Ratnottama Sengupta shows the impact of Gandhi and his call for non-violence on her father, Nabendu Ghosh as she continues to emote over his message of Ahimsa and call for peace amidst rioting
The ferocity and senselessness of riots — Nabendu Ghosh had personal experience of both. In his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri (Dey’s Publication, 2008, Journey of a Lonesome Boat), he writes at length about grappling with the riots that had rocked Calcutta, Bengal — nay, the entire Subcontinent on 16th August 1946.
The Direct Action Day call was given out by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to press the demand for a separate Muslim State, Pakistan. The epicentre was Calcutta, a flourishing centre of business and education, that had Suhrawardy of Muslim League as its chief minister. On that black Friday, they unleashed unprecedented bloodletting along communal lines. At least 4000 deaths were reported on the very first day of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ that continued for more than four days. Many women were raped, many were kidnapped, many killed and hung naked in public areas… Dismemberment, forced conversion, bustees set on fire… Violence spread to Khulna in East Bengal, and Bihar. Within a year the hatred ignited on religious grounds culminated in the Partition of India.
The savagery of the mindless bloodbath had left such a deep dent on the yet-to-be-thirty writer, that he wrote a number of stories and novels on the theme: Phears Lane, Dweep, Trankarta, Ulukhar, ‘Chaaka’(Full Circle), and ‘Gandhiji’.
Gandhiji builds majorly on the author’s own memories of a darshan of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi while he was passing through Patna, sometime in early 1931. This is how he records his ‘encounter’ with the Saint of Sabarmati who worked magic on the masses with the mantra of Ahimsa, non-violence.
“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7 am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night.
“I did not sleep well that night. I was up at the crack of dawn and left home at 5 am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend. But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate.
“Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’
“All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper: ‘Vande Mataram! I salute you, my Motherland!’ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!’ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!’
“Suddenly a train rolled in with a long whistle. And people all around me broke into the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ ‘Vande Mataram!’ I found myself matching their voice…
“Soon people started saying, ‘There he goes…’ Some cars came forward with Gandhi-topi clad volunteers. And then, there was the face so familiar from the newspapers, peering out of a hood-open Ford. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti, a chadar draped over his bare torso, a volunteer on either side, was greeting everyone with folded hands. What an inspiring image!
“I also broke into the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’‘ The crowd had started running behind the moving car. I joined them, without a pause in the slogan. A few paces later, I bumped into someone and fell down by the wayside. As an elderly gentleman lifted me up and soothingly dusted me off. I felt a resolve surface in my thoughts: ‘Freedom must be won!'”
Nabendu Ghosh may or may not have had another prototype for the protagonist Ratan in Gandhiji. But it is said there actually lived close to College Street — where Nabendu lived at the time — a person named Gopal Mukherjee who owned a meat shop. He was a devotee of Subhash Chandra Bose and a critique of Gandhi. Reportedly this ‘paatha‘ — butcher — was funded by some Marwari businessmen and he led his team to retaliate from the fourth day of riots. After Independence, when he was urged to surrender his guns, knives and sword to Gandhiji, he apparently refused, saying, “I would willingly lay down my arms for Netaji, but not for Gandhiji. Why didn’t he stop the killings in Noakhali?”
The author may have woven in some traits of Gopal Paatha but, like a mirror image that is identical yet opposite, his protagonist Ratan is transformed by the iconic personality so that he surrenders his weapons — expressed symbol of violence — at the feet of the Mahatma.
As I watched Kamal Hasan’s Hey! Ram (2000), I was reminded of this story, ‘Gandhiji’ that was published in the collection Raater Gaadi (The Night Train) in 1964. Perhaps unknowingly the character played in the film by Om Puri reflects the protagonist Ratan.
In Hey! Ram, A rioteer who has snuffed out scores of lives walks up to the fasting Gandhi in Beliaghata, throws a roti towards him and says, “I have bloodied my hands with many lives but I will not have your death on my conscience.” He resonates Ratan, the butcher who finds his biggest high in draining out human blood but once he rests his eyes on the frail sage, something happens deep inside him. He who wondered why his taking a life should matter to ‘Gendo’, stakes his own life to protect a Muslim.
Nabendu Ghosh experienced the magic of the Mahatma at age fourteen, long years before he became my father.
I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma when I was well into my forties, and was doing a Fellowship in Oxford, on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his Influence on Gandhi and Tagore.
Then, almost 20 years later, we were at the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of Gandhi’s passing and approaching his Sesquicentennial Birth Anniversary. That is when I started wondering: “What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India now? Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only ‘M G Road’ — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday?”
Or, is there any valid reason to recall what he said — in Natal and Transvaal and Pietermaritzburg; in Kolkata and Noakhali, Chowri Chowra and Dandi, Bombay and Delhi? Is there anything in his actions that can change the lives of not only Indians but everywhere in the world where people are tired of terror strikes and gunshots and discrimination in the name of caste or creed or colour?
For, influence he certainly did, the lives of so many personalities… Not for nothing was Mohandas of Porbandar to become Gandhiji, Mahatma, Bapu, Father of the Nation.
 To go to view a great or holy man
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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