Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was not one of those gleeful people who liked their birthdays celebrated. Yet, his 75th birthday was the most celebrated one during his entire lifetime. It was also the day when Gandhi would finally see the money that was raised by the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust— a fund established in memory of his wife Kasturba who passed away on 22 February 1944, while detained at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona.
Gandhi was still in jail when the decision to set up the Memorial Trust was taken, and a committee was formed. The target amount would be Rs 75 lakh because it was Gandhi’s 75th birthday. Many thought it would be difficult to meet the target because most Congress leaders were languishing in jail for participating in the Quit India Movement. But the amount collected, a windfall of more than Rs 1 crore, exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Birthday wishes, or lack of it
When a correspondent of The Hindu asked Gandhi for his message on the ‘auspicious day’, he declined saying, “I am not accustomed to giving messages on such occasions.” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.78, Page 149) But many other luminaries did, including the oft-quoted message from Albert Einstein who extolled Gandhi by saying: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.
American novelist and Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck called Gandhi “an expression of what India is” and wrote: “He has brought his people to the very gates of liberty. If they are not opened, the people of India will open them”. (Gandhiji: His Life and Work, Karnatak Publishing House, Bombay, 1944. Page xii-xiii) Eminent Chinese scholar Professor Tan Yun-Shan said, “the Chinese people revere Gandhiji as a living Buddha”. (Jayanti Celebrations, Bombay Chronicle, 3 October 1944, Page 4)
George Bernard Shaw characteristically wrote, “I have cordial personal liking for Mahatma Gandhi but being myself a Mahatma, I never send message to my colleagues in that profession”. (British Leaders Greet Mahatma, Bombay Chronicle, 3 October 1944, P1) When a correspondent from The Hindu conveyed Shaw’s message to Gandhi, he “laughed aloud” and said, “There you are. I did not know until a few years ago that I have a birthday”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.78, P149).
A book, lamps and country-wide celebrations
The programme of handing over the Memorial Trust purse to Gandhi was organised at Sevagram Ashram, Wardha on 2 October 1944. Madalasa, daughter of industrialist and philanthropist Jamnalal Bajaj considered close to Gandhi, was very enthusiastic about the occasion and took lead in decorating the venue. According to Shantikumar Morarji, a Gandhi associate and owner of Scindia Steam Navigation, Madalasa prepared rangoli, placed a huge photo of Kasturba in pandal, and arranged a row of earthen lamps. But, when Gandhi came to know about it, he scolded Madalasa saying, “Thousands in villages don’t have oil for food and here you are, wasting oil for decoration”. The lighting and lamps had to be cancelled as per Shantikumar’s recollection. (Gandhijina Sansmarano Ane Biji Saambharano, Shantikumar, Balgovind Prakashan, Ahmedabad, 1963, Page 140)
Referring to a prohibitory order on general meetings without prior permission from the government, Gandhi said that it was not “a public meeting” but a “meeting of the trustees and collectors of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Fund for presentation of the collection”. Noting the presence of people from and outside Wardha at the meeting, Gandhi said that “people all over India for years now had made a habit of celebrating his birthday according to both the Indian and the Christian calendar. The intervening period between the two dates was also included in the observance”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.78, Page 149)
A non-stop session lasting 75 minutes was organised at Sewagram before the main function, in which Gandhi also participated. (Kasturba Fund Exceeds Target, Bombay Chronicle, 3 October 1944, P1) Countrywide celebrations of Gandhi’s 75th birthday were held, with the hoisting of the Congress flag, prabhat pheris (morning rallies), prayer meetings, sale of khadi and spinning activities taking place at many places across India.
A special endeavour as part of Gandhi’s 75th birthday celebrations was the publication of a richly-illustrated compilation ‘Gandhiji: His Life and Work’. Unlike most other publications on Gandhi, this one, published by Karnatak Publishing House, Bombay, was arguably special.
The publication was edited by notable writer D. G. Tendulkar, well-known editor M. Chalapathi Raju, freedom fighter Mridula Sarabhai, and activist and writer Vithalbhai K. Jhaveri, and contained a preface written by Gandhi himself.
The oddity was not lost on Gandhi. In “A word for the reader”, Gandhi began with a question and offered an explanation: “Who can accept the propriety of my writing a preface for this venture? But if by doing so I can help fill the purse for the poor, why need I hesitate?” He continued, “A few words from me by way of a foreword will, they argue, help the cause. This is enough temptation for me”. (Gandhiji: His Life and Work, Karnatak Publishing House, Bombay. 1944. Page ix).
However, things changed drastically in the following years. On his 78th birthday on 2 October 1947, his first birthday in independent India that turned out to be his last, Gandhi was deeply anguished by Partition, communal violence, and widespread hatred.
In his speech at a prayer meeting in Delhi, he said: “Today is my birthday…On this day we must fast, spin and pray. That, in my view, is the most appropriate way of celebrating one’s birthday. For me today is the day of mourning. I am surprised and also ashamed that I am still alive. I am the same person whose word was honoured by millions of the country. But today nobody listens to me”. His lament continued: “If you really want to celebrate my birthday, it is your duty not to let anyone be possessed by madness and if there is anger in your hearts you must remove it”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.89, Page 275)
Gandhi’s message on his last birthday is even more relevant now as India commemorates his 150th birth anniversary.
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
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