The Festival of Lights is at hand, but this year neither the clay lamps of our villages nor the silver lamps of our cities will be kindled in honour of Dipavali, because the heart of the nation still deeply mourns the death of Mahatma Gandhi, who redeemed it from centuries of bondage and gave to India her freedom and her flag.
It grows more and more difficult for me to speak or write about him. I almost repent my rash and hasty promise to contribute a brief foreword to this book, the story of Gandhiji's life (which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading), written by three distinguished British friends and admirers of the Mahatma, as I fear it might be a little irrelevant and alien to the objective approach and context of their writing. All three have been animated with a due sense of their high privilege and responsibility, and have fulfilled their self-chosen task with deep sincerity, notable skill and discrimination, worthy of a theme so noble. But for me as for many of us who were so intimately associated with Mahatma Gandhi in his great campaigns of liberation for India, who marched with him to many prisons under his banner, who time and again kept vigil and shared the anguish of his epic fasts for the sins of those whom he loved or those who hated him, it becomes almost an act of vivisection to attempt to analyse or interpret the unique personality, the mind and the spirit of this rare, this unrivalled, being, who was not only our leader, our friend, our father, but literally an integral part of life itself.
Curiously enough, my first meeting with Mahatma Gandhi took place in London on the eve of the great European War of 1914, when he arrived fresh from his triumphs in South Africa, where he had initiated his principle of passive resistance and won a victory for his countrymen, who were at that time chiefly indentured labourers, over the redoubtable General Smuts. I had not been able to meet his ship on his arrival, but the next afternoon I went wandering round in search of his lodging in an obscure part of Kensington and climbed the steep stairs of an old, unfashionable house, to find an open door framing a living picture of a little man with shaven head, seated on the floor on a black prison blanket and eating a messy meal of squashed tomatoes and olive oil out of a wooden prison bowl. Around him were ranged some battered tins of parched groundnuts and tasteless biscuits of dried plantain flour. I burst instinctively into happy laughter at this amusing and unexpected vision of a famous leader, whose name had already become a household word in our country. He lifted his eyes and laughed back at me, saying: "Ah, you must be Mrs. Naidu!" Who else dare be so irreverent? "Come in," said he, "and share my meal." "No, thanks," I replied, sniffing; "what an abominable mess it is!" In this way and at that instant commenced our friendship, which flowered into real comradeship, and bore fruit in a loving, loyal discipleship, which never wavered for a single hour through more than thirty years of common service in the cause of India's freedom.
How, and in what lexicons of the world's tongues, shall I find words of adequate beauty and power that might serve, even approximately, to portray the rare and exquisite courtesy and compassion, courage, wisdom humour and humanity of this unique man, who was assuredly a lineal descendant of all the great teachers who taught the gospel of Love, Truth and Peace for the salvation of humanity, and who was essentially akin to all the saints and prophets, religious reformers and spiritual revolutionaries of all times and lands? Like Gautama Buddha, he was a lord of infinite compassion; he exemplified in his daily life Christ's Sermon from the Mount of Olives; both by precept and practice he realised the prophet Mahomet's beautiful message of democratic brotherhood and equality of all mankind. He was - though it sounds obsolete and almost paradoxical to use such a phrase - literally a man of God, in all the depth, fullness and richness of its implications, who, especially in the later years of his own life, was regarded by millions of his fellow men as himself a living symbol of Godhead. But while this man of God inspired in us awe and veneration because of his supreme greatness, he endeared himself to us and evoked our warmest love by the very faults and follies which he shared with our frail humanity.
I love to remember him as a playmate of little children, as the giver of solace to the sorrowful, the oppressed and the fallen. I love to recall the picture of him at his evening prayers, facing a multitude of worshippers, with the full moon slowly rising above the silver sea, the very spirit of immemorial India; and, with but a brief interval, to find him seated with bent brows, giving counsel to statesmen responsible for the policies and programmes of political India, the very spirit of renascent India demanding her equal place among the world nations. But perhaps the most poignant and memorable of all is the last picture of him walking to his prayers at the sunset hour on January 30, 1948, translated in a tragic instant of martyrdom from mortality to immortality.