How Gandhiji influenced my life

In Gandhi's footsteps: Sarala Devi (Front row, left).   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: NITYANANDA MOHAPATRA

Sarala Devi's eye-witness account of Gandhiji in Orissa. She was the first satyagrahi there to court arrest.

I HAD the privilege to meet Gandhiji on a number of occasions. I had his darshan at the venue of the various Congress Sessions. On his visit to Orissa, he first arrived in Cuttack city. From then onward, I became his follower and fully dedicated my life for his cause. I was inspired by him and left home to free Mother India from the shackles of the foreign rule. His spirit of sacrifice made me forget my surroundings, and the exigencies of my worldly life. Gandhiji gave me a new lease of life. He infused into me the flame of a new world and new revolutionary ardour.

Formidable crowd

A formidable crowd of people, the rich, the mighty and the ordinary, thronged the little hut on the bank of the Kathjodi River where Gandhiji stayed. Clearly, they were all very keen to have his darshan. None came empty handed. People brought gifts of fruits and flowers. Amazingly, the hut never seemed to get filled up despite the presence of such a huge crowd. At Gandhiji's bidding, I distributed items to the poor and the destitute. Women and children came in a multitude, in old and tattered clothes.Gandhiji signalled for a little rest even as the restive crowd never left the doorsteps. I was charged with guard duty. The stream of people continued unabated. Now and again, I would go and apprise Gandhiji about the swelling numbers. "You would not leave me in peace," said Gandhiji half in jest. "I am helpless," I replied, "the crowd is undeterred by bad weather. They are unmindful of your state of health and exhaustion. They are unmoved by my prayer. They are all gathered at the mango tree."Gandhiji came out and appeared before the people. He said to me: "You made me get up from my seat so many times. Now tell me, what progress have you made regarding the funds for the Harijans?" I replied: "Mahatmaji, you are scheduled to visit the city at 4 p.m. I have called for a meeting of women at the town hall. All the women must have gathered there by now. I have no doubt that the people present would hand over whatever they can to your appeal." Gandhiji reached Cuttack city before nightfall. Earlier I had put up a notice regarding his address at the Sri Ramachandra Bhavan. The Mahatma came accompanied by the Congress volunteers. None of these volunteers had by then become a "Neta". No vested interests and no problems! Everything was carried out smoothly. Mahatmaji apprised us of the purpose of his visit. He underlined the plight of the Harijans and stressed the role of women folk. He advised the setting up of a fund for the Harijans.I rendered Gandhiji's Hindi lecture into English and appealed to the women folk to donate liberally in the form of money and jewellery for the "Harijan fund". Most women of the well-to-do families present there gave money. Those who did not have it with them, emptied themselves of all jewellery and dumped everything into a white sheet. There was jewellery more than sixty to seventy "Bharis". In addition, about a thousand rupees were also collected quickly. Mahatmaji felt very happy seeing the gifts received from the awakened and crystal-like female souls.

Concern for others

The meeting ended. I stayed with him from morning till six in the evening. I was quite surprised to see that instead of eating them himself, he was distributing the fruits among the children and donors. Those who brought baskets of fruits for Gandhiji felt disappointed because instead of him, the fruits went to unfamiliar women, children, the poor and the destitute. On an earlier occasion, accompanied by Kasturba and Debdas, Gandhiji had stayed in the Swarajya Ashram. Later he moved to Annada Ray's house followed by Naba babu's. I had been to all those places.Gandhiji was devoted to the charkha and advised others to use the same. In this regard he left an impression on countless people in the cities and villages of Orissa. In those days, due to constraints, women tended to use the wooden charkha of the traditional kind. Swadeshi, Charkha, Harijan welfare - these constituted the main thrust of his mission. He also urged all to abjure untouchability and liquor. He said that for the sake of freedom struggle, all workers ought to carry out this task. Further, in order to carry out the battle of non-violent non-cooperation, it was important to cleanse oneself and embrace the path of truth and non-violence by giving up a life of luxury and attachment.( Translated from Oriya by Sachidananda Mohanty. The translator wishes to acknowledge the family of the late Sarala Devi for access to the archives containing her writings.)