Another Night

01 November, 2011

An original take on Gandhi’s last days, translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman

GANDHI WOKE UP as soon as the sound of Dhaniklal’s footsteps came closer.

‘Dhaniklalji, you haven’t gone to sleep yet? Why are you up and about at midnight? I have begged you so many times not to trouble yourself over me. You people are making me feel guilty. Our duty right now is to do something for our grief-stricken people. That would be far more worthwhile than ministering to me, Dhaniklalji!’

‘Please forgive me, Bapuji! I came here because it was very cold in my room. You could use this khaddar blanket to cover yourself, surely?’ Dhaniklal—an old man who was by far the most vigilant among the inhabitants of Birla House; Gandhi’s principal secretary, someone who took more pride in calling himself disciple than secretary; who believed that ministering to the great man was equal to serving the nation—covered Gandhi with the thick blanket he had brought with him.

Gandhi flung the blanket aside and sat up.

‘I can’t get any sleep. You are keeping me awake for nothing. And I haven’t done anything useful the whole day—just meetings, discussions and interviews. I could have gone with the volunteers to collect blankets for those poor people in the camps. I am living here like an emperor while children, women and old people are in great agony.’

‘Our volunteers are doing their job properly, Bapuji. There is no reason to fret. Hundreds of sheets and blankets were distributed to the refugees today.’

‘Thank you for bringing me a piece of good news. Were they distributed fairly to everyone?’

‘Yes, Bapuji, they were distributed evenly to all camps.’

Gandhi smiled. ‘People are eager to help, aren’t they? It’s so gratifying to hear that. I have always said that God is full of mercy.’ In his heart, which was much aggrieved by the endless riots, hope began to sprout and grow. The Mahatma believed that his recent fast had not been in vain. He stood up, liberated suddenly from weariness, sleeplessness and fatigue. ‘Dhaniklalji, will you drink some hot water? Why don’t we chat for a while?’ He walked towards the kitchen. Dhaniklal followed him anxiously and offered to help. ‘All right. Tell me everything that happened. I am keen to hear it all.’

Dhaniklal was full of zest. He tried to elaborate on those incidents which he thought might please Gandhi, out of the day’s happenings. He began with how happy the residents of the camps at Turkman Gate and Chandni Chowk were to see the volunteers.

During his visit there a couple of weeks ago, the Mahatma had seen firsthand the pathetic conditions in which the refugees lived. A large number of little girls had sought refuge in the camp at Turkman Gate. He could never forget the twelve-year-old Muslim girl he met there. She told him the story of how her parents had been attacked and killed right in front of her. Rioters had surrounded their settlements around midnight. In order to save the residents of these settlements, her father, a satyagrahi, had fallen at their feet and begged them to have mercy on his people. She could never forget her father’s face as he stood before those armed villains, palms folded together in a pleading gesture, said the girl. They chopped off his praying hands, first one, and then the other.

Her mother tried to save her. Hurriedly, she streaked the girl’s forehead with vermillion and urged her to chant, ‘Jai Sri Ram!’ If you do that, the rioters will spare you, and then you can flee elsewhere and survive, her mother had told her; but she refused to do so. ‘Allah-hu Akbar’ was what she said to them instead.

‘Did they let you go?’

‘They needed my body. They dragged me along. For nine days, they kept me confined in their vehicle and raped me. Taking me for dead, they flung my body by the side of the road and went their way. Then I made my way alone to this camp. I had no identity at that time. I met many little girls like me. We all looked the same, with our minds in the same state, uniformly bleeding. I had even forgotten my name.’

When Gandhi asked him, ‘Did you meet that child, Dhaniklalji?’, the man fumbled. When he saw him struggling to retrieve facts from memory, Gandhi was worried he might end up lying. ‘All right, go and lie down. I feel very tired’, he told him. Gandhi lay down, on his bed. As Dhaniklal was preparing to leave, he saw a look of amusement on his face.

‘What did you recall, Dhaniklalji?’

‘Forgive me, Bapuji. I could not control my laughter. Oh god! What a great man this Bhagwaticharan turned out to be! I was simply amazed. He was an exact copy of the original, wasn’t he? Can such things happen? So clever, this Bhagwaticharan is!’ exclaimed Dhaniklal with a belly laugh.

Gandhi observed him in silence. Then the expression on Dhaniklal’s face dimmed and settled. Resting his head between his knees, he began to recount everything.

‘You know him, don’t you? That young Bengali is your disciple. He’s come to Delhi only to meet you. Many have spoken glowingly about the work he has done in Calcutta. He is young, most probably in his late thirties. I think he shaves his head every day. But that moustache and those eyebrows…’ As he spoke, laughter welled up again in Dhaniklal’s throat.

‘Listen, Bapuji. We were feeling extremely dejected. No one came forward to help us, not even affluent Gujaratis. The songs we played at the gates of mansions failed to move anyone’s heart. By afternoon, we had only collected a few rags.  We felt miserable. We begged them to be charitable towards those poor, riot-affected people who continue to suffer in the camps. No one took pity on them, Bapuji. Only an old man, who appeared to be a destitute himself, gave us his vest. He came forward without being asked and gave it to us. That was a grand moment. It was a moment when we recovered the hope we had given up by then.’

‘Yes, it is indeed a grand moment! That rag is a sign of our success, isn’t it, Dhaniklalji?’ The Mahatma intervened elatedly. Dhaniklal didn’t mind the interruption. The excitement of approaching a thrilling stage in his story showed on his face.

‘Then all of us saw how he crossed himself. Paying no attention to our expressions of gratitude, he mumbled a psalm about Jesus as he moved away. We continued our journey. The winter sun was burning our faces. And our journey was even harder than before. Nobody paid us any attention. What happened then was unbelievable. Bapuji, listen to this! We were passing through a middle-class locality. A few people followed us, just to watch the spectacle. We walked on, singing “Raghupati Raghava Raja  Ram”. Then we heard a loud roar from behind us—Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai! Victory to Mahatma Gandhi!—and looked back in surprise. God, I still can’t believe the sight that greeted us. Like Christ, he was walking towards us! The Mahatma! None of us believed otherwise. He looked exactly like you, a genuine copy. “Bapuji,” we greeted him, still amazed. While he smiled at us gracefully, he also paid his respects to the people who were crowding around him. People drew close to him with a kind of yearning. I saw how unbearably happy they felt at touching his pure white khaddar robes and his bony hands. Then one by one they started to touch his feet. People came running out of their houses and through narrow alleys and crowded around him.’

Gandhi was listening to Dhaniklal in amazement and confusion; he tried to intervene. But Dhaniklal was describing the events with irrepressible enthusiasm; Gandhi simply couldn’t draw his attention towards himself.

‘Then he began to address the crowd. His voice—just like yours, very gentle but firm—urged everyone to help those who had taken shelter after being subjected to atrocities and hunted down. He repeated the same sentences that you had spoken earlier, about the morality of living, in a voice very much like yours! The duties that we must fulfil, our responsibilities, the discretion we must show during turmoil, the patience we must observe during times of crisis, the sense of guilt that must be active inside each one of us—he repeated verbatim all your noble precepts, in the same tone of voice, a perfect imitation! I imagined that his talk was the divine counsel of Bhagavad Gita or Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. People were listening incredulously to everything he said. As if under a spell, they brought out the best blankets and sheets they owned and started to pile them up at his feet. With an unchanging smile, he blessed them all.’

Dhaniklal had grown very tired. Still, the urge to finish recounting everything kept him going.

‘Shortly after that, my patience ran out. With difficulty I made my way through the jostling crowd and drew near him. You won’t believe this, Bapuji! I recognised him immediately. Standing very close to him, I whispered, ‘Aren’t you Bhagwaticharan?’ He smiled serenely without replying. Bapuji, that smile was exactly like yours!’

THE MANSION WAS STEEPED in silence. The hour was past midnight. The night was bitterly cold.

Gandhi was very tired. He wanted to lie down. He must sleep for a few hours at least. He wondered if he should continue walking. He had innumerable things to think about. The inconclusive debates held throughout that day had exhausted him. It seemed to Gandhi that everything was quickly getting out of hand. A tiny sliver of hope had survived, though. There had to be some kind of resolution to every problem, after all! Earlier in the afternoon, when he was arguing with Patel, he could not control his emotions. ‘What on earth are you thinking, Sardar?’ Gandhi had stood up from his seat. He recalled with distaste how his body had trembled and his face had perspired profusely.

Alarmed, the Iron Man had tried to explain himself and seek Gandhi’s forgiveness.

‘Bapu, I believe we could even discuss these things again. Truly, we don’t have anything to hide from you.’ His voice was tinged with sadness. Rising to his feet, he kept glancing at his wristwatch over and over again, as though looking at it for the first time. He resumed his argument. Patel’s secretary went on retrieving evidence from the files he had brought along and handing it to Patel. In his hurry, he even had to tear off a couple of pages. This act brought a profound sorrow to Gandhi’s heart; it led him to imagine the act of tearing a child’s limb from its body. He told Patel how he felt and requested him to stop. ‘There are so many ways to handle these sheets gently, don’t you think?’ said Gandhi. On hearing this, Patel burst out laughing.

He took over the files from his secretary and held them gently. But when he started explaining, he was not able to control his fervour. The Iron Man began to tear out pages in even greater haste than his secretary.

‘It’s getting late!’ he muttered, as if to himself, as he unfurled and held those sheets before his face; running his thick index finger over important lines, he read out, in a loud voice, important phrases from the page to lend strength to his arguments.

Whenever he spoke to Gandhi, Patel constantly tried to observe the rules of tact and humility; even so, he inadvertently raised his voice now and then. He had no option but to ask for Gandhi’s pardon each time.

Before long, a few more secretaries and assistants arrived. The Mahatma observed that each man had brought an enormous load of files with him. Displaying an incredible degree of discipline and decorum, they did not speak to one another; nor did they even glance at one another. Gandhi noticed that there prevailed, nonetheless, the most precise coordination between them. The anxieties and diffidence normally displayed by civil servants of a newly independent country were not at all evident among them. Most of them resembled Patel in their age and bearing. Except for Patel, all the others wore a jacket and tie, in the English style. When Gandhi asked him, ‘Didn’t you tell these government servants that they should wear only khaddar?’ Patel blushed in embarrassment, like a woman.

Then he resumed his explanation.

Finally he said, ‘You should find a resolution to these matters, Bapu. Give us a solution that can be implemented practically. We are only too willing to take immediate action.’ Patel was more or less pleading with Gandhi. ‘There is no other alternative for us, Bapu! These actions are unavoidable. If you like, I can hand over my responsibilities to someone else; but these would remain unavoidable for that person too.’

‘Unavoidable…no other alternative…fine phrases, these are!’ muttered Gandhi to himself after he was left alone in the darkness of his room. When Dhaniklal took leave of him last night, he had also used the same phrases. Gandhi recalled those phrases and the way he had narrated that ‘funny’ story. Dhaniklal’s voice and facial expressions, along with his chortling at the end of the story, his belly shaking with laughter, rose before his mind’s eye. The face of ‘Mahatma’ Bhagwaticharan also surfaced in his imagination.

A young Bengali man who looked exactly like him. Dhaniklal had described him in such minute detail! From Dhaniklal’s description, Gandhi, who had never set eyes on that man, could imagine him quite vividly. Apart from his gentle voice, kind smile and serene gaze, Gandhi was even able to picture the wrinkles on the youth’s belly.

Look: people are milling around Bhagwaticharan, greeting him and shouting slogans. ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ Mahatma Bhagwaticharan gives them his blessings. The crowd is ecstatic: it roars, screams and, overwhelmed by emotion, dissolves into tears. The Mahatma talks to them, makes an appeal, gives instructions. Several people rush towards him and touch him. One man grabs his shawl and runs away. The Mahatma calls him back and gives him his dhoti as well. Now he stands stark naked before all. ‘Lord, why have you forced me to roam naked inside this lovely garden?’ He is ashamed. He runs, trying to escape from them. He is chased by one and all. One man plucks the hairs from his moustache and stashes them away. Another pulls out his fingernails and flees. Yet another man attempts to extract his teeth.

The Mahatma can’t bear the pain. ‘Oh god,’ he screams, and shouts for help.  A policeman who has been watching everything from a distance ambles over to him slowly. ‘Why are you shouting like this?’ he asks roughly, giving the Mahatma a hard slap on his left cheek. The Mahatma shows the policeman his right cheek.  The policeman slaps him on his right cheek too. The Mahatma keeps showing him both his cheeks by turns, one after the other. The policeman slaps the Mahatma tirelessly. There is a spurt of blood. The few stray teeth that were left in his mouth have come loose. His eyeballs have popped out of their sockets. The crowd pushes and shoves to collect them. The Mahatma’s vision grows dim. Suddenly, it is pitch-dark everywhere. ‘I am not Mahatma Gandhi—I am Charan, a Bengali named Bhagwaticharan!’

Gandhi involuntarily touched his eyes. He was breathless. He slumped down exhausted on the bed and closed his eyes.

When he opened his eyes again a little later, the room was bright with light. Gandhi saw irregular shafts of light crisscrossing his room. Has morning dawned already? Have I overslept, breaking my lifelong habit of rising early? Then it must be a sign of death coming closer. Now it’s time to accept my old age. I am 78, after all! The Mahatma smiled to himself.

Where is Dhaniklal? I can’t see Manu either! That little girl invariably wakes up before me.

After rolling up his bedding, Gandhi was about to begin performing his morning ablutions when he heard the sound of agitated voices. Wondering what it could be, he opened a window and looked out. He froze in shock and horror. Outside this tall mansion, not very far from it, the city of Delhi was ablaze.

People were running pell-mell in all directions. Gandhi saw them being hunted down with murderous fury by a mob of 10 to 15 people, armed with deadly weapons. Unable to bear his own agony, he shut his eyes tight. Losing all hope, he slumped down on the wooden chair in his room.

Where did it all go wrong?

Who is responsible for this…Hindus or Muslims? Who is whose enemy? Who is going to be slaughtered by whom? Who is going to survive? To settle which score has this frenzy been unleashed? Is it the history of the past millennium which is guilty? But then, we have travelled so far ahead of it! Who is responsible for this violence which is being stoked just when the world is felicitating us as a people who have won their freedom solely by the strength of their spirit, without taking up arms? Am I the guilty party? As a philosopher, have I repudiated the truth? Would a resolution have been reached if I had allowed people to go their own way? Would the killing and bloodshed have brought us peace? In a way, this is indeed a possibility. When the other side is completely wiped out, what can possibly hamper peace? After that, wouldn’t this innate bloodlust be directed, of necessity, at one’s own brethren? Is violence man’s inborn trait? Is non-violent struggle contrary to the laws of nature? The principle we relied on when we launched this enormous struggle—is that very same principle in error now?

‘Dhaniklalji, where have you gone? And Manu? Wake her up too. No one seems to be around at this harrowing time!’ Hollering, Gandhi tried to get up and open the door. He could not. Someone had latched it from the outside.

‘Where are you, Dhaniklalji? Who has done this?’

He opened the window on the right, and through it, glanced at the main gate of the mansion; his blood froze. Countless humans had gathered on the other side of the mansion’s massive iron gate—hundreds of poor people in a half-dead state, recent victims of a murderous attack.


‘Save us, Bapuji…!

‘Oh god…!’

‘When Bapuji is here, why should we feel dejected? Guards, please call Bapuji.’

‘Fool, open the door. Later, Bapu won’t ever forgive you.’

Gandhi rushed towards the door again.

‘Dhaniklal…! Anybody around? Why did you lock this door? Please open it. Invite them all inside! Don’t burden me with responsibility for this unpardonable crime…! Dhaniklal, come here!’

Again he rushed to the open window.

Carrying torches and lethal weapons in their hands, the rioters who had come in pursuit slaughtered the unarmed innocents ruthlessly; and amid the river of blood and bodies strewn helter-skelter on the ground, little girls were being raped—Gandhi could do no more than witness these atrocities silently, clutching the window bars and resting his face on them like a lifeless corpse.

‘Bapuji, Bapuji, why have you abandoned us, Bapuji?’

It was only towards the end that the miracle occurred. From inside the mansion, racked by a profound sorrow, ‘Mahatma’ Bhagwaticharan arrived. Now the mansion’s tall gates were opened wide for him to pass. Accompanied by guards, the Mahatma walked very slowly and reached the bodies lying on the ground. Two or three half-dead people tried to rise on seeing him, and he attempted to console them with his words filled with kindness – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s eyes witnessed all this.

Consciousness was slipping away from him.

GANDHI REALISED that death’s final chapter, made up now of very few pages, lay open in front of him. By the time he finished reading it, death would have come looking for him. Would it come after him, really? Was it not something he should himself seek and attain? When a man’s dreams for living are at an end, he begins to seek death. What he could not communicate through his life, he wishes to convey through death; so he chooses to die, thought Gandhi.

All this time, he has considered living an important duty. He has to live out his entire lifespan—that is, 125 years.

For him, longevity has never been a mere fantasy. He has fashioned the habits and practices of his life in accordance with that necessity. As in his soul, the Mahatma has infinite confidence in his body too. He has never been afraid of dying. Only a few days ago, when they heard a bomb exploding near the prayer hall, Manu flew into a panic. To that extremely frightened child, he offered consolation, telling her that the bomb might have exploded during training exercises at a nearby military camp to calm her down. He has no doubt that the explosion was an attack, with him as the main target. The killers are lurking very close to him.

The old routine plays out with scarcely a change. He gets up as usual at three o’ clock in the morning, completes his morning ablutions, writes letters, composes essays for Harijan and other journals, goes for his morning walk, eats a meal of groundnuts and goat’s milk, meets everyone who has sought him out, confers his blessings on everyone.

Then, more news of rioting arrives from somewhere through someone or the other. He watches as the black smoke rising from human bodies set aflame spreads over and clings to the windows in his room. He listens to bomb explosions and cries of distress. Only then does he go silent like the monkey figurines he keeps in his room. He closes his eyes; shuts his ears too. But more and more reports keep coming in, drilling into his ears. Reports about how satyagrahis who have risen to power are indulging in corruption and scams; how quarrels between Nehru and Patel are escalating every day—he hears them even when his ears are still shut. ‘It’s either me or him…’ Proclamations, threats, complaints, warnings, challenges…!

Satyagrahis are now demanding the wages of sacrifices they have made.

Above all, he is most worried about the future of Delhi and the independent republic. The monkey figurines in his room seem to mock him. So death, which has grown tired after trying on various disguises, stands before him now in the shape of a genuine copy of himself.

‘Victory to Mahatma Bhagwaticharan! Victory to Mahatma Bhagwaticharan!’

‘This is a cheap trick,’ the Mahatma spoke aloud.

It is cheap; and cowardly too. It is also a challenge to his self-respect. Death is trying to transform his life into its own message! It is in facing this challenge that the intrinsic meaning of life is hidden. Death too is like life.  There could be no greater insult to life than relinquishing the right to choose death. Such were his reflections.

All his life, the Mahatma has immersed himself in myriad fantasies about death. It must be an event full of poetic feeling and courage. His long-cherished dream is for one of his extended fasts to bring his life to an end. There can’t be a better opportunity for a satyagrahi, he thinks. He knows he could be killed, too. He did not really pay heed to the sounds of bomb explosions heard near the prayer hall. Death from such an explosion would be honourable. He is quite ready and willing to stand before them stark naked. Of all the defining traits a satyagrahi must possess, courage to choose death is the most important. Sages encounter death with a smile. Death is defeated by them. Then they come back to life; and receive the boon of immortality.

Like Jesus Christ; like his teacher, Tolstoy. Their lives are his sole means of support, their lives and their deaths.

Both had accepted death willingly and heartily. They had engendered their murderers from their own lives. The journey that Tolstoy undertook from Yasnaya Polyana to Astapovo was no less than the journey that Jesus had undertaken to Mount Calvary, carrying death on his shoulders. Gandhi recalled the first time he had read about Tolstoy’s journey. He was able to read through those pages only with sighs and a deep sadness.

Later, the same pages seemed very different to him. He read them over and over again. He thought that Tolstoy could not have chosen a better way to die. It was a more poetic death than all the other deaths in this world. Gandhi could never forget that snow-clad morning when Tolstoy set out from his mansion.

Each time he woke at dawn, the memory of Tolstoy would come to the Mahatma. It was most probably at that hour that Tolstoy left that famous mansion in Yasnaya Polyana. After he was brought to Birla House, the picture came to life again in Gandhi’s mind, its lines more vivid than ever before. Birla House was indeed no different from that mansion in Yasnaya Polyana. Like Tolstoy, he was also housed in this mansion in the condition of a prisoner. Like Tolstoy, he too longed to get away from there.

Yes, he must get away. He must go back to the scavengers’ colony where he lived once—or to his ashram. But all his disciples were sure to follow him there. They would then confine him, either as a prisoner or as god, and post a couple of armed guards to stand stiffly at the entrance. Then it would be the same old story: letters, meetings, blessings and counsel; and in the evenings, prayer meetings. It was truly a fine arrangement!

A god who has been taken prisoner! If he wanted to get out, he must follow closely in Tolstoy’s footsteps. He must discover his own railway station, his Astapovo outside this city famed for its ancient glories.

No doubt about it: history makes an exact copy of itself, sentence by sentence, leaving out not even a single letter.

WHEN GANDHI WALKED OUT of Birla House, it was a quarter to four in the morning. Unlike his teacher, he set out all alone. Although he had decided to take Dhaniklal with him, he changed his mind. Gandhi was not able to spot him after 11 in the night. When there was no response to his repeated calls, he went to Dhaniklal’s room, looking for him. Even Manu was not there. Susheela had taken the young girl with her the previous night.

When she returns in the morning, the child might be upset at not finding me here, thought Gandhi.

The others were fast asleep. The mansion was engulfed in silence. Gandhi took only a copy of the Gita with him. He did not see any guards at the entrance. Since the gates were open, he could slip out quite easily. Worried that he would be recognised if he walked down the broad avenue dressed only in his usual waist cloth and carrying his trademark walking stick, he hurried on. The deserted streets were of great help to him. Dewdrops fell incessantly from the trees. A wall of mist had shrouded the light that trickled from the occasional lamppost. The cold drilled into his bones. He thought he might have brought a blanket.

The snowfall in Yasnaya Polyana would have been thicker.

He had made no plans at the time of his departure. He thought he would reach a nearby railway station and then start his journey from there. He only had an hour’s reprieve at the most. Soon they would discover that ‘the parrot has flown the coop’. Tolstoy had left a letter for Sophia Andryevna; he too could have left a letter behind, explaining the reasons for his departure.

Was it hatred that stopped him from writing such a letter?

Not hatred, but love must be the reason underlying my departure. Only if it is love would my going away be meaningful. If this departure is the result of hatred, then I am not a satyagrahi, I can only call myself an incomplete soul, thought Gandhi.

On the pavements flanking both sides of the road, Gandhi saw countless humans, their clothes barely enough to cover them, lying huddled in the biting cold. He wondered if his departure would bring about any change in the condition of these people. He felt confused. Was Bhagwaticharan right to do what he did? If the sheets and blankets he had collected could have mitigated the suffering of at least a few among these people, how could anyone be critical of his work? But he has lied, impersonated me and cheated the public. Is it possible to reassess such misdeeds on the basis of their beneficial consequences, Gandhi asked himself. He did not have an immediate answer. Concluding that the question required closer examination, he walked on.

As he was crossing a famous road-junction in Delhi with the aid of his walking stick, a motorcar broke through the mist and came to a halt near him. A police officer in a long overcoat and his driver, who wore two or three sweaters over his uniform, got down from the car.

‘Sir, who are you? What are you doing here at this hour?’ The policeman questioned Gandhi with an air of authority.

‘Me? Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.’

‘See, it’s started so early in the morning!’ The driver laughed.

‘We have no use for these stories, old man! Why are you loitering here at your age? You will freeze! Return quietly to your home. The trouble we go through because of people like you…! Do you think you can give them the slip if you wander around in disguise? They will shoot you, sir, they have real guns.’

How could this man be so ignorant, Gandhi wondered. However, since he is an authorised representative of the government, it is my duty as an Indian citizen to answer any question he may ask, Gandhi told himself.

‘I am not afraid of death, sir! If death should come to me in this manner, I should be happy.  In truth, I am going now in search of death. Just half an hour ago, I left Birla House without informing anyone and set out on my own. I had no plan in my mind. I am thinking of going to Meerut. If I can find a railway station nearby…’

‘Well, this seems to be a totally advanced case!’ The driver started laughing again. ‘It’s so advanced that it can’t be cured.’

The high official became very angry.

‘Old man, I’ll advise you to stop prattling. Go quietly on your way and reach home. Else, if you really wish to die, go and die somewhere else…! Look over there—if you turn right at that lamppost and walk through the narrow alley on the left, you will reach a small railway station. Nobody can say when the train will arrive. If, as you say, you are going to look for death, go there and wait. If a train comes by, that’s entirely your good luck! Don’t keep loitering here aimlessly. This is a neighbourhood where the country’s most important citizens live. Can’t say who will pass by this way at what hour. We are engaged in providing security for the Mahatma, and we are having a hard time coping with everything. As if this were not enough, along come people like you!’

‘I have told Nehru and Patel many times not to make any special security arrangements for my sake.’ When he heard Gandhi’s remorseful reply, the police officer’s eyes turned red. On seeing that his superior was really angry, the driver swung into action. ‘Old man, are you going to clear off or not?’ Brandishing his cane, he tried to chase Gandhi away.

Both men were in a fix, not knowing how to handle this crazy old man who was watching the driver’s antics with an intrepid air and a rueful smile.

BY THE TIME HE REACHED the railway station after walking through several narrow alleys, it had grown bitterly cold. On the smoke-filled platform, hundreds of travellers, their bodies swathed in rags, wandered around with their belongings. From their sleep-addled eyes and smelly bodies, Gandhi guessed that they might have been waiting there, assailed by hunger and thirst, for many days now. A babble of words in several languages—Hindi, Urdu, Bangla and Gujarati—collided against and bounced off the smoke-blackened walls of that railway station. Hundreds of grey pigeons could be seen sitting on the grills and railings. All of them appeared identical, as if they were made up to look that way.

No one paid him any attention. As he walked up the steps of the overhead bridge, a girl stared at him in wonder. She called out to her mother who was busy talking to someone else, and said something to her, pointing to him. Her mother looked up at Gandhi and then turned her face away in disdain. Gandhi felt an urge to speak to them.

He must first buy himself a ticket.

‘Are there any trains now to go to Meerut?’ The question drew a derisive look from the man inside the ticketing booth, who pursed his lips and announced gloomily: ‘No train is scheduled to depart from here just now, for the simple reason that no train has arrived here for the past three days. That’s the situation. You can see it, can’t you? All these people are waiting here to catch different trains. We are tirelessly issuing all the tickets in our possession. These people, too, are waiting here with no signs of fatigue. The train has to arrive—that’s all. Oh yes, where do you have to go? To Meerut? Or to Ahmedabad? You said Meerut, didn’t you?’

‘In fact, I don’t have a definite plan. I think I will get on the first train that comes in.’

‘That’s a well-known pattern, isn’t it? That’s what all your people prefer, right? They fasten themselves to any train that comes in first. However, not one of them buys a ticket. The examiners, too, don’t take any action against them. This can go on only for a few more days. The Sardar’s hands are tied right now. They are waiting for it to happen. They restrain themselves on his account. Let it happen. It will be fun to watch what follows next!’

‘Sir, forgive me. I am unable to understand a word of what you are saying. If you can explain more clearly…’

The ticket clerk burst into loud laughter.

‘Oh god! Let go of me, Bapuji! I can’t keep explaining everything. There is a train coming in just now. It will go up to Amritsar, trudging ever so slowly. Jallianwala Bagh is somewhere near Amritsar, isn’t it? Have you been there before? Isn’t it sacred ground for you people? You don’t even need a ticket. Anyway, your people never buy tickets. Only for a few days more, until it happens.’

It was a matter of surprise to Gandhi that everyone was so informal.

‘Give me a ticket to Amritsar,’ he said, extending a one-rupee note.

‘To Jallianwala Bagh, then?’

‘Yes…! It’s been such a long time since my last visit!’ said Gandhi, smiling compassionately at the ticket clerk. Then the ticket clerk had to meet the Mahatma’s eye, and suddenly, his heart was filled with dread.

WHEN HE SAW THE FIVE or six Gandhis who were pushing and jostling their way into a crowded compartment on the train to Amritsar, Gandhi was astonished; he hurried towards them, running part of the way. The crowd was huge and unmanageable. All those who were waiting tried to get into the compartment at the same time. Everyone tried to pull other people off the train so that they could climb aboard themselves.  Some even resorted to physical assaults. The entire railway station was filled to overflowing with abuses and cries for help.

Gandhi stood diffidently near the door. But the crowd was growing bigger by the minute. He thought he might not be able to board the train.  Fortunately, the crowd pushed him involuntarily into the compartment. Inside, he found that passengers numbering four to five times the compartment‘s holding capacity were packed into it.

Without any effort on their part, everyone had been pushed by the crowd to some part of the compartment. Gandhi felt depressed. His knees were aching intolerably. The train began to move. ‘Here, Gandhi sir, come this way! Here’s a bit of room for you! He looks really old. Give him a little room, the poor man. In spite of everything, he is our man, isn’t he?’

The clutch of Gandhis who had cornered some space on a side-berth invited him to sit next to them.

‘He seems to come from far away! What might be your good name, sir?’

Looking in wonder at each one of them, all made up to look exactly like him, the Mahatma replied:

‘Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi…’

They broke into loud guffaws.

‘That we all know, don’t we? I was asking about your real name—that is, the name your parents gave you…’

‘It was my parents who gave me this name.’

‘Your native place is Porbandar, then?’

‘Yes, that’s where I was born. Now, for the past few months, I have had to stay in Birla House. I walked out of there early this morning. Though I didn’t have any plan when I left, now I am travelling to Amritsar. It’s my wish to visit Jallianwala Bagh.  It’s a long time since I saw it last.’

‘It seems like a nut has come loose in his brain!’

‘That’s how much you know. In fact, this old man is smart. These days, fascination for such places has grown tremendously. Large crowds of tourists visit them every day.  All you need to do is to put on this disguise and hang around there, doing nothing. You can earn more than enough money within a month.’

Unable to bear his disgust, the Mahatma closed his eyes. So this is how it’s all turned out. Bhagwaticharan was not a lone man. The police officials he had met early that morning, the ticket clerk at the railway station and the pathetic people present in that compartment must have come across innumerable counterfeit Gandhis like these.

‘But, Gandhi sir, please don’t imagine that like you we have put on this make-up only in order to beg on the streets,’ said a middle-aged Gandhi in a tone of admonition.

‘This man here, he is a Gujarati. A big landlord, he was in the Congress party for many years. He has even been to jail once. Only after we got Independence did he put on this disguise. He has still not met the real Gandhi. But his speech, gait and bearing are as striking as the real Gandhi’s!’

‘If he has no intention of begging, then why put on this disguise?’ asked the Mahatma, his voice shaking.

‘That’s a good question. Our man has decided to contest elections. Sir, there is no easier way to ensure your win! Shave all the hair on your head. Wrap a piece of khaddar around your shoulder and waist. Hold a brand-new copy of the Bhagavad Gita in your hand. Then, step onto the street and keep walking. Like him, you must also walk at a brisk pace…!’

The more Gandhi heard, the more surprised he was. The man seemed to revel in what he was saying. As he was not quite past middle age, he must have made strenuous efforts to appear old. He had a slight paunch, and in order to hide it, he kept his stomach drawn in all the time. But he had no teeth. He might have had them pulled out in order to fit the disguise perfectly.

‘Is it possible to earn the people’s trust through such gimmicks?’ asked the Mahatma, genuinely puzzled.

‘This serves simply to draw people’s attention. To straighten out your enemies and bring them around, you have to employ other strategies.’

‘Only through non-violent means, I hope?’ Gandhi asked him, looking at the man expectantly.

‘Non-violent means? What a yarn!’ he replied, accompanied by a belly laugh. Then he confided in a low whisper, as if it was a secret:

‘Only a few more days! Let the event come to pass. Then I will become like Maharana Pratapsingh. My men will chase them over and beyond the Himalayas. But Gandhi sir, you should go and beg on the streets, take care of your survival! Why are you wasting your time, listening to all these stories?’

The Mahatma started thinking about his own Astapovo.

The train stopped tirelessly at every single station on the way and started again. Despite travelling all day, it could not have covered even half the distance to its destination. The rush at the time of boarding had subsided totally. Four or five stops after Delhi, the clutch of Gandhis took their leave. But a fresh bunch of Gandhis got on board at every stop. Spectacles, khaddar and a copy of Gita in one hand—the disguise is indeed very easy to assume, thought the Mahatma. Each man wore the disguise for his own reasons. The Mahatma noticed that several ordinary people had also made themselves up to look like him. A young fruit vendor told him that this disguise helped them to escape from the rioters and the police.

‘Even if the disguise is obvious, there is no problem. They think it would be a sin to kill someone who is wearing it. If I hadn’t put it on, I would have been killed along with my parents when our settlement was set ablaze last month,’ he told Gandhi. ‘This disguise comes in handy even in selling fruit. Isn’t it special to buy an orange from a Mahatma, rather than from an ordinary fruit vendor?’ asked the young man, laughing.

Gandhi bought a couple of bananas from the youth and ate them; then he lay down on an empty berth, stretching his legs.  His body felt hot. Was it a symptom of pneumonia? They must be nearing Astapovo!

THE DEW BEGAN TO FALL as early as two o’ clock that afternoon. To keep warm, one of the Gandhis sitting directly opposite the Mahatma began to smoke. Another gave up his disguise temporarily and put on a long woollen overcoat.

Darkness had already begun to fall when the train halted at a very small station shortly after Panipat. Gandhi saw about 20 policemen leap aboard the third class compartment in which he was travelling. He imagined he was as good as caught. Immediately after they received the information in the morning, they must have swung into action.

The police held each passenger at gunpoint and grilled him.

Gandhi decided that he must not submit to any type of coercion. He must not change his decision even if Nehru or Patel came personally to plead with him. He scanned the platform to check if he had a visitor. The platform was deserted and empty. The stationmaster could be seen in his worn-out uniform. After furling his flags and tucking them under his arm, the stationmaster inspected the compartments one by one.

‘What is your name?’ Gandhi felt that he had seen the police officer somewhere.

‘Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.’

‘Where are you coming from?’

‘From Delhi …’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To Amritsar. I plan to visit Jallianwala Bagh.’

‘Why are you going there?’

‘It’s been a long time since my last visit.’

‘Here, show me your belongings.’

‘But I haven’t brought anything with me! I am carrying only a little money, in a knot in my dhoti, money I earned with my spinning wheel. Apart from that, I have an old copy of the Gita with me, sir.’

The police officer asked Gandhi to untie the knot in his dhoti and show him the money; then he left.

To the Mahatma, it was hugely disappointing. There were only about a dozen passengers in the compartment. It had become completely disfigured by waste and rubbish strewn all over. The spaces underneath the seats were filled with several kinds of fruit peels and the remains of food. By now the Gandhis, too, were disfigured beyond recognition. Their make-up had come undone. On the shaven faces of the young Gandhis, black stubble had begun to sprout. The usual hour for his prayers was approaching. A passing peanut vendor told them that it could take a very long time for the train to depart.

Have I reached Astapovo?

Thinking that he would walk for a while, he got off and set out alone.

Birds at the station were singing melodies appropriate for their nesting hour. Nervously flapping their wings, the birds became agitated on seeing Gandhi. He walked away from there, not wanting to disturb their solitude. He imagined that he had finally arrived at a place where no one paid him any mind. This was a freedom that he had never experienced before! Seated on a bench coated with bird droppings, Gandhi commenced his prayers underneath a lamppost that exuded a dim light.

'WHY ARE YOU SITTING HERE, sir? Are you a passenger?’ When he saw the stationmaster standing before him, Gandhi tried to get up.

‘Yes. I must get to Amritsar. I heard that it would take a long time for the train to start, so I came here to say my prayers. Do you have any information on when it might depart, sir?’

‘No. I don’t know. It is unlikely that anyone else would know, either. We have received a message saying that they’ve torn up the tracks.’ After saying this, the stationmaster looked oddly at Gandhi. ‘So you are going to Amritsar? Do you have a ticket with you?’ It seemed to Gandhi that the stationmaster, whose natural instinct was to smile, was making a strenuous effort at pretending to be strict with him.

‘Here.’ The Mahatma untied the knot in his dhoti and gave him the ticket. The stationmaster moved a couple of feet away and examined it. When he noticed the Mahatma, who had followed and stood near him, he was alarmed.

‘Sir, what is your name? Please tell me.’

He spoke the truth, as always:

‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.’

There was anxiety on the stationmaster’s face as he looked intently at Gandhi.

‘Bapuji, please forgive me. I’ll be right back. I need to examine this.’ He hurried away with the ticket in his hand.

It is most likely that I’ve come to the right place, thought the Mahatma. Suddenly, his body began to shiver. He was assailed by a fatigue he had never experienced before. He felt intolerable pain in his joints. This seems to be the right time in the right place, he told himself.

His eyesight dimmed suddenly. Feeling weak, he sat down on the cement bench. Hasn’t the stationmaster finished his scrutiny yet? He thought that catching a nap might make him feel better. He shook out his upper garment and covered himself with it as he lay down, folding his legs. The train which had brought him here stood motionless before him, like a corpse. If you left out the stationmaster’s small room a short distance away and the lamppost, the place was really a jungle. The birds were crying incessantly.

A large bird perched at the top of the lamppost with its black wings open was peering at him. This must be the bird which is going to announce my death to the world, thought Gandhi.

Dhaniklal will be the first to reach the spot. He may bring Manu along with him. I must leave my final statement with her, the Mahatma decided.

How wonderful it would be if Ba were with me at this moment! Katurba had never fully understood the meaning of his statements. But there was no one who understood his silences as well as she did. Ba particularly liked Mondays when he undertook a vow of silence. It was on Mondays that she got the opportunity to stay with him all day, never leaving his side even for a moment. If she was with him, he wouldn’t even need to make a final statement, thought the Mahatma. For him, her death was an irreparable loss. His eyes brimmed with tears.

‘Bapuji, please get up. Your train is leaving. Bapuji…Bapuji! God, what will I do now? There is nobody here to help. Bapuji, Bapuji! O God…!’

The Mahatma heard the stationmaster’s agitated voice and the long toots from of train’s whistle. He could not open his eyes. His consciousness was precarious, hanging by a slender thread. Whose train is this? Where is it starting from? Where is it heading to?  Whose voice is this? Where are these sounds coming from? Is it Kastur’s voice? Or of the little bird that lives on top of the tall red cedar tree? Else, are these cries emitted by the black-winged bird perched at the top of this lamppost?

The Mahatma tried to open his eyes. He could not bid the world goodbye without making a statement, could he?

After covering Gandhi with a blanket, the stationmaster ran with his green lamp, raising its flame on the trot, to see off the train to Amritsar, which was about to depart. Shortly thereafter, when he brought Gandhi some hot water he’d prepared especially for him, he found that the Mahatma had sat up. On seeing the stationmaster, the Mahatma gave him a toothless smile.

‘Your train has left, Bapuji. You may have to wait another 18 hours for the next train to Amritsar!’

The Mahatma sighed. Fortified by a sip of hot water, he was able now to get up and sit properly.

‘Thank you. This seems to be god’s wish. If he has readied a spot as my Astapovo, I could not go past it so easily, could I?’

The stationmaster’s face had turned pale.

‘Bapuji, please forgive me. Help me to avoid the blame for such an unpardonable crime. There is no one here! You will have to make even your final statement only to me, Bapu. I don’t think I have the strength to bear it. Forgive me. The train to Delhi will be here within the next one hour. Please go back to Delhi. It is there that everything must come to pass.’

The Mahatma laughed at this too.

‘Everything is decided, then! But, please tell me something. You recognised me right at the very beginning—how did you do it? You would have seen lots and lots of Bapujis, right?’

The stationmaster laughed.

‘That’s quite easy, Bapu. Not one among those countless Bapujis ever bought a ticket. On being questioned, they’d say, I got you freedom, isn’t that enough? They would be spoiling for a fight. Besides …’

The Mahatma intervened.

‘Besides, you had anticipated all this, hadn’t you? You knew in advance about my journey and its objective!’

The stationmaster grew agitated.

‘But Bapuji, please listen to what I have to say. It must not end like this. This should never be your message to the world!’

The Mahatma raised his index finger to silence him; then he continued:

‘No, my dear brother, I cannot retreat now. I have made my choice. I believe firmly, brother, that this world will understand the rationale behind my departure from Delhi and my arrival here. But, aren’t there any doctors around here? Pneumonia has begun its virulent attack!’ He lay down again.

‘No, Bapuji. Nobody around here knows the first thing about pneumonia. Please agree to my request. Everything should happen only in Delhi,’ he said, and glanced at his wristwatch. ‘God, only ten minutes left for the train to come. There’s little I can do before that.’ After mumbling to himself he said to Gandhi: ‘You must have reckoned this more clearly than anyone else, Bapuji. You must have walked out of there not with a wish to die, but with a desire to live. Your departure was intended solely to draw attention and elicit obedience, just like all the fasts you had undertaken earlier.’

As if he had no response to offer, Gandhi remained silent.

‘But now, all your adversaries will see this from a different angle, Bapu. They have made up their minds. Yesterday or the day before, they might have faced defeat. But now, they have started their war against you. Today or tomorrow. Tomorrow or the day after … it’s only a matter of days now.’

‘What you are saying is true. But where did it all go wrong? I’ve been thinking only about this for the past three days! I considered every man my brother. Even those white men, who happened to be my enemies by dint of history, I loved them too. I tried to teach our people to do the same. I attempted to convey the message of truth and non-violence to everyone. In a way…’

The Mahatma hesitated.

‘In a way, you brought us the message of Christ! That’s why the British government could never kill you. You appeared to them not as a Christian but as Christ himself, Bapuji!’

‘Yes, I am a true Christian; a Christian truer than Christians.’

The Mahatma smiled. Talking to the stationmaster was like talking to his own conscience. It was strange how his conscience was a stationmaster in an obscure and remote village.

‘That’s the reason our colonial rulers laid down their arms at your feet and left the country. They were unable to fight with Christ, their god.’

‘I am a Hindu. A true Hindu. Raman is my god. The Gita is my philosophy.’

‘If someone accused you of having pulled off this deception, what would be your reply, Mahatma?’

Gandhiji was silent.

‘Tell me, Bapu. From which sources did you formulate your precepts? From which god of our soil did you learn nonviolence? Is there anyone among our gods who did not take up arms? Which of them forgave his enemies? On being asked to give away his shawl, which one gave away his dhoti as well? Who, on being slapped on one cheek, showed the other? Or, at the very least, did any of our gods follow the tenets of simplicity that you have urged on everyone? Tell me, Bapuji…’

An extended sigh emerged from Gandhi.

‘What should I do as a satyagrahi? Please tell me, dear brother!’ said Gandhi. Tears had formed in his eyes.

‘Please go back, Bapu,’ pleaded the stationmaster.

‘No, that will be tantamount to death!’ he said, repeating his teacher, Tolstoy’s famous sentence.

His conscience was angry.

‘Speak your own sentences, Bapu …! Face up to us in your own way. We are lying in wait to murder you. We have started this war for wreaking vengeance on one another. We wish to settle accounts with history. The blood of a thousand years flowing on the streets of Delhi hasn’t dried yet. Teach us the nobility of your precepts or receive as our gift the bullets discharged from our guns.’

The stationmaster was gasping for breath.

‘You will attain a poetic death, just as you wished, in the railway station of this obscure, remote village. Then we, your followers, will either betray you after your death or be killed. We will impersonate you even as we destroy your way of life. This sacred land is going to be filled with Bhagwaticharans. You will be ordained as God—merely a god who is powerless to change anything. Then, in the name of that god, a war of retribution will begin. It will last till your identity is completely erased.’

Both men fell silent.

The large black-winged bird which was watching over Gandhi from the top of the lamppost intoned a cry of lamentation as it flew away. Its cry could be heard until it had traversed a long distance.

‘Is this some kind of prophecy?’

‘Prophecy or superstition—you can call it anything you like. But these things will come true, Bapu!’

Gandhi was absorbed in deep contemplation. He closed his eyes.

‘No, I won’t accept defeat. I will make my adversaries understand the poetic nature of nonviolence!’

‘Bapu, then you must live out your entire lifespan—that is, one hundred and twenty-five years …’

The Mahatma closed his eyes and fell silent.

‘Bapu…the train to Delhi has arrived.’

Gandhi found himself a seat in an overcrowded third class compartment on the train to Delhi. He was merely another among the several Gandhis who were also travelling in the same compartment. The stationmaster ran to him, panting, with a mug of goat’s milk and a small quantity of groundnuts.

‘You must stay well, Bapuji…! Your death must be the message of our lives!’ he said to the Mahatma as he wiped his streaming eyes.

TWO DAYS LATER, at three o’clock in the afternoon of 30 January 1948, the train in which Gandhi was travelling arrived in Delhi. When he reached Birla House after a walk from the station, the time was fifty minutes past four.

Anxious that it was nearly time for his prayer meeting, the Mahatma entered Birla House hastily through the backdoor. In the mansion’s expansive garden, Mahatma Bhagwaticharan sat looking at the burgeoning rose bushes. It is not known whether he noticed Gandhi’s arrival. Gandhi hurried past him, turned into his room and entered the bathroom. He was washing his face when he heard Dhaniklal calling out to him.

‘It’s time for the prayer meeting, Bapuji! He is here.’

Mahatma replied in a loud voice.

‘I’ll be there in a moment, Dhaniklalji. Please ask him to wait.’

N Kalyan Raman has published five volumes of Tamil fiction translated into English. His translations of contemporary Tamil poetry and fiction have appeared widely.