Gandhi at First Hand

[The following letter, written by a young American serving as tutor in the family of an Indian nabob, gives a picture of Mahatma Gandhi so familiar and human that readers will like to substitute it for the lay figure of the daily press. — THE EDITOR.]

— —, INDIA,
October 7, 1921.
MY DEAR MOTHER,—
Well, I have just seen the great Mahatma Gandhi — at last — and herewith send my first impressions. It happened in this wise: I was just coming back from the schoolhouse with Sahrid this afternoon, when we saw the Daimler car waiting outside the front porch.

‘Who ’s going out?’ said Sahrid, to one of the perawallas (hall-porters).

‘ It ’s for Mahatma Gandhi! ’ the man replied.

On going into the vestibule, we saw a little flotilla of sandals and slippers — a sure sign of visitors — including some enormous canoe-shaped things. ‘Those are his,’ said Sahrid, with conviction, and certainly they were the most impressive-looking pair. But the perawalla, who had followed us, was careful to correct us on this. Pointing, with reverent mien, as at a thing miraculous, to a pair of small, much-worn sandals, he said, with bated breath, 'Those are the Mahatma’s.’ In one sense, here was a thing of miracles: for wherever the owner of those two little sandals walked, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions followed in his footsteps. I ran to get my little camera and then followed Sahrid upstairs.

The Mahatma was seated at one end of a long room, on a sofa, which he shared with Bharati and one of her aunts. I could not help experiencing something of a shock on setting eyes on him for the first time. For the moment it was not so much him, as his apparel — again, it was not so much his apparel, as his astonishing lack of it! There he was, the world-famous leader, sitting in a well-furnished drawingroom; his host immaculately dressed in well-cut English clothes, and Gandhi — well, let us say a pair of very short ‘running shorts’; that was his whole trousseau! ‘They’ were white and, of course, made of homespun material or ‘kuudi.’ Thus arrayed, he wears no more toggery than the poorest native gardener or beggar.

He dresses like this on purpose, as you know, to show that it is not necessary to health, for one thing, to wear a lot of clothes; and further, to demonstrate his contention that India will be able to supply enough material herself to provide all that is necessary for her own people without the aid of foreign cloth.

His bare arms and legs looked very thin and his whole appearance was ascetic to the last degree. (He lives on toast and fruit, and very little at that.) He has the most extraordinary face, I think, that I have ever seen. For a while I could see only his profile. His head is well-shaped and covered with very close-cropped hair rapidly turning gray. A prominent aquiline nose, a bristly moustache, and a good chin. The lower lip protrudes too much, partly because very few front teeth are left in the lower jaw — a feature by no means ornamental. When he looked around, I found the full-face view even more extraordinary. So void of flesh is his head that it looks like a skull clothed in a mere skin. At first I was reminded of that bust said to represent Julius Caesar; then he resembled rather Houdin’s grinning bust of Voltaire.

When Gandhi laughs, which he does frequently, his face disappears in innumerable wrinkles. His expressions are quite fascinating, but I could not quite decide whether I liked him or not. Sometimes it seemed like the face of a fanatic; sometimes like that of a saint; at one moment he wears an almost Mephistophelean look; again he is like ‘the great god Pan.’ But never uninteresting or foolish.

A rather pretty impromptu was occasioned by the appearance of the baby of the family, aged five weeks. The ayah brought it in, and offered it to Gandhi. I was curious to see how this almost naked ascetic would manage to hold it — I forgot for the moment that he had children of his own. However, he did very well. Taking it in his bare arms, he made a support for its litlle head with one of his hands, in cup-and-ball fashion, and held it for quite a while. He seemed very delighted with the little mite; while the baby, for its part, seemed quite contented. It formed a really charming picture, for the Mahatma’s face wore a look of beautiful tenderness. Several times the mother made a movement to relieve him of his burden, but he clung to it, talking and laughing to it and to the other kiddies near-by.

Gandhi was very interested to hear I was a Quaker, and said he had some very good friends, Quakers, in South Africa, especially a Mr. C——, ‘who used to lend me all sorts of books to try to convert me to Christianity.’ ‘ He was,’ he said, ‘a splendid “24-carat” fellow; not very intellectual, but nevertheless a man you could not help loving at first sight.’

Turning to politics, I asked the Mahatma, ‘Don’t you think the problem is the same in India as in Ireland?’ ‘No, it is not the same,’ he said; ‘England does not want to exploit Ireland. With her it is only a matter of geographical necessity, of strategical considerations. England cannot sanction the idea of a separate country, outside the British Empire, so near her own doors. But with India it is a racial question. It is not so with Ireland. If you meet an Irishman outside his own country, as in South Africa, you make friends with him; at least you treat him with respect, as an equal. But not so with the Indian in South Africa, as I myself have experienced.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘is it not possible to overcome or overlook that feeling of racial distinction? If one has a real sense of the Fatherhood of God, does not that make us all feel we are brothers, irrespective of color or caste?’

‘Yes,’ said Gandhi, ‘it is possible; that is what Christianity can do, and that is where Europe has failed to interpret Christianity. The Quakers have got very near to it, but even they have not got the complete development. They have, however, a certain warmth in their hearts toward all the universe.’

‘But not toward the animals?’ I hinted, laughing — for the division among us on the vegetarian question undoubtedly is an enigma to the religious Indian typified by Gandhi. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘that is India’s special prerogative, I think.’

I told the Mahatma that I was meditating leaving the Quakers, to join the Roman Catholic Church, and this led to an interesting discussion about the doctrine of the Light Within. ‘Is it safe,’ I asked him, ‘to trust, the individual’s private intuition, without having any external authority to limit this, or to serve as a standard?’ The Mahatma thought it was ‘quite safe, if a man has developed the right conditions.’

In reply to my query as to what he meant exactly by ‘right conditions,’ he said, ‘I mean if a man has subdued, not only his physical passions, but also the sins of the mind. To such I would say, “Trust absolutely the voice of God in your hearts, and act on it without fear."'

I agreed that this was all right, provided one could feel sure he had developed such a state of perfection, but that he would be a bold man who dared think thus of himself.

‘This state of soul comes only to the man who seeks truth with a single mind,’ said Gandhi solemnly, ‘and to him who has followed the doctrine of Ahinsa.’ [This is a word meaning ‘ doing no harm,’ not quite expressed by our word ‘innocence.’] ‘You must,’ he went on, ‘fall back in the end on the authority of the Voice Within.’

‘Why,’ I said, laughing, ‘you are a regidar Quaker!’ He laughed, too, and said he had much in common with their beliefs and practices, so far as he knew them. I told him there was, no doubt, a great deal to be said for following the Inner Light, but it did not seem to me to be enough by itself as a guide. For one person’s Voice or Light might lead him to do one thing, and another’s quite a different, perhaps quite the opposite, thing. Did he not think that, possibly, the Roman Catholics had the balance of the argument, in their possession of such large deposits of ‘Faith,’ accumulated through the centuries, enabling the individual to test his particular findings?

But Gandhi seemed to think that they did not, in this respect, have any advantage over the Mohammedans; both traditionary edifices seemed to him essentially identical! His ideas as to what is involved in the notion of Papal Infallibility appeared to be equally original, and his comparative estimate of the Caliphate and the Roman versions of the Apostolic Succession also were highly interesting, and to a prejudiced mind even amusing!

As the Mahatma was leaving the house, I asked his permission to take a private snapshot of him. ‘No,’ he said, ’I am not going to sit for anyone’ (I heard afterward that he has practically vowed himself on this point).

‘But surely,’ I pleaded, ‘your Voice Within ought to persuade you to give me a chance of affording so much pleasure to myself and my friends!’ At this he laughed — he has a very hearty laugh—and stood still for a moment , actually taking a step forward to do so, standing out in the full sunshine for my benefit, while I snapped him.

Then this wonderful little man, whom Tagore calls ‘the Greatest Man in the World,’ this strange, frail figure arrayed in a loin cloth and a pair of old sandals, stepped into his host’s ten-thousand-dollar car and vanished in a whirl of dust. Such is India!