August 15, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Shobha Warrier

V Kalyanam, 82, likes to describe himself as a person who "had the divine opportunity to work and learn under Gandhiji" from 1944 till his assassination in January 1948. Kalyanam was a secretary to Mahatma Gandhi and was just a few inches away when Nathuram Godse assassinated the Mahatma.

Kalyanam today lives alone in a house, the doors of which are always open. He doesn't fear thieves for he does not "possess anything expensive". The days he spent with Mahatma Gandhi have taught him to lead a simple life with very few material possessions.

There are no sweepers or gardeners in the house for he considers himself a "sweeper par excellence." He meets visitors between the somewhat unearthly hours of 11 pm and 4 am, though he agreed to meet at 10.30 am in early August.

Kalyanam's brush with the Freedom Struggle started with the Quit India Movement. Unlike Bombay [now Mumbai] where the people rose in revolt, life in Delhi, where Kalyanam resided, was still peaceful. Then, some elderly Indians asked him to distribute pamphlets to the houses. "I readily agreed though I was warned that I should do the job only at night without anyone noticing it. The message in the pamphlet exhorted people to raise their voice against the British rule in India," he said.

Kalyanam distributed the pamphlets for a few days till a police sergeant caught him one night and dragged him to jail. "I did not till then realise that I was guilty of treason. I was locked up and deported to a jail in Lahore after two days."

On his release from jail after seven months, Kalyanam joined an insurance company. He also began spending his evenings working for the Harijans (the former untouchables) and the downtrodden. This came to the notice of Mahatma Gandhi's son, Devdas Gandhi, who was then the editor of Hindustan Times. He asked Kalyanam to join the ashram at Sevagram, near Wardha.

Kalayanam's gives full credit to his English boss, who he said was "quite sympathetic to Mahatma Gandhi's call for swaraj" and granted him leave for two months to join the Sevagram ashram.

Kalyanam remembers that when he reached Wardha in October 1943, there was no one to receive him at the railway station. So he hired a horse carriage to take him to Sevagram, nearly 15 kilometres away. "The road was so bumpy and dusty that I still get nightmares about that one hour journey!"

At the ashram, he met the manager. After the initial questioning, he was shown his room, which was a hut. "That was the first time in my life I was going to live in a hut. In Delhi, I was living in a bungalow, but here there was no furniture, no electricity! The walls and floor were pasted with cow dung. When I wanted to go to the toilet, somebody showed me a row of thatched rooms. They were all cubicles 3 feet x 3 feet, and as I entered, I was horrified to see a pit, and in one corner, a huge pile of mud. Also kept was a coconut shell with a handle so that you could cover the excreta with mud. Of course, a bucketful of water was also kept there. There was no tap. Though it looked alien to me, the whole place was so hygienic. There was no bad smell. There were no mosquitoes or flies."

Kalyanam adds a corollary. "I wish they'd introduce such toilets in Madras city! I once went to the municipal corporation once and asked them to make such cheap toilets and do you know what they said? They said it was impractical! It seems the corporation prefers open air toilets!"

For meals, each person had to collect his food on a plate, sit on the floor and eat. All were supposed to clean their own plates along with one vessel that was used for cooking. "I liked all that because I enjoy cleaning and I used to do all that at home too. All were equal in the ashram and there was mutual respect. We did gardening, cooking, cleaning toilets, sweeping, and also taking care of the guests and attending to office work."

Kalyanam didn't know it then but he was destined to succeed Mahadev Desai's. Desai, Mahatma Gandhi's long-time private secretary, had passed away after Gandhi's arrest after the Quit Movement started.

In May 1944, Gandhi was released on medical grounds and went to stay in Bombay. The ashram inmates decided to meet him and Kalyanam, who had never seen Gandhi till then, joined them.

Kalyanam recalls that Mahatma Gandhi was sitting on the floor, surrounded by many people, when they entered the room. Gandhi, then 75, looked extremely weak after an illness and fasting and hand trembled when he lifted the wooden spoon to his lips while eating.

"I had the honour of being introduced as a young Madrasi [a term then applied for people hailing from the Madras province] from Delhi sent by Devdas Gandhi to work in the ashram. I kept standing with folded hands. Then, he started asking me questions but I couldn't understand a single word. All I could hear was 'shh…' as he didn't have his dentures on. And he talked in such a low voice I had to bend down to catch his words, and could somehow make out what he wanted to know. He asked me about my family, whether my parents were alive, how many brothers and sisters I had, how I liked my stay at the ashram, etc. And when I told him that I was on leave, he asked me the salary that I was getting, I said, Rs 250 per month. He said, 'Oh! I can pay only Rs 60'. I said I would even work free for him! I do not know why I said that. His last query was whether I knew typing. Since I knew how to type with my index finger, I said I could manage. I didn't then understand why he asked me that question. I was under the impression that my services would be utilised for constructive work."

All the inmates returned to Sevagram. By then, Kalyanam's resigned from his job and continued at the ashram.

One of Kalyanam's job at the ashram was to sort out the thousands of mails that came for the Mahatma. When the Mahatma came to stay at the ashram by the end of 1944, he began giving Kalyanam the job of typing letters for him. "I did all the typing with my index fingers. Here I must tell you, I couldn't decipher what he used to write. So, I used to consult Pyarelal, his senior secretary, and with the help of a magnifying glass, he would read out what was indecipherable. Gandhiji used a lot of abbreviations also. Later on I learnt to read his handwriting."

Early in the morning, it was Kalyanam's duty to cut important news items from various newspapers and show them to Gandhi. If it was breakfast time, he would read out the headlines and, if Gandhi was interested, the full story. "He followed a very strict routine and the diet was that of boiled vegetables, soup, thin white roti, fruit juice and goat's milk. He avoided salt (because it was taxed by the British) and sugar. Once when we were in Delhi, I had the fortune of bringing idlis cooked without salt from my parents' house, and he liked them immensely. "

The days started with prayer at Sevagram as Gandhi believed that prayer was "the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening." He also observed every Monday as a day of silence. "He practised strict economy, and he didn't like to waste even a piece of paper. He always used the back of unwanted correspondence and slit open the envelopes for his writing work. I still follow the same principles. I never saw him idle even for a moment. He was all the time writing and he wrote in English, Gujarati and Hindi. I never saw him lose his temper even when someone committed a serious mistake. He had his own way of admonishing and after that the wrongdoer would seek pardon."

Kalyanam's association with the Mahatma gave him the opportunity to accompany him on his tours to different parts of India. The entourage consisted of his senior secretary, Pyarelal, his two grand nieces Manu and Abha, and his assistants Parshuram and Kalyanam. His doctor, Dr Sushila Nayyar would sometimes accompany them.

Kalyanam particularly remembers the first journey that he had with the Mahatma to Calcutta. It was a Monday, and a day of silence. He drafted a short letter to the Viceroy and handed it to Kalyanam for typing. It was intended to be delivered to Mridula Sarabhai at Pune station to be posted to the Viceroy immediately. But Kalyanam thought he could keep the draft till they reached Calcutta and then type it.

After Gandhiji broke his silence, he asked for the typed letter so that he could put his signature. A nervous Kalyanam told him that he didn't have the typewriter with him, and it infuriated the Mahatma who shot back, "When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools."

Said Kalyanam, "Normally when people travel, they spend their time gossiping, playing cards, reading story books or dozing. This was the first time that I came across one who did serious work on the train. I had to borrow a typewriter from a journalist who was travelling in the adjoining compartment. Unfortunately, it was not in a good condition. I myself was not happy with the draft. I thought Gandhiji would be very angry. But he signed the letter making just one correction, ready to be delivered at the next halt."

On August 15, 1947, when the whole country celebrated Independence from the British, the Mahatma was in Noakhali, in present-day Bangladesh. "We reached Delhi only in September. Sardar Patel came to receive Gandhiji and all of us were put up at Birla House. He agreed to go there when he was told that refugees were also put up there. We were there till his death. He was very disturbed because nobody was listening to him, and Hindus and Muslims were killing each other."

Kalyanam was with the Mahatma when he came out for his last prayer meeting. "I am the only living witness to the incident today. I was just a few inches behind him when he was shot at. The bullet missed me by six inches. His death was instantaneous. People say, he said 'Hey Ram'. I don't know. I don't remember having heard anything. Maybe all of us were shocked. I do not know how somebody could think of shooting a good man like him."

All of them lived at Birla House for a few more days before dispersing to their individual destinations…

Kalyanam later went to London and worked as Edwina Mountbatten's secretary. He returned a few years later and then worked for C Rajgopalachari and Jayaprakash Narayan.

Designs by Rajesh Karkera, Lynette Menezes; photographs by Sreeram Selvaraj

Also see: The Quit India series

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