It was a July evening in Jhansi in 1945. A strong wind was blowing. A vast throng of town people, the peasants, and their families were moving towards an open piece of land near a hill. The men were dressed simply in kurta, dhoti or pyjamas while the spare figures of women were wrapped in white cotton sarees, and their heads with a bun of hair behind it, were generally covered. My mother too was walking briskly towards the open land with me besides her. I was then 6 years old.
The closer we reached the hill, the thicker became the crowds. My mother wanted us to be in front, so we had to push a little. The closer we moved to the front, the more somber became the atmosphere. I saw people standing or sitting quietly on the ground. Even if they had to talk, they spoke in whispers. Some were munching peanuts.
Suddenly, we were in front. We squeezed ourselves and sat down quietly with the others. I saw a dark skinned, naked man with a loin cloth sitting on a elevation at the hillside, mumbling some words. He was sitting on a small wooden platform and there was a mike in front of him. All round him were people with reverential faces. Some sat next to him, others stood on the hillside.
“Who is he?” I asked. “Hush,” whispered my mother. “He is a saint. Listen to him carefully.” I tried but could follow nothing. I was very restless sitting on the ground with nothing to do. I could not even ask a question of my mother as there was pindrop silence. One could hear the breeze and the rustling of the trees.
After half an hour of this silence, the old man stopped speaking and many amongst the crowd surged towards him. They were all trying to get closer, touch his feet, or just stand near him with folded hands. We too moved forward and slowly reached the old man. After waiting a few minutes, our turn came and I found myself standing directly in front of this almost naked man, sitting cross legged on the wooden platform.
My mother, after a respectful obeisance and muttering a few words, thrust a small paper towards him, and the old man slowly wrote something on it. I saw him clearly for the first time now. He was bald, very lean, and bespectacled. Handing the paper back to my mother, he looked up towards me, ruffled my hair and said to me in Hindi:
“Jab tum bare hoge to acche admi banna aur apni maa ka dhyan rakhna. Tum swatantra bharat me rahoge. Apne desh ka bhi dhyan rakhna” (“When you grow up, be a good man and take care of your mother. You will live in a free India. Look after your country also”).
He wanted to say something more but we were pushed away by those behind us.
My mother died in October 1990. While browsing through her cupboard, I came across her autograph book. On one of the pages, I saw a piece of paper pasted on which were scribbled the signatures of the old man. Below it, in the neat handwriting of my mother, were written the words: ‘The signatures of Mahatma Gandhi after the Simla conference, on his way to Wardha. 17, July 1945.’
Anil Chandra’s website is www.indianshortstories.in