The killings continued, for once the Muslims had started the Hindus and the Sikhs lost patience. Shiva danced his terrifying Tandava in the crematoria. They killed back, and with glee. And whole villages were blood-spattered, the houses gutted into ash. And now that freedom was soon coming anyhow, Nehru was asked by the British to be Prime Minister of a Provisional Government, and Gandhiji was then given a special train to Calcutta that would stop wheresoever people wanted it to (just like Kruger’s train, the train containing his ashes that Smuts decreed would stop wheresoever anyone stood on the railway line with flower or lantern) and Gandhiji would make earnest speeches for brotherhood, for harmony, and beg the Hindus and the Muslims stop this unnameable horror. For months there was bloodshed as never India had seen since the Muslim conquest of the country, six centuries earlier. For at that time the Muslims were better armed than the Hindus, and had an altogether better feel of strategy. But today the Hindus were proud and powerful again. When it comes to killing, people forget they ever were men. And, the more civilised, the more fearsome the killing seems to be. Men and women, even pregnant women, were killed by the Hindus, and the babies in the womb taken out so that no Muslim child would remain behind to infect Hindu India. And the Muslims in Pakistan, they took the Hindu women to their harems and converted them to Islam, or simply converted whole villages to their religion — or the men would be slaughtered. Temples were desecrated. There was safety for no one in Bengal or the Punjab and no safety for the Muslim in Bihar or the Hindu in Sindh or the North-Western Frontier. This was truly not the freedom that Gandhiji wanted. He pleaded with the Hindus, being an austere, an ascetic Hindu himself.
And in the middle of these orgiastic killings a drama within drama was happening — Gandhiji began to ask himself whether he had, in truth, achieved brahmacharya. Had he? To achieve Indian freedom was one thing. To achieve true freedom, the sway over self, Swaraj, the highest freedom. Had he achieved celibacy? No. It was time to test. And with his usual experimental temper and his scrupulous adherence to truth, he asked one of the young married women among his followers whether she would sleep, in the same bed, with him. Yes, she would. And day after day he slept in the same bed with her, she, young, desirable and submissive. And he discovered much to his astonishment and joy, he had no inkling whatsoever to possess this bounty beside him.
Brahmacharya was at last achieved. Truly it had been. And so should freedom be. India could now be free. He wanted immediately to tell the whole world about it. He, the great Mahatma, who was quelling those gigantic massacres of India, he who was worshipped a saint — and indeed often as an avatara, an incarnation of God — by many millions of Indians, in fact by hundreds of millions of Indians, was going to tell the whole round world, brahmacharya indeed is real and achievable. It is absolute. One can therefore conquer one’s senses. Thus one could wholly be true. He wrote an article on this subject for Harijan — his weekly paper. But when the government of Nehru heard of it all, they begged him not to publish the article — for said they this would damage his figure in the eyes of India, and especially now in an India torn asunder by such deadly conflict. He did not care. A satyagrahi always stands by his truth. Truth was more important to Gandhiji than accommodation with contingent realities. Truth alone conquers.
However he agreed to keep silent for the moment. But one of his fervent followers took it on his conscience to read the manuscript, and then saintly and horrified, he threw it into the fire. Thus Gandhism was saved from Gandhi. The inquisitor wins — or thinks he does. And Gandhiji continued his march of love.
Over bamboo bridges and on boats he went along the estuary of the Ganges, alone amongst the Muslims, to give courage to the Hindus — he would chant his Hindu mantras and listen to the Muslim prayers,
Ishwara Allah Tere Nam
Ishwara Allah Thy name
and it worked miracles in the rich and once fair land of Bengal. Peace began to come, yes it came slowly. Then Delhi wanted him, for the seven million Hindu refugees pouring into India from Pakistan brought nothing but stories of dire disaster. One could bear this killing no more. Muslims were baited and killed, their mosques occupied and their houses filled with pouring refugees. He preached, did Gandhiji, love and love again to the Hindus. But they seemed not to listen. Now there was only one thing to do. He would fast unto death. Yes, death were better than this spectacle of desecration. And he started to fast. The Hindus of Delhi began to give back the mosques and the houses to the Muslims. Azad and Nehru, Mountbatten and Lady Mountbatten, Sardar Patel and Rajagopalachari, ran from one area of disaster to the other to protect human lives in thousands, by train, jeep or helicopter. Finally when the Hindus began to quieten down and listen, the Hindus and Muslims signed a pact of friendship with one another, and the Indian Government that had refused to give to Pakistan the money she owed her, that she would now, angry Nehru would now, give back that money come what may, a promise made is to be reverenced if you are a satyagrahi — thus when truth seemed to prevail, Gandhiji took, amidst prayers and tears, his first glass of orange juice. Azad, the Muslim scholar and Congress President, gave it to him. But a fanatic Hindu, proud of his heritage, was waiting beneath the wall. He could not bear this love-love business any longer. A bomb was thrown at Gandhiji. He would not care. He had said death was sweet. He wanted no protection from the police. He had God’s protection.
(Excerpted with permission from Raja Rao’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Great Indian Way, launched last month by Penguin RandomHouse as part of its modern classics series.)
Raja Rao’s fable-like, non-linear biography of Gandhi was first published in 1998