By T.S.S. Rajan*
Vanity is a part of human nature. We always like to exhibit ourselves to our best advantage, particularly when we happen to be on view. True greatness rarely exhibits itself in such a way. God’s good man never seeks occasions to display his good nature. It is inherent in him. This was the lesson I learnt when I happened to meet Mahatma Gandhi, a plain Mr. Gandhi, South African barrister Gandhi if you like it, in about the year 1909 in London. I was merely a medical student - one of the many that flocked to the London University even in those days. I had no occasion to know or see Mr Gandhi. Like many other young men, I felt I was intensely patriotic if I joined any movement, national in outlook, which had for its motive the freedom of India. To have the courage to talk of Indian freedom in those days was a great patriotic act, and I had a great veneration for those young men who talked loudly of revolution leading to freedom for India. A handful as we were, we became a dreaded lot in the Indian world that lived and moved about in London. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was our chief, and the late V.V.S.Ayyar his lieutenant. We decided on bringing together all Indian students scattered about Great Britain just to remind ourselves of our national solidarity in an alien land. A search was made amongst the leading Indian front-rank politicians who had then congregated in London, to request them to preside and take part in the function. We had a categorical refusal from every one of them till at last it was left to Mr. Gandhi to agree to our request but with a condition.
The function consisted of a dinner and a post-dinner talk. Over one hundred and twenty five students agreed to partake in the subscription dinner, and it was to have been arranged in some hotel or restaurant in London. But the chief guest of the function, Mr. Gandhi, our last hope as a president, would not have anything of the kind, and insisted on a pukka vegetarian Indian dinner, to be managed in whichever way we thought best.
The condition was agreed to, and we straightway engaged a hall, bought provisions, and decided to cook various Indian dishes for the function. A part of us volunteered to do the cooking, and we entered on our duties in the underground cellar and kitchen of the building early in the day so that we might be ready to lay the table at 7.30 p.m. - our dinner time. At about 2 p.m. a small, thin, wiry man with a pleasant face joined us in work and was making himself very useful. He volunteered to do the washing of plates and cleaning of vegetables with such gusto and willingness that we were only too willing to give him the joy of his performance. Hours rolled on, and there was no abatement in the work turned out by this man. Later in the afternoon when Mr. Ayyar turned up in the kitchen, did we come to know that our unannounced worker was Mr. Gandhi, the great man of Indian South Africa, the president of our evening function. It took my breath away to see the great man of whom we had heard so much and to witness his utter humility and willingness to share with us the work we were engaged in. Our importunity in dissuading him from his services did not prevail, for he continued his work well on into the evening when he helped us to lay the tables and the plates, and serve the dinner we had prepared. At long last after strenuous work of hours did he consent to sit at the head of the table and preside over the function. At the beginning of his speech, a very simple and hesitant one, he told us how pleased he was to see us tuck up our sleeves and do the work in the way that we had done. He said he knew the difficult task we had undertaken, and was agreeably surprised to know that the Indian students in London, sons of well-to-do parents, did not consider it mean to serve their fellow-men in the way we had done, and that it augured well for the future of our land. He spoke of many other things besides, but I have forgotten them all now. What persists in my mind even at this distance of time is the picture of my first meeting the Mahatma in the underground kitchen cellar of a London restaurant. I have often been a prisoner in the jails of our country during the many occasions of the satyagraha struggle conducted by Gandhiji; and during all those occasions I have found myself voluntarily working in the kitchen. During our last internment, Rajaji [Chakravarti Rajagopalachari] made a casual remark about me, saying: ‘Rajan, how is it that I find you gravitating to the kitchen whenever you happen to be imprisoned?’ Has Gandhiji’s example in the kitchen cellar in London got into my blood and stuck there? I do not know. But I do remember I found greatness in the Mahatma of the future years, long before the world knew of him.