From the gentle screech of its hinges, Gandhi knew that someone was pushing open the door to his room. Then he heard the shuffling of feet moving closer with each careful step. The Mahatma closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.
It had to be 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. Dhaniklal’s sole duty consisted of watching over the Mahatma through the night, without catching a wink of sleep, from a very small room situated directly opposite his chamber. He entered Gandhi’s room at least thrice every night and made sure all was well with him. Even a gentle whimper from Gandhi made Dhaniklal very nervous. Gandhi had once asked him playfully, ‘Why this sleepless vigil over me, Dhaniklalji? Do you wish to be a witness when I die?’
Dhaniklal was alarmed. ‘You will never die, Bapuji,’ he had said. ‘The future of this nation has been entrusted in your merciful hands.’
Gandhi sighed. ‘I won’t die so quickly, Dhaniklalji,’ he had replied. ‘My duties aren’t fulfilled yet. My struggles, too, are very long ones. I am condemned to live for as long as I am needed. If, by chance, God decides to take me back sooner, no one can anticipate that moment, not even you. Coughs and moans will never portend my death, Dhaniklalji. My death will be noiseless. At the dawn of a springtime morning, a small bird nesting at the top of a very tall red cedar tree in the centre of Delhi will wake up and announce my death to the world. Dhaniklalji, everyone – including you – will be fast asleep then. So stop worrying and get some sleep.’
But Dhaniklal was never able to sleep properly. Gandhi, when he woke up at dawn, would see Dhaniklal asleep with his head resting on the edge of his bed. So as not to disturb him, he would get up without making a sound and go to the bathroom. Dhaniklal would be fast asleep till Gandhi had finished writing his letters. Urged by instinct perhaps, he would wake up just before Gandhi set out on his morning walk. Later, during prayers and whenever Gandhi was engaged in discussions inside his room, Dhaniklal’s eyes would glaze over with sleep. Whenever Gandhi saw Dhaniklal in this condition, his heart would overflow with kindness and compassion.
But Gandhi also suspected that he was gradually losing the ability to handle his annoyance caused by Dhaniklal’s vigils. He was constantly worried that he might inadvertently say hurtful things to Dhaniklal. He regretted having to pretend to be asleep whenever Dhaniklal entered his room, merely to evade the latter’s questions. His eyes communicated distaste whenever he saw Dhaniklal. He examined his aversion closely. He disliked not only Dhaniklal, but also Nehru, Patel, and everyone who indulged in rioting; in truth, it was also a symptom of Gandhi’s self-hatred.
That night, as the door hinges screeched and Dhaniklal’s footsteps came closer, he awoke. ‘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 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 out of the day’s happenings which he thought might please Gandhi. 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 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 goons, 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 wanted my body. They dragged me along. For nine days, they kept me confined in their vehicle and raped me. After that, taking me for dead, they flung my body by the side of the road and went away. Then I made my way alone to this camp. I had no identity left at the time. I met many little girls like me. We all looked the same, with our minds in the same state, all of us bleeding. I had even forgotten my name.’
When Gandhi asked him, ‘Did you meet that child, Dhaniklalji?’ the man fumbled. When he saw Dhaniklal struggling to retrieve facts from memory, Gandhi was worried he might end up lying. ‘All right, go and lie down. I am very tired,’ he told his helper. Gandhi himself lay down on his bed. As Dhaniklal was preparing to leave, Gandhi 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 was indeed a grand moment! That rag was a sign of our success, wasn’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 robe 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 the man’s 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, 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 recognized 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!’
Farewell, Mahatma brings together ten tales that introduce us to the brilliance and distinctiveness of Devibharathi’s imagination and craft. These stories explore the dark and dichotomous realities of our history and present, our social and individual lives, probing themes such as freedom, need, desire and the volatile spaces between man and woman.
Devibharathi was born and raised in a small village in western Tamilnadu, the second of five children in a schoolmaster’s family. He has worked as a political activist, government employee, journalist, managing editor of a leading literary magazine and script-writer for television programmes. During a writing career spanning more than thirty-five years, Devibharathi has published two collections of short stories, a novel, a play, and two non-fiction anthologies containing essays and memoirs. He is currently at work on his second novel. Farewell, Mahatma is his first work of fiction in English translation.
N Kalyan Raman is a well-known translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry. He has so far published six books of Tamil fiction in English translation. His translation of Tamil poetry has been published widely in literary journals and anthologies of Indian poetry. He also contributes book reviews and essays regularly to leading magazines and journals. He lives and works in Chennai.