Hundred and three. That is the number of years M. Gurusami Naidu has breathed. Though he might insist that only for the last 63 years he has breathed free.
You don’t get to meet a centenarian everyday. Definitely not one with the memory of an elephant and the vision of an eagle. One who doesn’t need a walking stick for a prop, one whose zest for life remains unfazed. A hundred plus freedom fighter whose definitive years were those spent at the Wardha Ashram with none other than the father of the nation for company.
The witness of two world wars and a voter in 15 general elections, Ladapuram Gurusami as he is affectionately called, is a man who has to be seen to be believed.
Hale and hearty
“I have been waiting for your arrival,” he comes up to the door to welcome me, “That is why I am at home. Or I would have left for Perambalur. I cannot stay inside the whole day. It is not healthy, you know,” he says as I nod in amazement. His nephew confirms that he travels unaccompanied frequently by bus to Perambalur, 15 kilometres away.
His physical fitness baffles me, though he is a little hard of hearing and slightly bent. “I get up at 3.a.m every day and do yoga for half an hour,” he enlightens me. But he affirms that he does not adhere to a strict diet, though has relinquished meat on account of digestion. “Eat when you are hungry, and eat well,” is his advice.
His dogged self-reliance and independence can leave you stunned. Despite my efforts to stall him, he disappears more than half a dozen times during our conversation, resurfacing with enthusiasm and old letters and sepia tinted photographs.
A spark is lit
The spark of freedom was ignited in Gurusami when as a twelve-year-old boy he witnessed the hero’s welcome accorded to Periasamy Reddy who returned to Perambalur after meeting Gandhi in 1919.
“He was garlanded and taken out in a procession just because he had seen Gandhi. I realised how great Gandhiji was. That day, I resolved to meet him.”
Though a meeting with the Mahatma was Gurusami’s ultimate goal in his youth, destiny eluded him for 18 years. Hailing from a peasant family in Ladapuram, Gurusami, dropped out of school after Standard Four to earn a living. When his efforts to secure some means of employment in Tamil Nadu failed, he went to Ceylon to work as a labourer in tea estates.
During his stint in Ceylon, he joined the Bose Sangam there and being an orator par excellence was invited to speak on many occasions.
Meeting the Mahatma
Gurusami’s dream materialised in 1939 when he set eyes on Gandhi for the first time during his stay at Wardha Ashram.
“Thoughts are paramount. When you will something to happen, it surely happens. Our thoughts shape our life,” he asserts.
An ardent follower of Gandhi, Gurusami devoted his prime to freedom movement and as a result, never married. He participated in numerous agitations and was arrested more than once. “Looking back now, I find it difficult to believe that I walked with a legend like the Mahatma. I have spoken with him on four different occasions and I am glad I have touched his feet,” he says with veneration in his voice.
Gurusami’s admiration for Gandhi remains intact as is evident from the walls of his house adorned with portraits of national leaders, dominated by Gandhi’s presence. While ‘Vande Mataram’, is emblazoned across the entrance of the house, Gurusami himself is dressed like someone from the Nehruvian era with simple white dhoti and shirt, overcoat and cap. The ‘I love India’ badge pinned to his coat is a mere ornament, for Gurusami himself is an embodiment of the patriotism he professes.
He recounts one memorable episode with amusement. “As the jails were overflowing with prisoners, some of us were taken to the heart of the forest and left with the hope that we’ll never find our way back. I was taken to the Tholathur forest where leopards were said to roam free.”
The next thing his captors heard was that he was back in Perambalur by 4 p.m. renewing agitations with fresh vigour. “I managed to reach the edge of the forest and found a car on its way to Perambalur and requested to be dropped there,” he recalls.
Gurusami’s principal regret in life remains missing the Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha March which commenced on April 13, 1930 from Tiruchi, as Rajaji, who led the march was determined to choose only 100 youths. Directed to carry out the satyagraha at a local level, Gurusami returned to his village and extracted salt from the highly saline sand in his village.
“Satyagraha was instrumental in abolishing fear in Indians. It boosted self- belief to defy the British. The police were stunned at the fortitude of the people, who continued despite being beaten up.”
A day spent in the company of Netaji, walking alongside Vinoba Bhave and participating in the Swadeshi and Bhoodan movements are the highlights of his life.
One memory Gurusami would carry to his grave is the eve of August 15, 1947. He describes the momentous moment: “On the night of August 14, no one slept. Every house had a lamp burning through the night. Some of us assembled in the Perambalur Taluk office by midnight. We were all waiting with the radio turned on to listen to Nehru declare our independence. When Nehru hoisted the flag in Delhi, great tumult broke out. People were shouting, ‘we are free, we are free.’ We went from village to village, hoisting the national flag.”
“That day people waited for hours to hoist the national flag. But now,’ his eyes gaze at me with unspeakable distress, “people hardly bother to turn up to hoist the national flag once a year.”
Gurusami laments the present state of politics and diminishing patriotism.
“In pre-independence, all the fighting and agitation was for the sake of the country. Today every conflict is self-driven. It is not patriotism that drives the nation, but craze for power and pelf,” says one of the oldest voters in the country. He claims he has not missed a single election since independence. His proudly shares his first vote was for P.Kakkan.
Despite his grievances, he reiterates that independence has brought a world of difference with development being the key word. “The country has changed so much, it is hard to believe this was where I was born. Before independence, the villages were in a sorry plight. There were no roads and not enough food. People used to wait for ammavasai, for a chance to eat rice.”
Poet at heart
Gurusami keenly updates himself through newspapers and television news. Present day movies do not appeal to him and yesteryear screen heroes like Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and Papanasam Sivan remain his evergreen favourites.
The patter of little feet is frequent in Gurusami’s house, with school kids dropping in to gaze at portraits of leaders they come across in history textbooks. “There are 300 children in the village school. They all drop by sometime or other,” he says with affection.
His favourite writer is Thirumoolar, though Bharathiyar holds a special place in his heart. “His poems can both stir you and melt you. I read him everyday, no one equals him,” says the patriot.
Wrinkled but steadfast, his quaint eyes that hold the wisdom of a Century, await the coming of yet another Independence Day. And we salute him on this occasion tomorrow!