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A presence that changed lives

Gandhiji's far reaching influence on men and minds got India freedom. His few visits to Kochi enabled many to join the freedom movement. On Gandhi Jayanthi, T.K.SADASIVAN meets the Gandhians who relive their experience with the Mahatma.

TO HAVE seen Gandhiji is great, because so few living people have had that privilege. There are a few in Kochi who count themselves lucky for having been able to have some such connection with Gandhiji.He made a few visits to Kerala and this stirred up the nationalist feelings in a State that was far removed from the real scene of action. He was also able to persuade many to follow the values for which he fought. Some of the Gandhians of Kochi, who consider themselves fortunate to meet the Father of the Nation, recollect their momentous meeting with the Mahatma.

"It was in 1935. I was returning home from our residential school near Kottarakara along with my elder brother, D. Damodaran Potti, when we heard that our sister, Lalithambika Antharjanam and her husband had gone to Kollam to meet Gandhiji. We did not want to miss that chance. So we joined a group of freedom fighters who were marching to Kollam. We joined our sister and her husband and the next morning we went to the Guest House, where Gandhiji was to arrive from Thiruvananthapuram. The moment he stepped out of the car and entered the Guest House, my sister fell at his feet. Gandhiji was taken aback and said: `Stop, I'm only human not God'. And when my sister told him that she was not allowed to participate in the freedom struggle as she was a Brahmin, Gandhiji advised her to discuss the matter with the leaders of her community," reminisced D. Ramachandran Potti.

Annie Burleigh.

"Later we attended the public meeting at the Cantonment Maidan. We sat very close to the platform, the huge crowd that had gathered there shouted in unison `Mahatma Gandhi ki jai' but all this stopped as soon as Gandhiji entered. There was pin drop silence. Gandhiji spoke in Hindi, which was translated into Malayalam," added Mr. Potti.

Those impressions lasted. Four years later Mr. Potti got another chance to meet Gandhiji. "He was passing through Punalur by train. Our Hindi teacher took us to the railway station. We assembled on the platform and when the train arrived tha whole platform echoed with shouts of `Mahatma Gandhi ki jai'. One of Gandhiji's companions came out and told us that the Mahatma was tired and asleep. But we crowded at the door of the railway bogie and continued to shout slogans. Then, almost unexpectedly, Gandhiji came to the door with folded hands and spoke to us. He also gave an orange to one of the boys", recalled Mr. Potti.

Inspired by the presence, the ideals and values of Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Potti became a Gandhian. He devoted his life to propagating Gandhian philosophy. Mr. Potti was the national joint secretary of the Gandhi Peace Foundation for nine years and is currently the President of its Kerala unit.

D. Ramachandran Potti.

Annie Burleigh is 99-years-old, but if there is one memory that she still cherishes is her first meeting with Gandhiji. Annie and her husband called on the Mahatma at Coimbatore. "We went there to invite him to Cochin to attend the function in connection with the total prohibition. As soon my husband told him that we were from Cochin, Gandhiji said, `Yes, yes, I remember. Cochin is the first place to introduce total prohibition.' Gandhiji also blessed our son Kuttan (Thomas Kurisingal), who was just six months old. He gave Kuttan an orange," said Ms. Burleigh.

Gandhiji accepted the invitation and reached Cochin. He addressed a huge gathering at the Fort Cochin beach. "Cochin is an epitome of adventures," was the opening statement to the people of Cochin. Ms. Burleigh recollects how Gandhiji arrived in a special boat from Ernakulam, alighted at the Victoria boat jetty (the present Fort Kochi jetty) and walked to the beach, accompanied by her husband K. J. Burleigh, who passed away recently.

"Gandhiji spoke in English. It was brief, congratulating the people of Cochin for taking the bold decision to implement total prohibition," recalled Ms. Burleigh. "In those days everything was organised in Gandhiji's name and there were a lot of social service activities around," she said.

Meeting Gandhiji, was for A. M. Neelakanda Chakyar, the most exciting moment of his life. He was a first year B.A. student at the Maharaja's College, Kochi and Gandhiji visited the college. "Gandhiji came to collect funds for the freedom movement. He spoke for a while but that was enough to inspire you for a lifetime. I immediately donated two of my gold rings. Gandhiji announced my name and the contribution loudly `Neelakand, two rings.' It was an unforgettable moment," recalls Mr. Chakyar, who retired as the Registrar, Kerala University. That meeting changed Mr. Chakyar's life. He turned a true Gandhian, wearing only khadi and following the principles and ideals for which the Mahatma lived and died for.

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