Lifescapes

A Personal History
Rajeswari Chatterjee

Chapter 9: 1927
Mahatma Gandhi's Visit

Those were the days of India's national struggle against the British government which was ruling India. India, which at that time consisted of the present Pakistan, the present India, Bangladesh, Burma (or Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, was the brightest jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The national struggle had its beginning in the great Indian Mutiny of 1859, which was quenched by the British army in India. The British army not only consisted of British soldiers and officers, but also had Indian soldiers (called sepoys) recruited by them. This Indian mutiny was also called Sepoy Mutiny, because it was the Indian sepoys who were led to mutiny by their leaders against the British army, because of some rules made by the British officers, which went against their religion and culture.

After the mutiny was over, India came directly under the great Queen Victoria, who became the Empress of British India. Before the mutiny, the English East India Company was ruling India in the name of the queen.

The native rulers, who were defeated by the British had their grievances , but more than that, the small number of Indians who learnt the English language in the educational institutions of the country, which had been set up by the British to train some intelligent and willing Indians to help running their government, and a few of them, who had gone to England for their higher education, led this national struggle of independence. This movement had its begnning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the Indian National Congress was founded. In the beginning of the twentieth century, its leaders were Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi ( Mahatma Gandhi), Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaralal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das, Chak-ravarti Rajagolalachari, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Sarat Chandra Bose, Subash Chandra Bose, and others. Nearly all of them were very intelligent and capable lawyers from different parts of the country.

After working as a lawyer and taking part in the anti-apertheid struggle in south Africa for a few years, Mr. Gandhi returned to India and started his law practice. Very soon he took the leadership of the freedom movement , and the other leaders gave him full support. It was he who transformed the movement from an elite movement to a very popular movement ,which appealed to the poorest and unlettered masses of the country. He did this by advocating the principle of "Satyagraha" or "Non-cooperation", and also by giving up his sophisticated European clothes and habits. He moved among the common people, wearing a short dhoti, and a small cloth to cover his upper body and wore the Indian footwear called chappals(sandals). He ate the simplest vegetarian meals eaten by the common man. He lived in a hut in Sabarmati Ashram near the city of Ahmedabad.in Western India north of Bombay, with his wife Kastur Ba and some of his children and some of his followers. In addition to teaching noncooperation with the British, he also preached simple God-fearing living for all Indians, irrespective of their social and economic level. He pointed out in a gentle manner, the evils of our Indian society, like "Untouchability", under which system the lowest class of the people were considered untouchable. He coined a new name for this class of people, the name "Harijans", meaning "God's special people". He appealed to women to come out of their homes, to get educated, and work with their men for this noble cause. In fact, we can say that Mahatma Gandhi was the founder of women's liberation movement in India. The people of India called him "Mahatma Gandhi", the word "Mahatma" meaning not only "Great", but something much more than great, which goes closer to "Incarnation of God" or "Avatar".

In the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, this Non-cooperation or Satygraha movement had gathered such an importance in India, that nobody in India, rich or poor, educated or not educated, could deny the fact that he was really a "Great man of India"'

Mahatma Gandhi travelled all over India, covering not only the big cities, but small towns and tiny villages, covering many varieties of landscapes like wide plains watered by mighty rivers like the Ganges (Ganga) and Indus, narrow valleys watered by rivers Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada and Tapti. Everywhere he went, he travelled by train in the lowest class or third class , in which the common people of India travelled. He travelled by bullock cart and by foot,where there was no railway.. He covered mountains, hills, deserts and forests, and desolate villages and hamlets in deserts and forests. He travelled to the tiny fishing villages on the long coasts of India, bordering the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. He was not bothered with the fact that the people inhabiting all these areas spoke different languages, at least twenty major languages, and many more dialects. He knew his own mother-tongue Gujerati very well, and had learnt English very well in school and University and in England. He also knew Hindi fairly well. Wherever he went he learnt a few words of the local language and learnt to speak a few sentences of the language. He had amongst his followers some people who knew the other languages, and they translated his speeches in Gujerati or English or Hindi into the local language. He was the important leader of the Nationalist political party called the "Indian National Congress."

A Note on The History of India:

Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri lanka) were separated from India in the 1930's, and Pakistan which was the north-western part of India became an independent country in 1947 at the same time as India. Bangladesh which was part of Pakistan , declared independence in the early 1970's, and took the name of Bangladesh which was founded in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and this organization had members from all over the country. These members helped Mahatma Gandhi in carrying out his messages to the people all over the country.

Mahatma Gandhi not only wanted India to become independent, but preached that every man and every woman of the country should become self-sufficient. He preached that they should boycott all foreign goods and that each village should become self-sufficient. They should grow their own food, they should build their own houses, do their own work and spin and weave their simple clothes. This teaching made people all over the country to learn spinning cotton with simple spinning wheels, called charkas and taklis, and weave their own cloth. This hand-spun and hand-woven cloth is called "Khadi. Even I had learnt to spin cotton quite well on the charka and on the takli when I was a school girl.

So, when Mahatma Gandhi came to Bangalore in 1927 or so, there was a big reception for him organized in many places in the city. Mysore State was ruled by a Maharaja, and he made him a state guest, and put him and his followers in the Kumara Krupa guest house, but saw to it that he and his followers had their simple vegetarian food , and other requirements like arrangements to sleep on the floor, and so on.

Mahila Seva Samaja , where my grandmother Kamalamma was the honorary secretary, being one of the pioneering women's educational institutions, requested the reception committee to arrange for Mahatma Gandhi's visit to their institution to meet the women and children of Bangalore, and their request got a positive response. So all preparations were made, and the members were briefed on how the proceedings of the meeting should be organized, according to the simple ways of the "Great Man."

The women and the school children gathered in a big hall, all seated on the floor, to greet him. In another big room, some women were seated on the floor, spinning on the charka. The school children were taught to sing the song "Vaishnava Janato," which was Mahatma's favourite song of prayer. After the song, the president of the Mahila Seva Samaja, a dignified matron named Parvatamma, requested the Mahatma in Kannada to advise the women and children. Her speech was translated into Hindi and English by knowledgable persons.

What did the Mahatma speak to the women and girls of Bangalore? He first said that he was very happy to see that women of Bangalore had come out of their homes to meet him and help him in his work. At the end of his speech, he asked them how they could help him in his work. He said that he needed monetary help for his work for the untouchables (Harijans). Those were the days when the man of the family held the purse strings, and the women were given just enough money every day to run the household. The women had no money to give. Then the Mahatma told them that almost all of them had their "Sthridhana," which means "Woman's wealth" and consists of the jewels given to her at her marriage by her parents and others. Strictly, nobody including the husband, had any right over these jewels, except the owner. Woman after woman took out one or two of their jewels adorning their bodies, and threw them into the handkerchief held by the Mahatma. One woman threw a diamond and gold ring, another a gold necklace, another a ruby and gold earrings, and so on. Mahatma Gandhi thanked the women of Bangalore in responding to his request , and gracefully left the gathering with his followers.

This visit of the Mahatma gave the women of Bangalore so much encouragement  to come out of their homes and take part in carrying out his ideas, not only for obtaining the freedom of their country, but also for the emancipation of women. The Mahila Seva Samaja and many other organizations afterwards, not only organized rigourous classes for women in spinning and weaving Khadi, but also organized exhibitions to encourage people to use khadi clothes and also Swadeshi (made in India) goods, and to avoid foreign goods. Also they organized classes to teach Hindi, a language spoken by about thirty percent of the population (mostly in Northern India), so that India can have a common " lingua franca"

A Note on Indian Languages:
.India is a multiracial, multireligious and multilingual country. It has about twenty major languages, each with its own script and grammer, and many more dialects. They are Hindi, Punjabi,Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, M alayalam, Konkani, Mahrati, Gujerati, Rajastani, Sindhi, Urdu, to name some of them. Most of the present states of India have been formed as linguistic states, so that the majority of the people speak one of the languages, and that language is the official state language. However, the people living in the border areas of different states speak two or more languages, and in big metropolitan cities like Bangalore, they are exposed to many languages including English. For instance, in Bangalore people like public transport bus drivers and conductors speak many languages, and switch from one language to another in a minute.

Though Hindi is the official language of India, there are language controversies in India. For people whose mother tongue is not Hindi, it is sometimes difficult to take the "chauvinistic" attitude of the people of North India whose mother tongue is Hindi. So sometimes, "anti Hindi" agitations take place in parts of India, especially South India. But of course, this is just one of the problems India has to face, in addition to bigger problems like a gigantic population, poverty and ill health.

A Note on Sthridhana:

Every girl in India is given as many jewelsas the family can afford, at the time of marriage. Her husband's family also can give her some jewels. These jewels have always been called "Sthridhana" or "Woman's wealth", and strictly it is the woman,s property during her life, and it goes to the daughters after her death. She has full control over it, and nobody can touch it. Though the old Indian law for Hindus, called Manu's law which was recognized for two thousand years or so, was drastically changed after independence, to give more property rights, rights for divorce, etc for Hindu women, this law of "Sthridhana" still exists. There is a big agitation to change the law for Muslim women, to make it as good as for Hindu women. The Christian women are govrned by a law made by the British about a hundred years ago, and the Christian women's federations are trying very hard to change these laws also, so that it becomes more liberal like the Hindu law.

To Chapter 10