An Eye-Witness Account of the Funeral Procession of Mahatma Gandhi
January 31 1948 - from Birla House to Rajghat, New Delhi
By a 16- year old Refugee Boy from Lyallpur
My name is Jatinder Nath Sethi, born in November 1931, youngest child among six brothers and two sisters, all born in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan. I was in the 10th class in Arya School, Mai -Di-Jhugi, when the country got divided into India and Pakistan.
Till then, if I recall correctly, we never had any religious animosity between Hindus and Muslims. In fact, our closest friends were Muslim families. Not only that, but both religious communities together were involved in the freedom movement, though as a kid I didn't much understand it. I remember clearly the huge crowd that came out to greet Nehru when he, on a white horse, visited Dussera Grounds in Lyallpur. The freedom movement was at its height.
I also remember we as kids used to carry folder containing photos of all the leaders of the time; Jawahar Lal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajinder Babu, Sarojini Naidu and others. Like today's kids carry photos of cricketers and film stars.
It was only later years in the 1940s that the tension started building between the friendly communities, with the talk of the division of the country India into two parts. But I cannot recollect any incidence of communal hatred till Class 9.
But once the Partition of the country was accepted, the preparation of blood bath, on both sides, started taking its toll.
It was at this stage around beginning of 1947 that we moved out of Lyallpur, and like millions of others, came over to Delhi of India. This side of North India got swamped by millions moving in as "refugees".
Delhi! Our New Home Town. My brother Nath Bhaji & Ratan Batra Studio.
It was mid 1947 when I landed in Delhi along with my brothers, sisters and parents. Without any chilling experience that many faced during the move to independence. Luckily one of my elder brothers, Nath Bhaji, was already working in an Art Studio, owned by our Massi's son, called Ratan Batra Studio.
Nath Bhaji, after completing his graduation from Government College, Lyallpur had gone to Bombay to study in J J School of Art, a 5-year course of Fine Arts. Nath Bhaji stayed with our cousin, Ratan Batra, an Artist himself, who had been running a successful Art Studio, Ratan Bharti, in Bombay. And he lived in a 4-bedroom house, which he occupied since 1937, in Shivaji Park, right next to the beach. And the rent, I believe was Rs 20 per month. Now his son owns the place, as they never vacated it.
Nath Bhaji, after staying with Ratan Bhaji for 5 years in that Shivaji Park apartment, and finishing his Art course, moved to Delhi to open a branch of Ratan Batra Studio. Luckily, this became a place of refuge for the displaced family to hide their heads in new Independent India. It was around mid-1947.
This place, a two-room office cum residence, was on the top floor of the building housing the Hindustan Times Press opposite Scindia House, Connaught Circus, New Delhi.
It was from here where I saw some lootings of big bungalows of Muslims, but no big hungama (trouble) here. While all my other brothers were out looking for work to earn some daily bread, as we had nothing brought with us, I had no skills to count on. Hence I became a little loafer, just roaming around this part of Delhi, and passing my day aimlessly.
Like all others, I got my Matriculation Certificate after doing some Social Service in a Refugee Camp.
A fast-forward diversion
(Just to make a comparison with other children of my age who were much more mature and skilled to get busy with work and earn money, I will fast forward to the present to show an example of a boy that now puts me to shame even now at the age of 87.
I am talking about a man who has become a very close friend like a lost brother. I came in contact with him on the Net. He turned out to be my neighbor of Lyallpur, same age as mine, then 16 years, with a lot of common links. But we never met in Lyallpur. When he became a refugee, like all of us, he landed up in Jullundur.
He, I am told, never lost a day loafing but got himself "self-employed" immediately and earned a living for the family and himself.
He had already, while in school at Lyallpur, learnt Typing and Short Hand, through the Pitman school. He learnt driving on a friend's car. And, he was already a skilled photographer, having learnt it from one of the photo shops in Lyallpur.
So when he landed as a refugee in Jullunder, he opened a photography shop, plus became a driver to one of his rich relatives. On top of It he had already learnt a lot about Ham Radio. He never lost a moment pitying himself like me, the time waster! He eventually became the Head of a Scottish Rubber Farm in Kuala Lumpur where he is now retired with his Ham Radio set up.
His name is Sangat Singh. You can read about him here.
Well, I take a solace in poet's words: "Those who wait and watch also serve."
It was during those aimlessly passing days in Delhi listening to all the ghastly stories of bloodbath and Mahatma Gandhi's effort, to put an end to Hindu Muslim Fasad, that the News Flash came. Mahatma Gandhi has been shot dead at his Prayer meeting in Birla House.
Stunning news. No one was prepared to believe till Pandit Nehru himself announced the news on All-India Radio,
At 5.17 in the evening on January 30th, 1948. India was stunned. So was I.
It was "Hai Raam" - the last words Gandhi uttered.
I had only once attended Gandhiji's Prayer meeting. That happened to be just one day before his tragic death.
The details of the funeral were announced on All India Radio.
I, like literally millions of Indians, with dead silence face, unbelievable looks, looked almost lost without Bapu. It was dead silence, as no one ever uttered a word, in shock. Actually tears were flowing from every eye. People were assembling outside Birla House to march with the Mahatma, now no more, to what became Raj Ghat. It was a rare moment in life to get a little glimpse of Nehru's face. Anger and disbelief. Same for Patel and others.
If you see some old photos, shot from the helicopter, of the precession passing India Gate, you will not see an inch of ground as the whole earth was covered by millions of silent mourners, almost crying, walking along with the Mahatma.
Mahatma Gandhi's funeral procession. January 1948. Delhi.
I remember I was following the truck of All-India Radio, on which the world renowned Broadcaster, Melville De Mellow, was giving a second-by-second commentary. Without a pause, he did seven-hour continuous commentary, all by himself, hardly able to hold back his own tears. He Was the Voice of the Nation.
That was the approximate time - seven hours - that we took to reach Rajghat from Birla House. No one complained and not a single person left the funeral half way.
Even after the pyre fire was almost consumed, none of us really wanted to leave. But eventually, all the millions, including me, who had walked from Birla House to Rajghat, walked back miles to their homes, silently.
And I walked back to Nath Bhaji's place. Not feeling tired at all!
When one sees the old photos of that funeral, one still gets into that deathly silence mode.
My brother Nath Bhaji, later on started his own Art Studio in Delhi, got married to his friend from Miranda House, built his house in Nizamuddin West, and lived there till he passed away.
Studio Ratan Batra is still running in Colaba, Mumbai, managed by Ratan Bhaji's son. This is one of the oldest advertising agencies of India.
All my other five brothers, Premji Maharaj, Ved, Satinder and Nath Bhaji are no more, though all of them, in time, settled down with their own families who are thriving well with God's grace.
I, myself, have nothing much to show, but have managed to live through, without any hassles, with my life partner of 62 years. Well, I have few regrets but it's now too late to even try to rectify them.
Nostalgia of days gone by does not create any remorse, as the life now is much better than the past. With its memories and problems notwithstanding.
yād-e-māzī azaab hai yā-rab
yād-e-māzī - memories of the past; azaab - torment; ya-rab - oh God
chhīn le mujh se hāfiza merā
chhin - snatch; hafiza -the retentive faculty of the mind
"The retentive faculty of mind(memory) and become torment...."
© Jatinder Sethi 2018
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