VII. KUMBHA MELA
I next went to Rangoon to meet Dr. Mehta, and on my
way I halted at Calcutta. I was the guest of the late
Babu Bhupendranath Basu. Bengali hospitality reached its
climax here. In those days I was a strict fruitarian, so
all the fruits and nuts available in Calcutta were
ordered for me. The ladies of the house kept awake all
night skinning various nuts. Every possible care was
taken in dressing fresh fruit in the Indian style.
Numerous delicacies were prepared for my companions,
amongst whom was my son Ramdas. Much as I could
appreciate this affectionate hospitality, I could not
bear the thought of a whole household being occupied in
enteraining two or three guests. But as yet I saw no
escape from such embarrassing attentions.
On the boat going to Rangoon I was a deck passenger.
If excess of attention embarrassed us in Sjt. Basu's
house, grossest inattention, even to the elementary
comforts of deck passengers, was our lot on the boat.
What was an apology for a bath room was unbearably dirty,
the latrines were stinking sinks. To use the latrine one
had to wade through urine and excreta or jump over them.
This was more than flesh and blood could bear. I
approached the Chief Officer without avail. If anything
was lacking to complete the picture of stink and filth,
the passengers furnished it by their thoughtless habits.
They spat where they sat, dirtied the surroundings with
the leavings of their food, tobacco and betel leaves.
There was no end to the noise, and everyone tried to
monopolize as much room as possible. Their luggage took
up more room than they. We had thus two days of the
On reaching Rangoon I wrote to the Agent of the
Steamship Company, acquainting him with all the facts.
Thanks to this letter and to Dr. Mehta's efforts in the
matter, the return journey though on deck was less
In Rangoon my fruitarian diet was again a source of
additional trouble to the host. But since Dr. Mehta's
home was as good as my own, I could control somewhat the
lavishness of the menu. However, as I had not set any
limit to the number of articles I might eat, the palate
and the eyes refused to put an effective check on the
supply of varieties ordered. There were no regular hours
for meals. Personally I preferred having the last meal
before night fall. Nevertheless as a rule it could not be
had before eight or nine.
This year 1915 was the year of the Kumbha fair, which
is held at Hardvar once every 12 years. I was by no means
eager to attend the fair, but I was anxious to meet
Mahatma Munshiramji who was in his Gurukul. Gokhale's
Society had sent a big volunteer corps for service at the
Kumbha. Pandit Hridayanath Kunzru was at the head, and
the late Dr. Dev was the medical officer. I was invited
to send the Phoenix party to assist them, and so Maganlal
Gandhi had already preceded me. On my return from
Rangoon, I joined the band.
The journey from Calcutta to Hardvar was particularly
trying. Sometimes the compartments had no lights. From
Saharanpur we were huddled into carriages for goods or
cattle. These had no roofs, and what with the blazing
midday sun overhead and the scorching iron floor beneath,
we were all but roasted. The pangs of thirst, caused by
even such a journey as this, could not persuade orthodox
Hindus to take water, if it was 'Musalmani.' They waited
until they could get the 'Hindu' water. These very
Hindus, let it be noted, do not so much as hesitate or
inquire when during illness the doctor administers them
wine or prescribes beef tea or a Musalman or Christian
compounder gives them water.
Our stay in Shantiniketan had taught us that the
scavenger's work would be our special function in India.
Now for the volunteers in Hardvar tents had been pitched
in a #dharmashala#, and Dr. Dev had dug some pits to be
used as latrines. He had to depend on paid scavengers for
looking after these. Here was work for the Phoenix party.
We offered to cover up the excreta with earth and to see
to their disposal, and Dr. Dev gladly accepted our offer.
The offer was naturally made by me, but it was Maganlal
Gandhi who had to execute it. My business was mostly to
keep sitting in the tent giving #darshan# and holding
religious and other discussions with numerous pilgrims
who called on me. This left me not a minute which I could
call my own. I was followed even to the bathing #ghat# by
these #darshan-seekers#, nor did they leave me alone
whilst I was having my meals. Thus it was in Hardvar that
I realized what a deep impression my humble services in
South Africa had made throughout the whole of India.
But this was no enviable position to be in. I felt as
though I was between the devil and the deep sea. Where no
one recognized me, I had to put up with the hardships
that fall to the lot of the millions in this land, e.g.,
in railway travelling. Where I was surrounded by people
who had heard of me I was the victim of their craze for
#darshan#. Which of the two conditions was more pitiable,
I have often been at a loss to determine. That at least I
know that the #darshanvalas'# blind love has often made
me angry, and more often sore at heart. Whereas
travelling, though often trying, has been uplifting and
has hardly ever roused me to anger.
I was in those days strong enough to roam about a lot,
and was fortunately not so known as not to be able to go
in the streets without creating much fuss. During these
roamings I came to observe more of the pilgrims' absent
mindedness, hypocrisy and slovenliness, than of their
piety. The swarm of sadhus, who had descended there,
seemed to have been born but to enjoy the good things of
Here I saw a cow with five feet! I was astonished, but
knowing men soon disillusioned me. The poor five-footed
cow was a sacrifice to the greed of the wicked. I learnt
that the fifth foot was nothing else but a foot cut off
from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder of the
cow! The result of this double cruelty was exploited to
fleece the ignorant of their money. There was no Hindu
but would be attracted by a five-footed cow, and no Hindu
but would lavish his charity on such a miraculous cow.
The day of the fair was now upon us. It proved a
redletter day for me. I had not gone to Hardvar with the
sentiments of a pilgrim. I have never thought of
frequenting places of pilgrimage in search of piety. But
the seventeen lakhs of men that were reported to be there
could not all be hypocrites or mere sight-seers. I had no
doubt that countless people amongst them had gone there
to earn merit and for self-purification. It is difficult,
if not impossible, to say to what extent this kind of
faith uplifts the soul.
I therefore passed the whole night immersed in deep
thought. There were those pious souls in the midst of the
hypocrisy that surrounded them. They would be free of
guilt before their Maker. If the visit to Hardvar was in
itself a sin, I must publicly protest against it, and
leave Hardvar on the day Kumbha. If the pilgrimage to
Hardvar and to the Kumbha fair was not sinful, I must
impose some act of self-denial on myself in atonement for
the iniquity prevailing there and purify myself. This was
quite natural for me. My life is based on disciplinary
resolutions. I thought of the unnecessary trouble I had
caused to my hosts at Calcutta and Rangoon, who had so
lavishly entertained me. I therefore decided to limit the
articles of my daily diet and to have my final meal
before sunset. I was convinced that, if I did not impose
these restrictions on myself, I should put my future
hosts to considerable inconvenience and should engage
them in serving me rather than engage myself in service.
So I pledged myself never whilst in India to take more
than five articles in twenty-four hours, and never to eat
after dark. I gave the fullest thought to the
difficulties I might have to face. But I wanted to leave
no loophole. I rehearsed to myself what would happen
during an illness, if I counted medicine among the five
articles, and made no exception in favour of special
articles of diet. I finally decided that there should be
no exception on any account whatsoever.
I have been under these vows for now thirteen years.
They have subjected me to a severe test, but I am able to
testify that they have also served as my shield. I am of
opinion that they have added a few years to my life and
saved me from many an illness.