EVERY year on 30 January, an annual routine is followed with pedestrian devotion. A prayer meeting is held at Tees January Marg, the site of a traumatic assassination in 1948.
Bhajans are sung and wreaths are laid at Rajghat, where the greatest Indian in over two thousand years was cremated. There is a floral tribute in the Central Hall of Parliament. Twelve months later, precisely the same drill is enacted. In between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is all but forgotten.
I saw Gandhiji only once. That was in mid-June 1945. His train had a scheduled stop of five minutes at the Bharatpur station while the Mahatma was en route to Simla for a conference called by the viceroy, Lord Wavell, to discuss India’s future after the end of the Second World War. Freedom was now visible and the Mahatma, who had woken up a dormant nation through the alchemy of an inspirational nonviolent revolution, was on his way to discuss the final, but difficult and convoluted, modalities.
As the train approached Bharatpur, a palpable, electric surge of excitement raced through the huge crowd waiting to get a glimpse of the saint who had liberated India from colonial chains. I was one of that crowd, wearing a khadi cap against the wishes of my aristocratic father.
While he respected Gandhi vaguely, my father was not an enthusiastic admirer. I was. I had taken my autograph book and five rupees, the ‘Mahatma’s fee’ for getting his autograph. The money went to the national fund for freedom.
As the Frontier Mail came to a halt, there was an unseemly rush towards the third-class compartment in which Gandhi was travelling. I too ran, but to the other side of the train by jumping between two bogies. Several others did the same. I latched on to the window bars and had a good look at him. He was in his half dhoti. I spotted his iconic watch as well.
He was darker than I had imagined. Gandhiji said nothing because it was Monday, his weekly day of silence. The train moved. It was impossible to get his autograph, I was shooed off by his humourless secretary Pyarelal. But I had achieved something equally precious: a Mahatma darshan.
Gandhi arrived on the political scene of India in 1919 and 1920 with the brilliance of a meteor and the impact of whirlwind. He asked prostrate Indians to rise and hold their heads high. His most significant achievement, as noted by his closest disciples, was to lift Indians out of the abyss of fear. Fear was the manipulative key to British rule and once fear began to evaporate, freedom became a question of when, not if or whether.
His message of non-violence non-cooperation redefined India. He denounced the Raj but never the British people, for he truly believed in love for all humanity even as he challenged the inhumanity of injustice and despotic rule.
Such was his magic that the Raj began to stick in the throats of large numbers of Britishers too. He had neither the shrill tone nor the plastic phrases of any template orator, and yet he was one of the world’s greatest communicators.
The technology at his service was rudimentary: loudspeaker, radio and newspapers. There was no television, iPad or email, or social media vibrating through mobile phones. And yet his every word reached and resonated through the land.