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Reminiscences Of Gandhi
The Last Journey
- Melville de Mellow

HOW does one write about a saint? Ever since I was asked to contribute an article on the passing away of Mahatma Gandhi. I have asked myself that question. As I sit down to fulfill my promise I am still not sure of the answer. I am a radio commentator, and I was flung by fate an9 circumstance into a ringside, seat from where I was destined to see the last heart-breaking days, hours and minutes of Bapu's last journey. To me it was a long night of tears-a nightmare of sorrow and tragedy which even to this day defies description. As time goes by and the pain of the moments slowly subsides, certain pictures register more clearly on my mind than others; These are the pictures I am going to write about - unusual pictures perhaps-but pictures I shall never forget none the less.

It was the morning of the cremation. I reached Birla House at 6 o'clock to .take Bapu's darshan before the crowds arrived, but already there was a long twisting line of mourners slowly filing past the windows of his room. I met a member of the household who took me by a private entrance into the room. there lay the great Mahatma, his fine broad chest uncovered. I shuddered when I saw the bullet-wounds-dark ominous patches of hate and madness. And then I saw his face'. What a wonderful face it was in death! As I looked; the face of the mourners melted into hazy nothingness, the smell of incense may  have been reaching me from some distance, garden in Paradise-the chanting, likewise; may have been the chanting of angels as Bapu's spirit climbed heavenwards. Only the face held me-the face among the flying rose-petals that cascaded through the open window. As I gazed at that face, words raced through my mind slowly penetrating the numbness of body and soul-words I had learnt so well in my childhood. Words that Jesus Christ used on (he Cross: "Father forgive them; for they know not what they do." Bapu's lips seemed to be moving and saying just that. His was the most forgiving countenance I have ever looked upon. As I stood there in silence, someone near me tried unsuccessfully to hold back a sob. I turned my head to look straight into the tortured face of India's Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The look on his face was also something I shall never forget. I left quietly, left behind for a moment the greatest man of our age in that room of tears, tragedy and rose-petals.

FAREWELL, WITH ROSE-PETALS

It was during the State funeral cortege. My radio- van crawled slowly along Queensway, Kingsway, Hardinge Avenue and Bela Road on its way to Rajghat. Just behind us, slowly moved the trailer on which lay the body of Mahatma Gandhi, exposed to public gaze. Around the body like figures in marble stood Pandit Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Devadas Gandhi, Sardar Baldev Singh, Acharya Kripalani and Dr. Rajendraprasad. Millions lined the route-millions sang his favourite hymns-millions shouted his name-and all wept-nowhere did I see a dry eye. We neared the District Jail-where two months earlier Bapu had addressed a meeting of convicts -and it was here that I was to witness the biggest demonstrations of love and affection along that sad and solemn road which led to the cremation ground. The heavens were raining rose-petals-Dakotas streaked across the sky and showered rose-petals and garlands on the bier-dipping their wings reverently as they flew away-fistfuls of flowers were flung from tree-tops and neighbouring buildings-"Mahatma Gandhi ki jai", thundered from a million parched lips-the millions of the city who had taken up their stand at this point from an early hour. .

The cortege stopped here for a few minutes as the crowd surged forward to take a last darshan. Our radio-van pulled up also, and as I gazed at the agonized faces of the people lining the roads I heard a woman whisper: "It doesn't seem possible. It seems to me that he will be back tomorrow at the prayer gathering, reassuring us all that it was just a mistake." And then I realized she was talking to herself-trying to convince herself, for her neighbour was a beggar-a decrepit old man, with swollen tearful eyes, blue lips, bristling rags and unclean sores. One who had looked too long, poor soul, over the hopeless landscape of an empty life of poverty. I saw him weep unashamedly, and the well-dressed woman wept too. And I thought, how wonderful, tragedy has brought these two people closer than they have ever been before! Gandhiji was all India that has toiled and suffered. His simplicity drew a world of hearts.

As our van moved slowly onwards I heard a child innocently ask her mother: "Has he gone for ever? Is he never coming back?" The mother's reply was drowned by the clip clop of the horses, the rhythmic scuffing of marching men and the sound of sobbing.

THE CREMATION

I reached Raj Ghat five minutes before the funeral cortege arrived. Our second radio-van was already in position about thirty yards from the cremation spot. I scrambled on to the roof of the van to get above me crowds. One of the first things that struck me was the elaborate arrangements made for keeping the crowds in check. Long lines or R.I.A.F. personnel surrounded the cremation spot-standing shoulder to shoulder and reinforced by the police. Then the cortege arrived, and a great wailing went up from the millions that had packed themselves tightly into that green saucer like piece of hallowed earth called Rajghat. The sun went down as the first flames leapt skywards from the sandalwood pile. A great moan went up from the crowds as they surged forward. 'It was as if a storm had broken over Raj Ghat. This was a storm of the spirit. On they came-these tragic men and women-ironing out barricades, ropes, wire, guards and police. They milled around the sandalwood pile as the flames leapt higher and higher and the smell of sandalwood filled the twilight. Soon Raj Ghat was a sea of moving heads. Governors, Ambassadors, Cabinet Ministers-all were one here on this green patch of earth by the sacred waters of the Jumuna. Looking out over the heads of this continuous unbroken mass of humanity, I felt as helpless as an ant adrift on a leaf in the middle of a whirlpool.

As the flames rose higher and higher and darkness approached, the crowds pressed forward and the dust of a million moving feet filled the air over Raj Ghat. These millions had begun to realize fully that the future that lay before them would be a lonely one without the Father of Liberty and Love to guide them. In the flames they saw their last hopes die-their hopes of seeing him smile again or of hearing him say: "Brothers and Sisters". Many would have been happy to fling themselves on to the bier and say good-bye to this world of meanness and corruption. Many would have been happy to mix their ashes with the Apostle of Truth and Nonviolence who was born into a world of Untruth and Violence. As I looked out over the heads of these tragic people, I suddenly felt a lump in my throat-a lump that I had been trying hard to swallow all day. I made a few incoherent remarks about listening to the crowds-put the microphone above my head, and gave vent to my feelings under the cloak of some violent nose-blowing. After that, I no longer felt like an ant adrift on a leaf in a whirlpool-I felt one with the heart-broken, tragic millions that groaned to the Heavens under the silver pepper of the stars-beseeching the Unknown to return the known-the loved, the tried and the true.

I sat on the hood of my van many hours after the commentary was over, waiting for the crowds to diminish. By this time I was in strange company. A woman, who had fainted had been lifted to the hood for safety, as also a little girl and a boy who had almost been trampled to death. And then, I noticed a hand trying to take hold of the edge of the hood. 'I looked over and saw it was the Prime Minister-Pandit Nehru-I grasped the groping hand and lifted him to the roof of the van, "Have you seen the Governor-General?" he asked. "He left half an how ago," I replied. "Have you seen Sardar Patel?" "He left a few minutes after the Governor-General," I replied. I soon realized that in the general chaos friends had lost friends. As the crowd recognized. Pandit Nehru they surged round our van expecting him to speak. A wonderful thought passed through my mind as I knelt near this great man. How logical it seemed! There the flames leapt over the body of the Departed Father; here stood a son of India, his closest follower, taking up the Torch of Freedom and rededicating himself to the Nation.

At 2 o'clock next morning on my way back home. I drove to Raj Ghat. The embers were smoldering, the crowds had melted, and the restless dust had settled back. A guard had now been placed on the site. As I looked out over Raj Ghat, I reconstructed the scene all over again. Through the darkness I thought I saw the upright figure of a man in spotlessly white khadi, with a grim look of determination on his face, looking out over the heads of his countrymen. He was a figure I had knelt near, a few hours before-it was the figure to which all eyes turn in these days-for hope and succour-the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru.

LAST JOURNEY

The last journey. New Delhi: February 11th-and the time is 4-30 a.m. I am standing opposite the green asthi special opposite the compartment in which the urn containing Gandhiji's ashes was placed. It was me middle carriage of a special train composed of third class carriages because the Mahatma always travelled third class. The middle carriage-what a blaze of colour! The rectangular table, on which the palanquin with the urn was laid, was covered with a handspun tri-coloured national-flag over which was a chaddar of flowers woven in green murraya leaves, white phloxes and saffron-coloured calendulas. On this rested a beautiful wreath of snow-white phlox. At each end of the change hung carpets of multi-coloured phlox worked into a picturesque design. Wreaths of phlox decorated each side mixed with candy tuft and sweet sultans. The ceiling was completely covered with a huge national tricolour. Floodlights illuminated the central wreath, and it was into this wreath that, the urn carrying the sacred ashes of Mahatma Gandhi, was placed. The dark green of the cycas palms added to the solemnity of !lie occasion., It was a fairy land of flowers-purple, pink, red, white and saffron, but saffron predominated.

Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals. Some seem to smile, and some have a ,sad and lovely expression.

Outside, on the platform, thousands of people filet past for a last darshan. At 6-30 a whistle blew, and the green coaches pulled out of New Delhi station-people wept as the train carried away the last mortal remains of Bapu-others threw handfuls of rose-petals and garlands chanting mantras-others just stood in silence-bowed their heads and placed their palms together reverently, too broken to look up-too grief-stricken to do aught but bow in grief-adoration-and homage to the one who had taught them how to hold their heads high.

SPRING'S SORROW

Cold dawn broke deep-red over Delhi as the long green coaches pulled slowly away. Early crows flew silently by our side-flying high, then low--dipping their wings as it were in homage. Our compartment was next to the middle carriage containing the urn with Gandhiji's ashes. As I looked out across the fields and at the faces of the mourners who lined the railway track my heart was heavy. It was Spring, and the fields were gold with mustard. Like a rippling blanket they stretched to the horizon intermittently touched by wind-on and on till the end of time-and yet something was lacking. All this beauty seemed out of key-the heart could not leap with joy at the sight of Nature, because, down each little pathway dividing field from field, one saw the ghostlike. footprints of a man who had carried his blistered feet over the length and breadth of rural India-preaching to the peasants, who now wept silently as the asthi special sped by. Many were covered with dust and dirt indicative of miles and miles of trekking. Outside, the engine threw wreaths of black smoke over the yellow fields. Gentle breezes carried these smoke-chaplets solemnly over fence and field.

And so the asthi special continued on its last journey. The crowds that came for darshan at Ghaziabad, Khurja, Aligarh, Hathras, Tundla, Ferozabad, Etawah, Phaphund; Kanpur, Fatepur and Rasoolabad were gigantic. At Tundla our carriage became a dispensary for fainting women, trampled children and injured soldiers. The crowds came in their thousands, and none left without throwing his or her offering of flowers or taking a last darshan. And all the way, the music of the rnantras was in our ears, and beautiful voices, full of sadness, yet full of hope. Or, on and on, like the steady relentless rhythm of the wheels below us, the voices read from the Gita. And I wondered as I listened, as the wind tossed the words over the golden mustard, I wondered if they were saying:

Be who shall say, "1.o! I have slain a man!"

He who shall think, "1.o! I am slain!" those both

Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!

Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never.

A RED ROSE

"Would you like an orange?" I suddenly remember- ed I had not eaten anything, and I looked into the kind face of the bestower who had moved to the window next to mine. I liked him immediately, and soon I was being told all the lovely intimate sides to Bapu's character--his love of children and of the small things of life that really make life worth living. My friend was V. A. Sundaram, Gandhiji's disciple for thirty-two years. I remember we had just left Fattepur. Men and boys had raced along with the train for almost a mile outside the station, with hands outstretched for flowers from the urn, or their shirts held out in front of them. Now, as the train picked up speed, they fell back, and their shouts of "Long Live Mahatma Gandhi" faintly reached us as we pulled farther away. My friend was preoccupied with a deep red rose. He looked up with tears in his eyes as if anticipating the question. "This was the rose that I had placed on one of the bullet-wounds,"-he whispered. No more conversation passed between us. Outside the sun went down in a blaze of scarlet and gold. I touched the rose and thought it looked lovelier than ever as its faint per- fume filled the twilight. As I gazed out of the window the train slowed down to pass through a minor station. Above us, on a house overlooking the track stood a soldier, on guard and in full battle-dress, silhouetted Against the stars. He bowed reverently as the special passed by. It was the homage of the warrior to the martyr.

"THEY CAME TO A RIVER"

Millions en route paid their last homage-millions wept, millions filed past the carriage shouting or whispering "Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai". Millions prayed, millions sobbed unashamedly-and these millions belonged to all walks of life.
The feelings, of Indians found expression in shouts of "Long live Gandhiji", in streams of floral tributes, or in tears. And so at last the journey ended at Prayer, King .of the holy places-when they came to a River.

At the holy Triveni, the mortal remains of Mahatma Gandhi were immersed. The ashes of the holiest and saintliest of human beings of our age were immersed at the confluence regarded as the most sacred by Hinduism from time immemorial. I saw the ashes being immersed in the sacred waters by Mr. Ramdas Gandhi. I was standing in an open boat about forty yards away from the sacred "duck". Thousands of people had waded-in to get a closer view. As the urn was emptied thousands cupped the waters of the river and drank long and deep. Barrels of milk were emptied into the river-and the water was shining white. At that moment starlings flew across the sky like handfuls of black confetti. It was the journey's end. He had touched the Infinite and shared the divine current that thrills all high souls. As for those who witnessed this last sacred ceremony-maybe they felt as I did when I said a few days later "on the air":

"0 Lord, I do not serve in the temple: mine is no solemn office nor critical station, but I thank thee that the River of God flows through the streets of the city and whosoever will-may drink!"

Darkness fell over Prayag, and the lamps were lit. We prepared to. leave and took one last look at Triveni Sangam. Now the lamps multiplied-like the slow punctuation of fireflies in the garden. The stars leaned close, and some lost their hold and fell away. The stars and the lamps. Bapu was amongst the stars, and his memory was like the myriad lamps that shone through the darkness. Yes, the lamp still shines, and its light will penetrate far into space and time and continue to shine; as long as our civilisation lasts.

                                                                                                           Delhi, 2-10-1948.

 

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Copyright 2004 Mani Bhavan