In the Mahatma's Footsteps

January 9, 1915. It was the day the British government made an exception to allow an aam aadmi to land at Apollo Bunder in Bombay. It was a privilege earlier offered only to the royalty and the British. The exception was made at the request of Bombay's influential elite like Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, J.B. Petit, B.G. Horniman and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. A grand welcome was arranged for the man who was met on board by a deputation comprising Narottam Morarjee, Horniman and others, while hundreds including Gokhale waited for him at the quay. Despite being an attorney from South Africa, the man was dressed in complete Kathiawad attire—a dhoti, cloak and turban. He was accompanied by his wife and four sons, all dressed in simple Indian attire. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had come home.

Homecoming invitation- In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi (front row centre) met in South Africa. Gokhale asked Gandhi to return and join the Indian freedom struggle. Photo by Alamy
Homecoming invitation- In 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi (front row centre) met in South Africa. Gokhale asked Gandhi to return and join the Indian freedom struggle. Photo by Alamy

The British authorities in India had heard of him but they had no clue that Gandhi would soon change the course of politics in the British Empire. He was new to the social and political issues in India then; a new face even to his own countrymen. His struggle against the British in South Africa had received good coverage in Indian newspapers, but it was a time long before he was referred to as Mahatma or Bapu by the people. Many organisations and influential personalities in Bombay had organised felicitation ceremonies for him and in almost every function, Kasturba Gandhi was also honoured as the “wife of the great Gandhi”. In reply to such titles, Gandhi said, “The people in India have known nothing of my failures. All the news you received was related to successes. Now in India, people would see them in the naked light and would see my faults as well.... Anticipating such faults and failures, I would ask to overlook them and as a humble servant, I commit to commence the service of the motherland.”

on his arrival at the Bombay port, Gandhi was dressed in the traditional Kathiawad attire. Photo by Alamy
On his arrival at the Bombay port, Gandhi was dressed in the traditional Kathiawad attire. Photo by Alamy

Gokhale had met Gandhi in South Africa in 1912 and invited him to return to India to work for the independence movement. As Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, Gokhale was his mentor and he was “pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field”. Gokhale had advised Gandhi to be on a year of probation, travel across the country and understand India and her issues. In an interview to a newspaper in Bombay in 1915, Gandhi said, “For the present, as Gokhale has very properly pointed out, I, having been out of India for so long, have no business to form any definite conclusion about matters essentially Indian, and that I should pass some time here as an observer and a student. This I have promised to do and I hope to carry out my promise.”

New beginnings- Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi shortly after their return to India in 1915
New beginnings- Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi shortly after their return to India in 1915

Before setting out on his Bharat Yatra, Gandhi visited Pune to meet Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Gokhale wanted him to join his Servants of India Society and Gandhi dutifully applied for its membership. The members of the society were to meet in a few days to decide on his application. Indicating his entry as a probationer of the society, Gandhi started cleaning latrines in the colony he was staying. This act of his left the society members divided. In one of his eight volumes of Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, D.G. Tendulkar wrote that the members felt that there was a difference between their ideals of attaining freedom and his methods of work, with some saying that it wouldn't be proper to admit him immediately in the society. Gokhale made an offer: “Whatever may be the result of your talks with the members, you must look to me for the expenses of the ashram you propose to start. I regard it as my own.” Gokhale asked a colleague to open an account for Gandhi in the society's books and to fund his public expenses. Thus, Gandhi's Bharat Yatra received a sponsor and his year-long journey began. Towards the end of January that year, he travelled to Rajkot by train in a third class compartment.

It was a journey to understand the life and miseries of ordinary Indians and to feel the pulse of the nation. Gandhi wanted to understand the issues that brought people together and the predicaments that divided them. A century has gone by after he set upon this journey, and to mark that landmark, THE WEEK decided to undertake the same journey in the same way—in a general unreserved compartment—with the same aim: to experience the life of poor Indians

Our first stop was Rajkot, from where Gandhi began his journey across the country. The railway station at Rajkot is a beautiful building painted pale brown with a big dome and a porch in the centre with fairly clean premises. The platform was bustling, with poor labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand trying to catch trains back home. Most of them were employed at the Mundra port in Gujarat but were fleeing to their villages, following warnings of a possible cyclone approaching Gujarat's coast.

A frail, shabby woman sat on the platform. It was clear from her occasional but incomprehensible shouts that she was disturbed. A fleeting glance, more out of pity than concern or care, is all she got. A labourer handed her a samosa, wrapped in a torn newspaper. “The month is about to end and we barely have money for a two-day long journey,” said Raju Paswan, the labourer. “I had only one samosa to give to that woman.” Since he was returning before the month's end, he hadn't received his wages, he said.

More than 10,000 labourers work at the Mundra port and in factories of Maruti Suzuki and Adani. They all have similar stories to share. Ashok Gupta, 22, originally from Sarang village in Jharkhand, said, “I have a family of eight to feed in Jharkhand. In Mundra, I share a small room of 10x10 with nine others. We work in shifts and manage to send Rs5,000 a month to our families.” He keeps aside a thousand rupees for his monthly expenses apart from his share of the room rent.

The Jabalpur Express arrived and all of us scrambled to enter a general compartment, which was already reasonably occupied. Inside, there were people all around—in the passage, between the seats, even in front of toilets. There were cries, shouts and abuses. Some men were yelling at new passengers for trying to sit on berths that were already occupied by five others. The compartment was dirty; the floor littered and the toilets and windows were stained with tobacco and gutka. And, it smelt—of sweat—and the stinking toilets were making it worse. The fans, though working, were noisy. Once the train moved, the passengers started settling in and the noise subsided. Gradually, we got used to the stinking smell.

Our first experience was not very different from what Gandhi had observed a century ago. Now, there are no third class compartments but the situation is no different in the general compartments. Gandhi, in his autobiography, has described the third class compartment of the train he first boarded. He wrote: The third class compartments are practically as dirty and arrangements as bad as they were earlier. The facilities provided for first class and third class are out of proportion. Third class passengers are treated like sheep…. The indifference of the railway authorities to the comforts of the passengers, combined with the dirty and inconsiderate habits of the passengers themselves, makes third class travelling a trial for passengers of cleanly ways. These unpleasant habits commonly include throwing of rubbish, smoking at all hours, betel and tobacco chewing and converting the whole carriage into a spittoon, shouting, yelling and using foul language….”

passengers travelling in a general compartment. Photo by Janak Bhat
Passengers travelling in a general compartment. Photo by Janak Bhat

Gandhi suggested a remedy: “Educated men should make a point of travelling third class and reforming the habits of the people, as also never letting the railway authorities rest in peace, sending in complaints wherever necessary, never resorting to bribes or any means for obtaining their own comforts, and never putting up with infringements of rules on the part of anyone concerned.” But today, we hardly see educated people getting their hands dirty for public good.

As our train picked up speed, a nine-year-old boy asked for water. His father, Samir Shaikh, handed him a bottle, but he couldn't hold it steady in the moving train. “Aman has a hole in his heart. We had taken him to a charitable hospital in Rajkot,” said Shaikh. “The doctors checked him and have agreed to do the operation free of cost. It costs Rs2.5 lakh in Ahmedabad.” Shaikh, 27, is a handloom worker from Surat. His wife works as a domestic help. They can barely make ends meet, let alone spend lakhs on their child's surgery. “Now doctors in Rajkot say that Aman will be fine after the operation. Inshallah,” said Shaikh, fighting back tears.

Mithun Singh, 18, who was sitting on the floor, held Shaikh's hand and consoled him. “Bhai, you are a good father. God will surely help you and your son,” he said. “Last week, I got a job in Morbi. They were paying me Rs400 a day. But yesterday my mother telephoned me and complained that my father, who is an alcoholic, is thrashing her and my wife every day. So I quit the job and now I am going back. Here, I see tears in a father's eyes and there my father is making my mother and wife weep every day.”

We came across many such stories throughout our journey. Just then, our conversation was interrupted with loud claps, and a gang of eunuchs walked in. “These eunuchs cajole, force, intimidate and threaten to extort money from poor passengers in general compartments,” said Ashok Gupta, a labourer from Mundra. Before he finished his sentence, a eunuch grabbed a labourer and demanded Rs500 to leave him. Raichand Vora, a Gujarati, linked this to a historical reference. “During the British rule, there was a weird customs cordon on the Rajkot-Viramgam route,” he said. “The British extorted money from people travelling on this route and now these eunuchs have taken their place.”

The Viramgam customs cordon reference is a relevant one. While on his way to Rajkot from Pune after meeting Gokhale, Gandhi met Motilal, a noted public worker and tailor. He brought up the Viramgam customs issue and informed Gandhi about the hardships railway passengers faced because of it. This is described in detail in Tendulkar's biographical volumes. After listening to Motilal, Gandhi asked him: “Are you prepared to go to jail?” Motilal said, “We are certainly prepared to go to jail if you lead us.”

Gandhi moved around in the Kathiawad region and educated people about adhering to the principle of nonviolence and satyagraha to demand their legitimate rights. His experience of being thrown out of the train in South Africa was what had led to the first satyagraha. The British got the taste of this on a similar train journey in Rajkot. Gandhi wrote to the Bombay government about the Viramgam customs cordon. “If it had been in our hands, we would have removed the cordon long ago. You should approach the government of India,” replied Lord Willingdon, the governor. His private secretary deplored Gandhi's reference to the launch of satyagraha. “This was no threat but my duty to place before the people all legitimate remedies for grievances. A nation that wants to come into its own ought to know all the ways and means to freedom,” said Gandhi. “I regard it as my duty to explain its practice and its limitations to the people. I have no doubt that the British government is powerful, but I have no doubt also that satyagraha, too, is sovereign remedy.” This satyagraha and the followup with the government went on till 1917, when the Viramgam customs cordon was removed.

As the sky turned a pale tint of orange, Shaikh and his burqa-clad wife started packing their luggage as they had to get down at Ahmedabad to catch another train to Surat. Aman and his sister Hansabanu started crying at the thought of getting down from the crowded train. Singh offered to help with the luggage and the couple took the children to the door. Singh helped the family alight, and Shaikh hugged him in thanks. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” said Gandhi. We, too, got down at Ahmedabad.

Building blocks- Gandhi set up his first ashram in Kochrab in Ahmedabad.
Building blocks- Gandhi set up his first ashram in Kochrab in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi set up his first ashram at Kochrab, which was a small village near Ahmedabad then. But now, Kochrab lies at the heart of Ahmedabad city. He had named it Satyagraha Ashram to convey both his goals and way of service. The ashram was built in May 1915, months after he began his journey. He would keep returning to the ashram in between his yatra. About 25 men and women formed the first inmates of the ashram; 13 of them were Tamils. The ashram had a common kitchen and the inmates were categorised as managers, candidates and students, with service of the motherland as its objective. The inmates were asked to observe the vows of truth, nonviolence, celibacy, non-stealing and non-possession. Fearlessness and the use of swadeshi goods were essentially part of the ashram life. Today, the ashram has a library, a small museum and a prayer hall. The authorities hold training camps to teach the use of charkha (spinning wheel). Many from India and abroad attend these camps.

the ashram today has a library, a small museum and a prayer hall. Photo by Janak Bhat
The ashram today has a library, a small museum and a prayer hall. Photo by Janak Bhat

Gandhi's next destination was Calcutta. He had first gone to Santiniketan on February 17, 1915. Rabindranath Tagore was on a tour then and Gandhi couldn't meet him. But he met two of his future colleagues, Kaka Kalelkar and Chintaman Shastri, who taught Sanskrit there. We travelled from Kolkata to Santiniketan. An imposing four-lane Grand Trunk highway now makes the journey smooth and quick till Bardhaman. But reaching the GT highway from Kolkata is a trial for even the expert driver. The heavy and unruly traffic of Kolkata forces drivers to manoeuvre their vehicles by breaking traffic rules. It is extremely chaotic and noisy.

Kolkata diaries- A vendor at Santiniketan. Photo by Janak Bhat
Kolkata diaries- A vendor at Santiniketan. Photo by Janak Bhat

Earlier, Santiniketan was essentially a school spread over 20 acres. Today, it is a university, running arts and science colleges in addition to the school. The premises are clean, the students disciplined and the teaching staff committed to imparting quality education. We met Dr Amarendra Kumar, who is a professor of contemporary history. Kumar recounted some details of Gandhi's visit to Santiniketan. Tagore, who couldn't meet him then, in a letter to C.F. Andrews, wrote: “I hope that Mahatma and Mrs Gandhi have arrived in Bolpur.” It was in this letter that Gandhi was first addressed as Mahatma.

Two days after his arrival at Santiniketan, Gandhi received a telegram from Pune intimating him of Gokhale's death. In an immediate meeting called to express grief, he said, “I set out to find a true hero and I found only one in the whole of India. The hero was Gokhale.” On February 20, 1915, Gandhi renounced footwear for a year as a sign of mourning, and left for Pune. He attended a meeting chaired by Lord Willingdon to mourn Gokhale's death and returned to Santiniketan, where he met Tagore on March 6, 1915. “Gandhiji talked to the students and wanted them to clean the toilets they use, but Tagore was of the opinion that the first and foremost duty of the students was to study,” said Kumar. “They both had great respect for each other and we still celebrate March 6 as cleanliness day.” Kumar helped us meet the campus security in-charge, Supriyo Mazumdar, who showed us the old houses where Tagore and Gandhi had stayed in Santiniketan.

The Kali temple. Photo by Janak Bhat
The Kali temple. Photo by Janak Bhat

Back in Kolkata, we visited the famous Kali temple as Gandhi had done. Chaos is an understatement here. Hundreds of shops, selling flowers, coconuts and lamps, jostle for space on both sides of the road that leads to the temple. The middle of the road is occupied by beggars and hawkers. The road, therefore, is a riot of colours, and it is dotted by men in white dhotis—panda (priests), who offer ‘special darshan' at a special price. A panda offered us his services for immediate darshan without standing in a queue for Rs200. He took us inside through a door meant only for them. We could barely look at the idol as we were being constantly pushed by the crowd; there was no darshan to speak of. The stink of rotten flowers and broken coconuts, coupled with the slippery floor, made the place unfit for meditation or communion.

During his visit here, Gandhi bitterly criticised the practice of sacrificing sheep at the Kali temple. “Life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by men from the cruelty of men.... How is it that Bengal with all its intelligence, knowledge, sacrifice and emotion tolerates this slaughter?” he wrote in his autobiography.

We set out from Kolkata to Varanasi. Negotiating our way through the heavy traffic, we reached Howrah station, one of the best managed stations we saw throughout our journey. The premises were clean, with clear signage displayed everywhere in Bangla, Hindi and English. The security personnel and the railway staff were courteous. We had our dinner at the jan aahar canteen and boarded the train.

As it was the starting point for the train, it was not very crowded and the compartment and toilets were fairly clean. It was getting cold outside and most passengers, tired after the day's work, started falling asleep after securing their luggage and other belongings with iron chains. In the middle of the night, we heard someone groaning in pain. It was Dodu Yadav, a retired railway gangman, who had boarded the train at Katiya, a small station in Bihar. After his retirement, Yadav started working as a labourer for loading and unloading goods from the train. He injured his leg during an assignment. His only daughter was married to a compounder in Raghunathpur. Yadav and his wife were on their way to their daughter's place as there was no one else to take care of them. Their son-in-law, who was also Yadav's nephew, had promised to provide medication from the hospital he worked in. “I do not get pension and have no other resources to survive in this old age,” said Yadav. “I have to recover from this and start earning again.” Despite all the innovations and technological developments, medical facilities are still a luxury for the poor in our country.

When sleep eludes you on a cold night, a hot cuppa is like a blessing and the vendor's shouts of “garam chai le lo” are music to your muffled ears. It was 3am when we got down at a station for tea. We had not carried any warm clothes and the hot tea provided some solace. “Saab, we are used to this cold in Buxer,” said the tea vendor, who was in his early teens. “I sell tea at night and attend school in the morning. I catch up on my lost sleep at noon.” Although government schools offer free education for all, rising costs make survival difficult.

Nandeep Singh, a marketing executive in a pesticide company who had just boarded the train, said: “The agrarian situation in Bihar is not good at all. Lack of irrigation, access to seeds and fertilisers is the biggest problem. Government has not set up agriculture produce market committees for the farmers to sell their produce at the nearest point.” He said the government had done little for farmers to afford a dignified life. When he came to know about the purpose of our journey, he said, “Gandhiji's first national satyagraha was in Bihar, at Champaran, for the poor indigo farmers. That was exemplary and we need many more Gandhis in present India.”

Singh was unhappy about the way his state was portrayed in films and other media. “Remember, this is a state where the world's first university [Nalanda] was functioning in all glory,” he said. Vinay Kumar, 29, who works with Life Insurance Corporation, said, “I have read a lot about Gandhiji, [Vallabhbhai] Patel, [Jawaharlal] Nehru and Gokhale. The biggest problem we face is that nowadays nobody takes responsibility to do good to others or to undo a bad practice. This includes leaders and common Indians. We just want to live our part and don't want to own responsibility for anything else.” Quoting Gandhi, he said: “Be the change you want to see. But we keep waiting for another Gandhi to bring that change. We don't even know what exactly we mean by change.”

As sunlight streamed in, passengers started waking up. Tea vendors, young boys selling newspapers and offering to polish shoes had begun their first rounds in the compartments. For the first time, a sweeper came in. When someone asked the sweeper to clean the toilets as the flush wasn't working properly, he shot back, “I only clean the floor. Cleaning toilets isn't my job. Koi Mehtar agle station par aayega toilet clean karne [A person belonging to the Mehtar caste will come and clean the toilet at the next station].” The caste system, which Gandhi abhorred, is still a reality.

“This system will be there even in the bullet trains. It has spread deep into the nervous system of society,” said Aashish Bhagat, a stone miner from Jamui town in Bihar. He owns mines near Dumka district in Jharkhand. “Adivasis in Jhakhand face even worse discrimination. In the name of environment protection, no development is allowed to reach them,” he said. “They have to walk for three days even to buy salt.” He alleged that companies like Reliance are allowed to set up power plants right inside the forest in Sasan in Madhya Pradesh without any clearance from the environment ministry. But constructing roads inside the forest is not allowed in areas around Dumka. “Gandhiji, today, is only on the currency notes and money is what goes around, not his values,” he said.

In the name of god- Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation. Photo by Janak Bhat
In the name of god- "Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation. Photo by Janak Bhat

On reaching Varanasi, we went to the ghats on the banks of the Ganga. The traffic jams we witnessed in Varanasi were of the worst kind, with narrow roads swarming with hundreds of cycle rickshaws, two-wheelers, auto-rickshaws, and careless pedestrians weaving their way through the traffic. Hawkers on both sides of the street sold fruits, momos, household utensils and funeral material. The traffic policeman stood by helplessly.

One can also spot many arms shops in Varanasi. And, one cannot miss the huge hoardings of government bhaang shops splashed across the city. Then there are cinema halls displaying posters of C-grade movies. These are the sights and sounds that greet you on your way to the Vishwanath temple. As in Kolkata, priests here, too, hound you as you near the temple. On the way to the ghats, there are beggars, hawkers, foreign tourists clicking pictures of sadhus, who pose for money, a masseur at work, barbers busy tonsuring relatives of the dead.

The ghats and the Ganga welcome not just the living but also the dead. Dead bodies, waiting for their turn on the pyre, were lined up along the ghat. Beside them, dogs and cows lingered around. Just then a group of men immersed a body in the river and left. The Ganga took it in silently. Cleaning the river will require a strong political will to stop such practices.

Communion, it was conspicuous by its absence,
Communion, it was conspicuous by its absence," said Gandhi of Varanasi. Photo by Janak Bhat

The situation near the Vishwanath temple is worse than that at the Kali temple in Kolkata. Gandhi described it in precise words in his autobiography. He observed: “The approach was through a narrow and slippery lane. Quiet there was none. Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence.... The surroundings of jana-vapi [well of knowledge], too, I found to be dirty. I had no mind to give any dakshana. So I offered a pie. The panda in charge got angry and threw away the pie. He swore at me and said, ‘This insult will take you straight to hell.' This didn't perturb me. ‘Maharaj,' said I, ‘Whatever fate has in store for me, it does not behove one of your class to indulge in such language. You may take this pie if you like, or you will lose that, too.'” Gandhi has mentioned that after this he went to Varanasi thrice but never again to the Vishwanath temple.

After reading about Gandhi, Bohan Chaudhary, 51,  became a strict vegetarian, and only wears khadi and uses the bicycle to go everywhere. Photo by Janak Bhat
After reading about Gandhi, Bohan Chaudhary, 51, became a strict vegetarian, and only wears khadi and uses the bicycle to go everywhere. Photo by Janak Bhat

Our next destination was Haridwar. A recruitment camp was held in Varanasi a day before and thousands of youth had thronged the station to catch trains to return to their hometowns. We boarded a crowded compartment. Bohan Chaudhary, a 51-year-old shopkeeper from a nearby village, had tied his bicycle to the window of the compartment. “I always move around on a bicycle,” he said. “Once I get down at the next station, I will go to my shop on the bicycle.” Gandhi had a profound influence on Chaudhary, he said. After reading about Gandhi, he became a strict vegetarian, and only wears khadi and uses the bicycle to go everywhere.

In the name of god- Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation. Photo by Janak Bhat
In the name of god- "Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation. Photo by Janak Bhat

Listening to Chaudhury, three Class 10 students joined in the conversation. Karishma, Yogita and Pinky travel by train to school daily. “We learned about Gandhi in our textbooks....,” said Karishma. “I feel Gandhi would have failed in today's sociopolitical reality. He isn't relevant in today's times.” A German music teacher, Rachael Wolf, 36, rebutted her saying, “Gandhi was unarguably the best communicator in the 20th century who stood against the British Empire and inspired thousands of leaders in India and across the world. The British were the most powerful nation, armed with the most modern weapons. Here was a man, unarmed, frail but committed to honesty, truth and nonviolence; but this great old man made the most powerful country withdraw without waging a war.” She said Gandhi's ways of seeking truth empowered the most ordinary and the poorest Indian. According to her, Gandhi is a way of life, a religion of sorts and such ideology is timeless and relevant all the time.

Rachael Wolf. Photo by Janak Bhat
Rachael Wolf. Photo by Janak Bhat

Ashutosh Khatri, 24, said: “I think the biggest problem with us today is that we have become too materialistic. We get carried away by any propaganda that is on a massive scale. We don't have the time and will to verify facts. We have stopped believing in people and the rat race to earn more has made us shallow thinkers.” He told the girls that once they started believing in Gandhi's time-tested ideology; they would not lose hope in good things so easily.

Just then, a tea vendor spilled a cup of tea on the floor and one of the girls yelled at him. The vendor cleaned it immediately. But he said, “Didi, humse kuchch gandaa hua to hum to saaf karte hi hai, par jara aajubaju dekho... passengers jo gandagi karte hai use woh saaf nahi karte [Sister, I have cleaned the tea I spilt by mistake... but just look around, passengers throw garbage around and don't even clean it].” Khatri said, “You are right. This applies to everything that we do in our life. We always want someone else to clean our mess.”

At Lucknow, many passengers got and a few boarded. One of them was Sahil Khan, a 22-year-old management student from Dehradun. Post dinner, two women from Bengal requested Khan to get them a bottle of drinking water from the next station. Around 2am, Khan woke up one of the women, Meeta Sarkar, a retired music teacher, and handed her two bottles. He stayed awake just to get them water. Sarkar was touched by his gesture and said, “You won't witness such humane treatment by fellow passengers in first class compartments. Humanity still exists, irrespective of the so-called barriers.”

At Haridwar, we headed straight to the Kangri Gurukul, where Gandhi met Mahatma Munshiram and interacted with students. Gandhi had a discussion with teachers and students on introducing industrial training in their school. He developed a close friendship with Munshiram, who requested him to shift to Haridwar permanently. Though Gandhi was charmed with the beauty of the Himalayas and the Ganga, he was pained to see sadhus exploiting people.

It was in Haridwar that Gandhi, on April 10, 1915, took a vow not to eat more than five things in 24 hours and to have no meal after sunset. He also visited the Ramakrishna Mission and interacted with the monks there. Today, there is a charitable hospital for the poor, a library and a bookstore. The ghats and the Ganga were far cleaner in Haridwar than in Varanasi, and there was no menace of the pandas here.

The journey from Haridwar to Chennai was the longest. We boarded the Chennai Express, which runs between Dehradun and Chennai. It wasn't too crowded. Sandip Pandey of Shanti Kunj in Haridwar asked us about our experience in Varanasi and Haridwar. We shared our unpleasant experiences, to which he said, “This is truly sad. Temples have become places of business and pandas have become distributors of a commodity called faith. Our Acharya Shriram Sharmaji had requested akhadas and other religious bodies to allow us to use hundreds of abandoned temples in India for providing free education to the poor. But the permission was denied.”

Shoulder to shoulder- Police inspector Manju Singh and constable Sudha Bhati say discrimination against women in the department has reduced.
Shoulder to shoulder- Police inspector Manju Singh and constable Sudha Bhati say discrimination against women in the department has reduced.

Two women police officers boarded the train at Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Their uniforms and confident body language caught everyone's attention. Manju Singh, a police inspector, said, “I have served for more than 25 years in the Uttar Pradesh Police. We have eight women police sub-inspectors and more than 250 women constables in Saharanpur.” Sudha Bhati, a constable, said, “Two decades ago, women faced discrimination in the police department. But now, it has reduced a lot. Now senior male officers don't pressure us to do things their way.” Women surely have come a long way.

On the other hand, though, Mangali, 10, an orphan from Beena, has been begging and singing in trains for the past three years. When asked why she did this, she shot back, “Who will feed me?” Then there is Iram Khan, 20, from Bareilly, who along with her mother and sister was on her way to meet her older brother in Chennai. Her brother has been working as a driver there since 1998. Iram's mother plans to get her married next year. “I don't know whether Iram's husband would ever allow her to visit her brother's place,” she said.

At Bhopal, some soldiers and a group of more than 50 people boarded the train. They were all from Andhra Pradesh and were going to Vijayawada. The soldiers, posted in Srinagar, were travelling to their hometowns in Andhra on a month-long annual leave. When the train stopped at Ballarshah junction on the border of Maharashtra, we bought a few Marathi newspapers from the vendor. Suddenly a passenger asked, “Hey, tumhi Marathi aahat ka [Are you a Maharashtrian?” I am Pavankar.... I was sitting with the Telugus all this while and it is really difficult to communicate with them.” Anna Dhurai, 68, however, said: “I have worked in Chandrapur for 26 years. Language is never a hurdle in communication. Smile is the best language. You smile and include the other person in your heart. Then communication in any language is simple and easy.” I wrote down what he had said. “Why did you you write it down?” he asked. “Keep it in your mind and practise it.” This is what perhaps Gandhi would have advised.

The hall at Pachiyappa’s College where Gandhi addressed students. Photo by Janak Bhat
The hall at Pachiyappa’s College where Gandhi addressed students. Photo by Janak Bhat

After reaching Chennai, we went to Pachaiyappa's College where Gandhi had met students and professors in its magnificent hall. A Gandhi statue, without his trademark spectacles, greets you at the entrance. The college has a 102-year-old hostel building, where more than 600 students from poor families stay.

Youth connect- Gandhi giving a speech before a group of boy scouts in Madras. Photo by Alamy
Youth connect- Gandhi giving a speech before a group of boy scouts in Madras. Photo by Alamy

Gandhi had inaugurated a library in Sowkarpeth area in Madras and addressed people in the Ranade Hall. The library is no longer there and the Ranade Hall, situated in Gokhale Bhavan near Sowkarpeth, is dilapidated and has been closed down. A grand reception was held at YMCA in Gandhi's honour. Tendulkar described it in great detail. Gandhi told the students, “I am going through a year of probation under the Servants of India Society, founded by the great late Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Am I worthy of all the lavishing generosity and every adjective used for me? My answer is no. But I have come to India to become worthy of every adjective that you may use. My life will be certainly dedicated to prove worthy of them if I am able to be a worthy servant of my motherland.”

Our journey retracing the footprints of Mahatma Gandhi drew to an end here. While this was Gandhi's journey of discovering India, it was a journey of revelations for us. Gandhi and his ideology may have faded from our memories, but they are still relevant today and for times to come.

Niranjan TakleThe Week 2014.12.22