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Snakes and Ladders (Gita Mehta)


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I had just turned five years old when I found myself attending my first political event. The cold January day had started normally enough. My brother and I were playing under a winter sun in the garden of our house in Delhi, while our parents chose to sit in the verandah listening to the large wooden radio.

We never listened to the radio, only watched it, fascinated by the bronze netting that vibrated with the resonance of the broadcast. But this afternoon my father suddenly shouted "No!" with such force the servants came out to see what was happening. We ran to the verandah to find Mother crying. To our surprise the servants were weeping too. Over the crackle of the radio the announcer repeated that Mahatma Gandhi had been shot three times and killed.

We were so small we were not quite sure who Mahatma Gandhi was, or even whether he was human or one of India's many deities. Later we learned he had been shot by a Hindu fanatic as he was preparing to leave on a peace march for the killing fields of Partition, where millions of people, uprooted by the map drawing of the British Empire that had given birth to the two nations of India and Pakistan only six months earlier, were still fleeing the orgy of fear and savagery that already had left a million Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs slaughtered in its wake.

After all this time I cannot remember the exact sequence of events, only that Father rushed to the house where the Mahatma had been shot. Mother, too distraught to leave home, insisted the servants take us with them to watch the Mahatma's body being taken to the funeral pyre.

Wondering what the excitement was about, we ran beside the servants toward the road where Gandhi's funeral cortege was expected. The pavements were already crowded with people standing four rows deep. It was a most un-Indian crowd. There was no noise. Everyone had changed into white, the Indian color of mourning that was no color at all. There was no pushing or shoving, as if the whole city were frozen and one man's death bore evidence to the horror and the savagery that, overnight, had turned a city of half a million people into a city of two million as refugees poured in from the carnage of Partition.

I recall sitting on someone's shoulder, looking over the mass of heads, not scared in a crowd that newspapers with black bands around them, to signify a nation in mourning, would later estimate at a million and a half people.

In silence we watched the lorry bearing the Mahatma's body slowly approaching. It was crowded with bareheaded old people dressed in white, sitting uncomfortably wherever they could find a perch. At the top of the lorry was a mound covered with flowers. Only a small exposed head revealed this to be the corpse of the Mahatma, the first dead body I had ever seen. As it passed in front of us, mourners broke ranks in that silent crowd to step forward and throw flowers in its path, raising their voices to bless Gandhi, "Amar rahe"--"Stay immortal."

In a few hours there would be nothing left of the Mahatma but ashes, and on the radio the Prime Minister would announce to the nation, "The light has gone out of our lives."

When I grew older I learned the names of some of the old people riding on the lorry, and realized I had watched a human pageant of those who had fought for India's freedom taking the symbol of that freedom movement to his funeral pyre.

Then, I had seen only a mound covered with marigold garlands. It was not a frightening sight, and it certainly wasn't glamorous. Even as very small children we could feel the heavy-heartedness, the dignity of the occasion--somehow more real because it was so shabby. Just a lorry, a corpse circled by people weeping silently, watched by grieving Indians who knew that independent India, only six months old, had already lost her innocence.

Years later I saw Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi. In the film Gandhi's funeral cortege was a huge military affair, with gun carriages and serried rows of soldiers marching with slow and solemn precision to the beat of funereal drums. Wondering if my own memories could have been so warped by time, I asked one of the Mahatma's grandsons about the vast gap between my recollection and what I had seen on celluloid.

"Briefly, that ceremony did take place," he admitted. "Even though Gandhi-ji never wanted a production made of his death. It was invented by Nehru and Mountbatten. For the record."

What record? I wondered. Soldiers? Gun carriages? For the disciple of nonviolence? All those uniforms and all that gold braid for the man who dared to wear a loincloth to his meeting with the King Emperor of India?

If ever anything would have been abhorrent to Gandhi, smacking of the very colonialism he had done everything in his power to end, it would have been the idea of a state funeral.

Yet in one of the most imperious grand gestures of the twentieth century, Gandhi had insisted that Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, be invited by Indians to become our first head of state. It was an eccentric demand, but consistent. Indeed, for years Gandhi had seen no reason to expel the British from India.

"If they can govern justly," he had argued in the middle of a freedom movement, "what difference does it make?"

He changed his mind only after the limited self-government Britain had promised India did not materialize and the Empire refused to lift the tax on salt in a continent where the people needed salt to live. Stating that he now believed Britain incapable of just government, Gandhi wrote to the British Viceroy, "On bended knee I asked for bread and you gave me stone instead."

Then he embarked on his famous Salt March to the sea to make illegal salt--the nonviolent movement of civil disobedience that would dislodge the British Raj.

By inviting Mountbatten to become free India's first head of state, Gandhi wanted to dispel the nation's hatred of her past colonial masters. He was indifferent to Mountbatten's race. Gandhi never doubted the equality of all human beings. He wanted justice. That was why he could wear a loincloth to Buckingham Palace. But his death became an opportunity for Mountbatten and Nehru to show the world how well they could do state occasions.[

I guess I was lucky. Even if he was dead, even if I was hardly more than a baby, I saw the actual Mahatma. Not a Mahatma invented for history or politics or films.

Alas, poor Gandhi.

Who had pleaded that the Indian National Congress was a freedom movement, not a political party, and should be disbanded when India became free.

Who had showed us that nonviolence and a proud humility went hand in hand.

Who had believed that Indians would govern themselves with greater justice than their colonial masters.

He did not even reach his funeral pyre before his luck ran out.

 
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Excerpted from Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta. Copyright © 1997 by Snakes and Ladders. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.