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'Gandhiji is not that old!'

May 20, 2008 00:31 IST

Pankajam Thirumalai, then 14, recalls how  she met the Father of the Nation

I was born April 9, 1930, in Chennai. My family shifted to Mumbai when I was about six or seven years old. The British were ruling India then and there were a lot of Hindu-Muslim riots all over the country. It was very frightening since I was very young. The men in our building, which was opposite Aurora Cinema in Matunga (central Mumbai), used to form groups of four and take on guard duty every night.

When it was my mother's turn to make tea for them, I would hand out the cups filled with the reviving brew. I was thrilled! But my mother would not allow me to join the men when it was my father's turn to do the rounds.

English was the compulsory medium of instruction in almost all schools. We were not taught our mother tongue or Hindi. In fact, we had to speak only English in school.

As a young student, I would wonder, "What right do the British have to rule over us?" At the same time, I would feel quite proud when our relatives said, "See how nicely Lakshmi speaks in English even though she is a small girl." Even my mother started to learn English from me.

I used to go with my father to listen to some of the speeches by our leaders. One evening, we had gone to listen to Pandit Jawharlal Nehru. He had just got on the dais but, before he could say more than "Bhaiyon aur beheno (brothers and sisters)," the police took him away. The same thing happened on another day, when Sarojini Naidu was to give a speech.

The speeches would be arranged either in the Napoo Gardens near the Matunga railway station or King George High School, on the way to Dadar station (central Mumbai). In my school, the teachers would not allow us to speak about these meetings.

Once, opposite the Matunga post office, I saw a big crowd of people burning foreign clothes. Then the police arrived with their lathis (batons) and the crowd dispersed. When I told my mother, she boxed my ears so severely that the pain would not disappear!

Gandhiji would go on fasts often. I would feel so sad that I, too, would fast or skip one or two meals. Though my mother encouraged me, she would not allow me to go to crowded places as the police would be there. The police wore dark blue uniforms and round yellow caps. They would carry thick, rounded lathis. I would wonder: "Why do these Indian policemen beat their own people?"

Gandhiji once came to Bombay when I was about 14; he was staying at Rungta House. I was lucky enough to meet him face to face. It happened thus. One of his grand-daughters was staying on the second floor of Shantinath Bhavan; it was just three buildings away from our house. My father, who was a homeopath, was treating her daughter for anemia and a mild attack of polio. One day, I overheard her telling my father she wouldn't be coming the next day as she was going to meet Gandhiji. I was so excited to hear that that I just blurted out, "Aap mere ko bhi le jayenge (Will you take me along too)?" It was the first time I had spoken to her. She was pleased and said, "Zaroor (Of course)."

The next day, we walked all the way to the station, caught a train to Bombay Central and took a BEST bus to Rungta House. From the main road, we had to walk a long way inside to reach the spacious bungalow. Till then, I had never seen anything like that bungalow!

Gandhiji was busy and we had to wait for some time. When he came out, he hugged his grand-daughter and asked who I was. She said I was her doctor's daughter. He put his hand on my head and gave me a beautiful smile. The first thought that struck me was: "He is not all that old and how strong he is! His hands and legs look so strong. Then why is he shown as an old, shaking man in photographs?"

He was assassinated January 30, 1948. When we heard that he was shot at and died, my mother and I cried as if we lost somebody in our own family. The whole country was feeling that way. What a loss! A man who advocated non-violence was killed violently. What tragedy! Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, the bhajan sung by M S Subbulakshmi, played continuously on the radio.

We got Independence in 1947. On this day, the whole of Bombay looked like it was celebrating a grand festival. People made merry. You didn't have to buy a ticket to travel on the train or the tram. Everyone headed to the Gateway of India where firecrackers ruled the sky. The crackers were set off from ships in the distance. The Gateway was completely lit. As were many of the buildings like Electric House, the Prince of Wales Museum, big bank buildings, all office buildings, Flora Fountain, VT Railway Station and Churchgate station.

My father took us to watch the fireworks. We had taken some eatables from home. We sat on the wall surrounding the Gateway and enjoyed the display. Everyone was jostling and pushing to watch the fireworks. The police had a tough time controlling the crowd.

The amount of people in the trains was unimaginable. By the time we reached home, it was three o'clock in the morning. It felt great! India had done it. The British had to leave our shores. We were free. Our country was truly our own!

Pankajam, 78, lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.