Jawaharlal Nehru famously wrote a fan letter once to actress Devika Rani of Achhut Kanya fame. But Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had no such fondness for film artists even though he had many iconic personalities as his contemporaries.
With the kind of path that he chose for himself, Gandhi had no occasion to mingle with stalwarts in fields like films, arts, sports, adventure, glamour or even literature. There were no meetings between Gandhi and Saadat Hasan Manto or Gandhi and K. L. Saigal.
Singing sensation of the pre-film music era, Gauhar Jaan offered Gandhi a sum of Rs 12,000 once. But there was a condition. Gandhi later recollected the incident in a letter to his associate Brijkrishna Chandiwala. He wrote: “I had refused Rs 12,000 from Gauhar Jaan because of the condition that I should go and listen to her music. But Alibhai went and collected the money”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.70, Page 278)
The only celebrity somewhat close to Gandhi’s orbit and who met him several times was Bollywood actor and prominent member of Indian People’s Theatre Balraj Sahni. He joined the editorial staff of the paper Nai Talim, brought out by the Wardha Scheme of Education, and stayed outside Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram a decade before he joined the Hindi film industry. (Balraj, My Brother, Bhisam Sahni, National Book Trust, 1991, Page 62)
Talks with a playwright, comic legend
Gandhi did not scrupulously avoid meeting celebrities either.
His Europe trip for the second Round Table Conference in London in 1931 provided opportunities for many unusual meetings.
Famous playwright George Bernard Shaw met him for almost an hour and talked about a “bewildering variety of topics — ethnographic, religious, social, political, economic”. According to Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai, who was present during the meeting, Shaw’s talk was “illuminated by his sparkling wit and sardonic humour”. Shaw praised Gandhi saying, “I knew something about you and felt something in you of a kindred spirit. We belong to a very small community on earth”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 6 November 1931. Vol. 48, Page 272)
Unfortunately, no photograph is available of this unprecedented meeting.
His meeting with Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, was a much-recorded event. They met at a “humble little house in the slum district off the East India Dock Road…Press and Photographers packed both floors”. (My Autobiography, Charles Chaplin, Penguin Books, 1966, Page 335)
Chaplin asked Gandhi about his “abhorrence of machinery” to which Gandhi said: “Machinery in the past has made us dependent on England, and the only way we can rid ourselves of that dependency is to boycott all goods made by machinery”. And then Chaplin admitted: “I got a lucid object lesson in tactical manoeuvring in India’s fight for freedom, inspired, paradoxically, by a realistic, virile-minded visionary with a will of iron to carry it out”.
Chaplin even witnessed the evening prayer of Gandhi and five others in the room. “What a paradox, I thought, as I watched this extremely realistic man, with his astute legal mind and his profound sense of political reality, all of which seemed to vanish in a sing-song chant”, he wrote. (My Autobiography, Charles Chaplin, Penguin Books, 1966, Page 336-337).
Engaging a luminary and a fascist
There were more unwonted meetings that followed. On his way back to India, Gandhi had special meetings with two diametrically opposite personalities: French writer and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland and the fascist Prime Minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini.
On his meeting with Rolland in Villeneuve, a lakeside town in Switzerland, Gandhi later wrote: “Could I have left India just to visit him, I would have undertaken the voyage”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 48, Page 434). Gandhi had hearty sessions with Rolland.
However, it was much more formal with Mussolini with whom Gandhi met against the advice of Rolland. Mahadev Desai and Meeraben (Mahatma’s disciple) accompanied Gandhi to Mussolini’s Rome office. Gandhi had a brief chat with Mussolini in which the latter asked many questions ranging from England’s condition to Hindu-Muslim discord in India.
After leaving his office, Gandhi’s first reaction was telling Mahadev Desai that Mussolini had “big cat-like eyes”. When Desai commented that Satan’s eyes can’t be better than this, “Bapu didn’t object”. (Mahadevbhaini Diary ane Anya Lekho, Vol. 15, Page 495, Navjivan Publication, Ahmedabad)
Gandhi tried to meet the Pope in the Vatican, but as per Mahadev Desai’s impression, Pope avoided meeting him citing Sunday services and other engagements. (Mahadevbhaini Diary ane Anya Lekho, Vol. 15, Page 490, Navjivan Publication, Ahmedabad.)
But, Albert Einstein, the man who paid one of the most memorable tributes to Gandhi calling him “a leader of his people” and “a victorious fighter”, never got to meet him.
With men of science, an atheist
Among Indian scientists, physicist and Nobel laureate C. V. Raman met Gandhi along with his biologist friend from Switzerland, Professor Gilbert Rahm.
It was in May 1936. They discussed religion. Professor Rahm asked Gandhi: “If we cannot unite, can’t we fight atheism which seems to be so much on the increase?”
Raman replied: “Mahatmaji, religions cannot unite. Science offers the best opportunity for a complete fellowship. All men of science are brothers”. Gandhi joked, “What about the converse? All who are not men of science are not brothers?”
Raman responded in a similar tone, “But all can become men of science”. Gandhi delivered another quip, “You will have to present a Kalma of science as Islam presents one”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 62, Page 389).
Gandhi, a religious man, had a series of dialogues with well-known atheist G. Ramachandra Rao or ‘Gora’ in the last phase of his life. It resulted in a booklet called An Atheist with Gandhi and the developing of a personal bond with Gandhi.
The meeting that never happened
One meeting that never took place was between Bhagat Singh and Gandhi.
But, according to Kishansinh Chavda, noted Gujarati writer, the historic meeting did take place. The late Gujarati journalist Nirubhai Desai vividly recollected an incident in which he was asked by Chavda to look after one or two visitors who were coming to Ahmedabad to see Gandhi. “We didn’t know he was Bhagat Singh. We arranged their stay in a house at Kapadi Vaas… After they met Gandhi and left, Chavda told us that he was none other than Bhagat Singh himself’. (Sadabahar Nirubhai, Shri Nirubhai Smarak Foundation, Ahmedabad, 1995, Page 13)
However, this claim was never proven beyond doubt.
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
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