A Girl and a River

                                                   Chapter 6

                                               Pages 102 -- 106


Gandhi came in the first week of the new year and the day he arrived, there was panic in the house. To begin with, the goats refused to cooperate and Timrayee had to be quite sharp with them. And then Achamma wondered whether the milk had to be boiled or sent fresh. Did one treat goat’s milk the same as cow’s milk? Should they send it as it was and would they boil it at the camp? The Congress volunteer who had been stationed in the verandah since the early hours of the morning did not know. Was it groundnuts soaked in milk or dates? Groundnuts, Rukmini said impatiently, she had clearly told Achamma to soak groundnuts in goat’s milk. She had said dates, Achamma maintained. They soaked both afresh, just in case.

How, Achamma muttered under her breath, a man who didn’t even dress properly — it was not as if he was the Maharaja — could send the whole household spinning like a top, she could not understand. And what was wrong with cow’s milk? They had been drinking it since Lord Krishna’s time. It was all very well that he wanted to act like a poor man, but the poor would be only too happy to drink cow’s milk if they could afford it. And catch them living on groundnuts.

When everything looked set, Achamma in her excitement dropped the thermos flask, the only one in the house. A new one could only be had from Bangalore. Now what were they to send the milk in?

‘Rukmini, bring out the silver akshaya patre,’ Bhagiratamma commanded.

‘Send milk in a silver container to Gandhi?’ Mylaraiah was aghast. ‘Do you want my name to be mud in this town?’

Even as Achamma was washing out the remnants of cod liver oil from a black, large mouthed bottle, Mylaraiah hit upon an idea.

‘Quick, get me a stool,’ he said, as he took off his coat and then reached for the electric light in the passageway. He unscrewed the milky white dome shading the bulb and blew the dust off. ‘Here Achamma, carry it with both hands and wash it well, and for heaven’s sake, don’t drop it.’

A lid was found to fit and the dome full of goat’s milk was dispatched with Timrayee and the volunteer in a tonga.

A little later, at the head of the road on which the office was situated, the women of the Samaja waited for him, led by Rukmini and Umadevi. As soon as the Mahatma arrived, he would be brought by the Congress Welcoming Committee to the Samaja, his first stop where after spending half an hour, he would proceed to the town hall, with Rukmini joining Narayana Rao and the other eminent people of the town in the escorts’ party. They were there on the dot, and waited as the morning progressed from nine to ten o’ clock and ten to eleven o’ clock. But there was no sign of the Mahatma or Narayana Rao or anyone else, and the women waited in vain. Even their khadi garlands wilted and Kaveri flounced back home, refusing to wait anymore. When the Mahatma’s entourage finally swept into town, it was almost noon, a good three hours behind schedule. The first item to be cancelled from his itinerary was the half-hour promised to the women’s Samaja group — only nobody bothered to tell them that. It was almost time for lunch and the motor cars went on straight towards the town hall. Rukmini, needless to say, was not in the escorts’ party. The women, many of whom had come from the neighbouring villages and had waited for hours, continued to sit in the Samaja hall, hoping for a glimpse of him. Rukmini came home late in the afternoon with a headache and a fever, the first of her many mysterious bouts of illness. Waiting for the Mahatma on an empty stomach and maintaining order among a group of noisy women had proved too much for her. If there had been word from Narayana Rao, some explanation, she would have borne it better. It is only to be expected, Mylaraiah said, not without a touch of malice. He is far too busy and you don’t really matter in his scheme of things.

‘I have already seen him,’ Setu announced when he came home in the afternoon, and lowering his voice he added, ‘He was sleeping!’ as if he had caught Gandhi out.

Setu’s school had been given a holiday since Gandhi and his entourage were to be accommodated in the school. But the boys had swaggered around since morning in the grounds in mufti—though they were not allowed into the classrooms; just by being present in school when they were not supposed to be there made them feel they were thumbing their nose at it. In the afternoon, Ramu, to show off his privileges as Narayana Rao’s son had made arrangements for his friends to peep at Gandhi. They had climbed onto a heap of rubble on the grounds next to the window to his room and peered in, each boy getting a maximum of two seconds. The Mahatma was taking a nap, fifteen minutes from 1.45 pm to 2 pm. When Setu’s turn came, he saw a small, bald man asleep on the floor, slack jawed, his dentures waiting in a bowl beside his mat, next to his spectacles.

Again, it was Bhagiratamma, Kaveri, Setu, the servants and a couple of unidentifiable relatives, who went to listen to Gandhi in the high school grounds in the evening.

‘The crowd!’ Bhagiratamma exclaimed when she came home after the meeting. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen so many people before. The whole high school field was full. Wait,’ she fanned her face with the end of her sari, ‘let me wash my feet first.’

‘And so lively, I’ve rarely seen our people so avid … the only time I’ve seen such fervour is at the local Maramma jatres and at the chariot festivals. They were behaving as if God himself had come down to earth... I can quite believe he can get them to do anything ... but the dust! Kaveri was coughing all the time.’

‘In! In to the bathroom! I’ve kept the water hot,’ Achamma was urging Setu, ‘Look at your feet.’

‘What did he say?’ Rukmini asked.

‘There he was, perched on the platform high above the crowd, so small and frail, poor man … but his skin Rukmini, even in the twilight it was shining like copper … what will we do after he goes?’

‘Ayya, I didn’t let any of them enter from the front door. Right from the back door to the bachalmane I keep saying, but they are too excited to listen to me. I’ve got cauldrons of hot water ready... God knows whom they would have touched...’

‘He spoke in Hindi and Bhimappa, Nani’s clerk, kept translating, but he wasn’t quick enough, and moreover, we couldn’t hear him clearly...’

‘Well, my friend Ramu garlanded him and his father gave Gandhiji a purse full of money…’

‘He’s my friend Kalyani’s father too, and she too was supposed to garland him. Actually I was, but I refused,’ Kaveri cut in, ‘Well, Kalyani’s father gave Gandhiji a purse of one thousand rupees and you should have heard the crowd ... like thunder.’

‘What Setu! Still with your slippers on!’ Achamma exclaimed, ‘All kinds of people would have been there...’

‘Achamma,’ Mylaraiah said, ‘the Mahatma is here especially to remind us about the brotherhood of man —he says that the arrogance of the upper castes and the way we treat the Harijans is what is weakening us. That is why the parangis find it so easy to rule over us.’

‘I’m sure he never said anything about bringing in the dust of a thousand strangers into the house,’ Achamma muttered mutinously.

‘The Gita says you must treat other castes as you would like to be treated yourself…’

‘To each his own place, Ayya, and I would never refuse to wash my feet before entering anyone’s house.’

‘Wait, we haven’t told you what happened after the speech,’ Bhagiratamma said.

There had been a few anxious moments when the volunteers had moved between the rows, making collections and people had surged forward, anxious to put things into the collection bags. Bhagiratamma had caught the glint of coins, of silver plates and chambus, even the gleam of gold. For a few minutes, Bhagiratamma had been unable to see Setu, lost in the crowd of arms extending towards the collection bag, and had then found him.

‘Lawyer Nanjunda Kole’s wife and her sister-in-law, Setu’s CGK Sir’s wife, I saw them casually throw their gold bangles in. Nanjunda Kole’s wife can easily afford another pair but that other woman, her husband is just a schoolteacher. I don’t think she has another set to wear.’

It was only later in the night that Bhagiratamma noticed. Rukmini’s diamond earrings, with eight perfectly cut stones that flashed blue in the night, stones hand picked by her husband for his daughter, were gone. But she did not say anything to Rukmini about it.