Meeting the Mahatma: Gandhiji’s Visits to Orissa
Edited by Jatindra K Nayak
Rupantar 2006 pp123
Gandhi visited the Indian state of Orissa seven times and this book brings together 25 short accounts of some of these visits written by mostly Oriyas but also by two European women. Most of the authors were young at the time and some were even children, and the memories were obviously of lasting significance to them.
Gandhi seems to have visited Orissa mainly as part of his campaign against untouchability and he often travelled on foot from village to village accompanied by his ‘mobile office’ on a cart along with his ‘staff’. The expectation of his appearance in their state drew people from far and wide.
For many it was simply the sight, or darshan, of the tenth incarnation of Vishnu (as many thought) that mattered, but for Gandhi it was the reform of Indian society that counted – perhaps even more than independence for his country.
He expected those who came to also donate to the campaign. One story is of a poor woman barber who came to shave him. Gandhi expressed his disapproval of her jewellery, which she had put on for the special occasion; yet after she had shaved two of his colleagues and been paid, she presented the money to Gandhiji.
We also read of Gandhi’s tolerance. Although an ardent vegetarian, when asked by one of the audience whether it was right for poor Oriyas to eat fish, which are abundant, he responded that it was. Another instance concerns a fundamentalist Hindu who defended the exclusion of low-caste Hindus from his temple yet Gandhi invited him to speak from his platform.
The longest piece is by a German Swiss woman, Frieda Hauswirth, who was an artist and writer married to an Indian. She hoped to sketch Gandhi, whom she describes as ugly but with a beautiful smile, and she manages to do so although he would not pose for her. (This portrait is now in the USA.) She also observed how a group of women who had to keep purdah slipped out of their houses and went onto a roof to get a glimpse of Gandhi.
Manmohan Choudhury relates how the priests of the Puri temple planned to beat up Gandhi because he wanted lower castes to be admitted and so local politicians arranged for his protection. Gandhi was not pleased with this decision and so decided to walk rather than travel by the motorcar provided “in order to give greater opportunity to anyone who wanted to beat him up”.
One small error in Choudhury’s piece is “Piere Sherrysol” which should be Pierre Ceresole, the Swiss founder of Service Civil International, who joined one of Gandhi’s marches for a few days after helping earthquake-affected people in Bihar.
These recollections vividly convey the extraordinary personal qualities of the man as well as his social concerns and the editor is to be warmly thanked for bringing these writings together.