the best guide to
the trend of Gandhian thought. These reports, I might add, are
While his Bengali interpreter translates his remarks to the village
crowd, Gandhi sits crosslegged on his small platform, penning
out the authorized English version of what he has said in Hindi.
He writes in third person an refers to himself by his initial.
"Addressing the prayer gathering at Bansq this evening, G. said..."
After the prayers, Gandhi takes another brisk walk. Except on
his weekly day of silence, he uses this exercise period to talk
with villagers and visitors who half-trot at his side. Then Gandhi
returns to his hut for another footpath
and more correspondence and interviews. Later one of the Indian
pressmen arrives to read the day's news to him. Gandhi usually
sleeps at about 9 o' clock.
Gandhi's decision to bury himself in this nearly-unreachable corner
of India at a critical hour in India's
destiny distresses even some of his closest associates. Speaking
for them, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote Gandhi a few weeks
ago in this vein: "One hardly knows what to say to you. You
are needed in Noakhali, but you are also needed in Delhi, in Wardha,
Yet in the opinion of his associates nothing in the outside world
will draw Gandhi from his immersion in rural East Bengal so long
as he feels his task there unfinished. They know of course, that
many people fail to understand why he stays there.
Two answers may be suggested. Politically, Gandhi has concluded
that Hindu-Muslim bitterness threatens to postpone Indian freedom,
and perhaps undercuts the role India might otherwise play in Asia.
Having failed to bring the two communities together through high-level
negotiation, he is testing his nonviolence and seeking a solution
at the familiar village level. As a Hindu, moreover, he is incapable
of ignoring the threat to his culture that arises from forced
conversions. Wherever they occur, he must stamp them out.
The first objective, obviously, can be attained only by winning
the support of Muslims. Gandhi has consciously set out to do this.
As the primary step, he is working to lift Hindu-Muslim relations
from a religious to a political plane.
Time after time, Gandhi has told Bengali prayer audiences that
Hindus and Muslims must settle their dispute or be saddled with
long-continued foreign rule. He seems to expect an early end of
domination by war-weakened Britain, but to fear genuinely that
internal dissension might open the door to some other agent of
foreign imperialism, perhaps in the guise of a UNO trusteeship.
Kind courtesy: New India Digest, a journal to promote a better understanding of modern India. Readers who wish to subscribe to New India Digest may write to India Digest Foundation, Sahaydri Sadan, Tilak Road, Pune 411030.