The day Gandhi died. Memories of a 10-year-old Indian boy

Kersi Rustomji

 

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of Indian Independence remains a towering figure of the twentieth century. Born in 1869 to middle class parents, Gandhi was a contemporary of men like Vladimir Lenin and Winston Churchill. He studied law in England, and for 22 years practiced law in South Africa, before returning home to India in 1915 to lead the Indian struggle for freedom. That struggle in the end cost him his life. On January 30th , 1948 a Hindu extremist publicly shot him dead at a prayer meeting in Delhi. That fateful day, a 10-year-old boy was wondering alone unaccompanied in the huge and dangerous city of Bombay. He was soon caught in the drama that would for days grip all India. On these pages Kersi Rustomji, now in Sydney Australia, relives the events of that momentous day.

 

One morning as I sauntered out of the fish market, I spotted a tram at the stop. As I read the sign, I realized that I had not been on that route so I hopped on quickly, bought a return ticket, and went up to the top deck.

It was not very crowded and I enjoyed my ride as we rolled along. A little later, a man dressed in a dark suit and carrying a leather bag sat next to me. I looked at him as he sat down and he smiled. I resumed looking out the window and did not pay much attention to him. After some moments, he tapped me on the shoulder and said something in Marathi. I gestured and replied in English that I did not speak or understand Marathi, that I spoke Gujrati, English, and some Hindi.

‘Oh, I see, I see. And where you are coming from?’ he inquired.

‘Chira Bazaar. Dhobitalaw, you know, near Princess Street going to Metro cinema.’ I replied.

‘No, no, no, no! Which town you are living in?’ he asked.

‘Here, Bombay.’ I said rather puzzled.

‘Then why you are not speaking Marathi, if you live here?’ he questioned me.

It was then that I realized what he wanted to know. So I explained to him that I came from Tanganyika in East Africa, and that's where we lived. That we were here only for mum and dad to be treated, and we would soon be going back to Africa.

‘Oh, I am seeing now, I am seeing now,’ he said smiling broadly. He then asked me where was I headed on the tram and I explained that I was just taking a trip and showed him my ticket.

‘Oh, oh, oh! You are not knowing then! This place, Dadar, is very dangerous. Always there is plenty of trouble there. Fighting and riots. Very dangerous. You should be going straight back home. Do not go too far from the tram. There, it is very, very, dangerous.’ He said with a very serious expression.

 

I said that I would not wander far and thanked him. As he got off at his stop, he waged a finger at me, and with very wide eyes said, ‘Home, home, is best,’ and disappeared down the stairs. Not long after that we arrived at the end of the line and I got off.

Even though I was not sure about the dangers the man told me of, I was quite cautious as I began to stroll along the shops. All the while, I kept the tram stop in my sight as I wandered along. An hour or so later as I lost the sight of the trams, I decided to go across the road and get back to the terminus. Merrily I sauntered down the footpath, stopping here and there at the shop windows as I meandered my way through the usual crowd. Soon I saw the trams again, about two blocks away. Reassured I carried on but as I approached a clothes shop, two men rushed out with boards and began to shutter the shop windows. In the next instant, every shop started to do the same or close. Even the roadside stall keepers began to shut and rush away. People poured out of the buildings and gathered in groups listening to a radio broadcast from a restaurant.

Some women began to cry and wail and everybody looked very grim. Then the restaurant too closed its door, but the group stayed and the crying and the wailing continued. The footpath and the road began to fill with people and all traffic stopped. Some men in white clothes, Nehru cap, and wearing an orange scarf rushed along and wrote a message on the footpath and walls. I squeezed in between a group to read it but it was in Marathi, so I did not understand it. I tried to ask a few persons but they did not understand English and all of them waved me away.

As more and more people poured out, the traffic came to a complete halt and the road began to fill with a mass of people milling about. There were loud cries and chants and in an instant, a very large procession appeared, carrying banners and a very large photograph of Gandhi. Among the banners written in Marathi, there were also large black flags. I saw men women and even children cry and I did not understand what was happening.

Very frightened and feeling lost I too began to cry. Clutching my ticket, I started to get to the tram stop as fast as I could through the crowd. I tried to look for my name card, it was not on me, and as I spotted my tram, I was even more terrified. The tram which barely an hour or so ago was not quite full, was now completely filled. People were tightly packed and hung over the boarding platform.

I just stood there crying, absolutely frightened, as I did not know what to do. Suddenly I saw a man rush past me and I clutched at his coat. He pulled up and said yes in English. Haltingly I asked him what the matter was and in a shocked surprised he retorted, ‘What? You do not know?’

As I shook my head, he held me by the shoulder, bent down, and said, ‘Gandhiji is dead. Somebody killed him. Now quickly run home for there will be plenty of trouble. Where do you live?’

When I showed him my ticket and mentioned Dhobitalaw, he spread his hands and called out, oh god, oh god. He then glanced around, grabbed my hand and saying come along, come along, and dragged me through the throng. He took me to the overcrowded tram and spoke to the people hanging over the boarding platform. A few legs moved and saying go, go, he pushed me in.

I crawled in between a bunch of legs and crouched. Frightened and sobbing I remained amid the legs. I could barely look outside and I saw only a mass of people rushing about and chanting and shouting. After quite a wait, the tram started but even with bell clanging all the time it moved so slowly, .

A very long time passed as we moved on and on, then somebody shook me by the shoulder and called out Dhobitalaw, Dhobitalaw. I asked if it was near the fish market and he said no that it was the next stop. Then he pulled me to the edge of the platform, held me close to him, and said, ‘If the tram not stop you jump. Ok?’ All I could do was nod my head and keep looking out. Ever so slowly, the tram crawled along. The man who was leaning over and looking ahead kept smiling at me, which helped a little. Then suddenly he said, ‘Right, go, go, go!’ He moved back and I hopped off the crawling tram into a crowd of people.

As I spotted the fish market, I found my bearing and wound my way through a very large throng in the street. Twice, two jeep loads of police pushed through the rushing people, making an announcement. I did not wait though, as I could not understand it and made my way to the uncle's house. As I stepped onto the stairs, I saw a group waiting above, and then someone shouted, ‘He is here, he is here.’ The uncle, my cousins, and Yezdi, were in the passage above, wondering how to go about looking for me.

 

When asked where I was, I gave my tram ticket to my cousin Frenny who was cuddling me. ‘What, you went to Dadar?’ she exclaimed and immediately my uncle started to lambaste me.

‘What, Dadar? Good god, of all the places you went to Dadar? Don't you know it is the most dangerous place in Bombay? Full of gundas, thugs, rogues and murderers. At any excuse, they have riots, looting, and burning, killings, and you went there! My god, you would have been cut to pieces and never even found. What bloody business you had there and what would I have said to your father and mother. How is it that this boy was allowed out of the house, all alone and then all the way to Dadar!’ Eyes wide and mouth set he glared at my cousins.

As he was very angry, everybody kept quiet. I clung even tighter to my cousin as she tried to calm my crying. When the uncle stormed off to his room, she took me in the kitchen, washed my face, and gave me some lunch. Everybody sat with me as I ate and they explained what was going on. Gandhi had been assassinated in Delhi, and a curfew had been imposed in the city and all the suburbs, starting that evening at six.

As we watched from above, the street began to empty, for people just hopped onto whatever trams passed and clung on. Buses, cars, trucks, horse carriages, and even bullock carts disappeared and by six o'clock, there was only a trickle of people. Then the most unbelievable silence settled in. It was so totally strange to find a busy noisy bustling Bombay street so completely devoid of people, voices, vehicles, and traffic sounds.

Needless to say, my uncle imposed a curfew of his own on me. From that day, I was forbidden to go out unless accompanied by one of my cousins. That day, 30th, January 1948, was a very sad day for In