Glimpses of the last Forty-Eight hours of Mahatma Gandhi’s Life
Thursday, the 29 January 1948 was a day full of activities for Gandhiji. At the end of the day, he was utterly fagged out. His head was reeling. “And yet I must finish this,” he remarked, pointing to the draft constitution for the Congress. He rose at quarter past nine to retire to bed. He was feeling very much disturbed and he recited to Manu an Urdu couplet, meaning:
“The spring of the garden of the world lasts for a few days; Have a look at its show for a few days.”
On Friday morning, January 30, he woke up as usual at half past three for the prayer. The Mahatma's last day would be as methodical and crowded as any other. Upon getting up from his wooden plank, he roused the other members of his party. They included attendants Brij Krishna Chandiwala and Manu and Abha, his grand-nieces. His physician, Dr. Sushila Nayar, who was normally with him, was away in Pakistan. He brushed his teeth with a neem twig like any ordinary Indian.
After prayers, leaning on his "walking sticks", Manu and Abha, he moved slowly into the inner room where Manu covered his legs with a warm blanket. It was still dark outside as Gandhiji began his day's work. He corrected the draft of his proposal for a new Congress constitution written the previous night. This document was to become known as his Last Will and Testament to the nation. At 4.45 he drank a glass of lemon, honey and hot water, and an hour later, his daily glass of orange juice. While working, because of weakness caused by the fast, he became tired and allowed himself a sleep.
Waking after only half an hour, Gandhiji asked for his correspondence file. The previous day he had written a letter to Kishorlal Mashruwala. Also as a consequence of his fast, Gandhiji suffered from a bad cough. To treat it he would take palm-jaggery lozenges with powdered cloves. But by this morning the clove powder had finished. Instead of joining him in his morning walk, a stroll up and down the room, Manu sat down to prepare some more. "I shall join you shortly," she said to Gandhiji. "Otherwise there will be nothing at hand at night when it is needed." But always focusing on the here-and-now, Gandhiji replied, "Who knows what is going to happen before nightfall or even whether I shall be alive. If at night I am still alive you can easily prepare some then."
The Mahatma's first appointment for the day was at 7 am, with Rajen Nehru who was going to America. Gandhiji spoke with her while taking his morning daily routine in the room. He had not yet regained enough strength for his customary long walk in the open air.
At eight, he got ready for his massage. Passing through Pyarelal’s room, he handed him the draft of a new constitution for the Congress, which he had partly prepared on the previous night, and he asked Pyarelal to revise it. “Fill in any gaps in the thought that there might be,” he added. “I wrote it under a heavy strain.”
Gandhiji then proceeded to take his bath. After the bath, Manu weighed Bapu (who was about five feet and five inches tall). He was 109 1/2 pounds. He had regained two-and-a-half pounds since ending his fast. His strength was returning. Pyarelal thought he looked refreshed after his bath. The strain of the previous night had disappeared.
At half past nine, he took his morning meal, after going through his daily practice in Bengali writing–a practice he had invariably followed ever since he embarked on the epic tour in Noakhali. Today he wrote, "Bhairab's home is in Naihati. Shaila is his eldest daughter. Today Shaila is getting married to Kailash."
He was still at his meal, consisting of 12 ounces of goat’s milk and cooked and raw vegetables, oranges, four tomatoes, carrot juice and decoction of ginger, sour lemons and aloes when Pyarelal took to him the draft constitution of the Congress. He carefully went through the additions and alterations, point by point, and removed an error of calculation that had crept in with regard to the number of the panchayat leaders.
In 1920 when the reign of the Congress was handed over to Gandhiji his first act was to give it a constitution with which the Congress entered the decisive phase of the struggle for India’s independence. On the last day of his life, he was once again devoted to preparing a new constitution of the Congress for the post-independence India. Life for Bapu had come full circle.
After his midday nap, he saw visitors. Some Muslim priests from Delhi had come who gave their consent to his going to Wardha. He told them that he would be absent for a short while only unless God willed it otherwise and something unforeseen happened.
He told Bishan: “Bring me my important letters. I must reply to them today, for tomorrow I may or may not be alive.”
On his last day Gandhiji also spoke about his late beloved secretary Mahadev Desai. A biography of Mahadev's was to be written, but there was disagreement over financial terms. Gandhiji expressed his frustration at this. Mahadev's diaries also needed to be edited and compiled. The ideal candidate for the job, Narhari Parikh, was in poor health. The task, Gandhiji decided, should fall to Chandrashanker Shukla. Mashruwala had also been considered as another candidate for the same.
The Mahatma also met with Sudhir Ghosh, who mentioned an apparent campaign in the British press to highlight a rift that had developed between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. Gandhiji was going to raise their matter with Patel when he was meeting this afternoon, and with Nehru who along with Maulana Azad, was calling at 7.00 pm this evening.
A Sindhi deputation called on Gandhiji. Their sufferings greatly moved him. He referred to the advice offered to him by one refugee to retire to the Himalayas. Chuckling with laughter, Gandhiji observed that nothing would be better in one sense–he would develop into a double Mahatma and attract larger crowds. But what he wanted was not vainglory or ease, but such comfort and strength so that he could extract out people from the prevailing darkness and misery.
Gandhiji laid down in the afternoon January sunshine and had his abdominal mud pack. To shade his face he donned the peasant's bamboo hat he had brought from Noakhali. Manu and Abha again pressed his feet.
At about 1.30 p.m., Brij Krishna read out to Gandhiji a statement by Master Tara Singh which angrily advised the Mahatma to retire to the Himalayas. A similar attack by a refugee yesterday had shocked him, and this had left its mark. Gandhiji then took a few ounces of carrot and lemon juice. Some blind and homeless refugees came to meet him. He gave instructions to Brij Krishna about them. Then the Allahabad Riot report was read to him.
Time was ebbing away. It was now mid-afternoon.
The usual daily round of interviews began at about 2.15 p.m. Representatives from all over India - and beyond - sought an audience with him. Two Punjabis spoke about the Harijans of their province. Two Sindhis followed. A representative of Ceylon accompanied by his daughter asked Gandhiji to give a message for Ceylon's Independence day on February 14. The girl obtained Gandhiji's autograph, which is considered his last autograph. At about 3.00pm, a professor who called in told Gandhiji that what he was preaching had been advocated in Buddha's time. At about 3.15 pm Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer presented him with an album of his photographs. He met a Punjabi delegation and a Sikh delegation who asked him to suggest a President for a conference to be held in Delhi on February 15. Gandhiji suggested the name of Congress President Dr. Rajendra Prasad, and added he would give a message himself.
Gandhiji finished the last interview by 4.00 pm when Sardar Patel was due to arrive. Sardar Patel arrived at 4.00pm with his daughter and secretary Maniben. Gandhiji and Sardar Patel immediately got busy in conversations.
Despite the relaxation that followed his recent fast, Gandhiji knew of the friction between Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, and it worried him. He wanted them to hold together.
Gandhiji told Sardar Patel that although earlier he had believed either Patel or Nehru would have to withdraw from Cabinet, he now agreed with Lord Mountbatten, the new Governor-General, that both were indispensable. He told Sardar Patel that he would make a statement to this effect at the prayer meeting, and he would say this to Jawaharlal Nehru when he called that evening. He might even postpone his departure for Wardha if he felt there was any trouble between the two.
At 4.30 p.m., Abha brought in the last meal he was ever to eat; it consisted of goat’s milk, cooked and raw vegetables, oranges and a concoction of ginger, sour lemons and butter with juice of aloe. Sitting on the floor of his room, Gandhiji ate and talked with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Maniben, Patel’s daughter and secretary, was also present.
As Gandhiji and Sardar Patel were speaking, two Kathiawad leaders came and told Manu they wished to see Gandhiji. She enquired of Gandhiji whether he would see them. Gandhiji said in Patel's presence, "Tell them that I will, but only after the prayer meeting, and that too if I am still living. We shall then talk things over." Manu conveyed Gandhiji's reply to the visitors and invited them to stay for the prayer meeting. Yet again, Gandhiji had spoken of his possible imminent demise, and on this occasion in front of the man with prime responsibility for his safety.
Gandhiji then asked for his charkha, which he plied lovingly for the last time. Maulana Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru were to see him after the evening prayers.
At 5.00 pm. Abha showed the watch to him. Gandhiji got up, put on his chappals and stepped through the side door out of the room into the twilight. He wore a shawl for warmth. ‘I must tear myself away’ Gandhiji remarked and started towards the prayer ground with Abha and Manu, ‘whom he called his walking sticks’. He was late for the prayer. ‘I am late by ten minutes’ Gandhiji mused aloud. I hate being late I should be here at the stroke of five. Manu was on his right and Abha on his left. Thus, Mahatma Gandhi set out on his final 200-yard journey, his final track, his final month. A journey which took him from Porbandar to Rajkot, then the Inner Temple in England, Mumbai, Durban, Pieter-Maritzburg, Johannesburg, Phoenix Ashram, Tolstoy Farm, Champaran, Sabarmati, Yervada, Dandi, Kingsley Hall, St. James Palace, Switzerland, Rome, Sevagram, Aga Khan Palace, Noakhali, Kolkatta, and finally brought him to Delhi.
Today he did not walk as usual through the leafy pergolas to the right side on the grounds. As he was being late he took a shortcut directly across the lawn to the steps leading to the garden where prayers were held.
The hushed crowd was several hundred thick (including possibly about 20 plainclothes policemen). At the top of the steps, Gandhiji brought his palms together to greet the gathering. As usual, the people parted to make a passage for him to the platform. Incidentally, today there was no-one in front of Gandhiji.
The supreme moment had come. Gandhiji trod his final steps to eternity.
Through the parting, his assassin saw Gandhiji coming straight towards him. He then made an instant decision to completely change “the plan”, and to shoot Gandhiji there and then from point-blank range. The Mahatma had taken just a few paces from the steps. He elbowed his way through, parting from the other two, and approached the Mahatma with his palms joined. The tiny black Italian Beretta pistol was concealed between them. He bowed low and said, "Namaste, Gandhiji." Gandhiji joined his palms in acknowledgment. Manu thought the man was going to touch Gandhiji's feet, a practice the Mahatma did not like. She motioned him away. "Brother, Bapu is already late for prayers. Why are you bothering him?" she said.
Gandhiji had been expecting another attempt on his life. As this incident occurred, he might have understood... this was it.
The assassin pushed Manu forcefully aside with his left hand, momentarily exposing the gun in his right hand. The items in her hands fell to the ground. For a few moments, she continued arguing with the unknown assailant. But when the rosary dropped she bent down to pick it up, at this precise moment, a burst of deafening blasts ripped apart the peaceful atmosphere as he fired three bullets into Gandhiji's abdomen and chest. As the third shot was fired Gandhiji was still standing, his palms still joined. He was heard to gasp, "He Ram, He Ram" ("Oh God, Oh God"). Then he slowly sank to the ground, palms joined still, possibly in a final ultimate act of Ahimsa. Smoke filled the air. Confusion and panic reigned. The Mahatma was slumped on the ground, his head resting in the laps of both girls. His face turned pale, his white shawl was turning crimson with blood. Within seconds Mahatma Gandhi was dead.
It was 5.17 pm. Around India and the world, Gandhiji's numberless friends and co-workers, old and new, were carrying on in the knowledge that Mahatma Gandhi was alive.
Abha and Manu lifted Gandhiji’s head and with the help of others with tender hands raised him from the ground and carried him into his room in Birla House. The eyes were half closed and he seemed to show signs of life. Sardar Patel, who had just left the Mahatma, was back at Gandhiji’s side; he felt the pulse and thought he detected a faint beat. Someone searched frantically in a medicine chest for adrenalin but found none.
An alert spectator fetched Dr. D. P. Bhargava. He arrived ten minutes after the shooting. ‘Nothing on earth could have saved him,’ Dr. Bhargava reported. ‘He had been dead for ten minutes’.
The young men and women who had been Gandhiji’s constant attendants sat near the body and sobbed. Dr. Jivraj Mehta arrived and confirmed the death. Presently a murmur went through the group: ‘Jawaharlal.’ Nehru had rushed from his office. He knelt beside Gandhiji, buried his face in the bloody clothes and cried. Then came Devadas, Gandhiji’s youngest son, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Minister of Education, followed by many prominent people.
Devadas touched his father’s skin and gently pressed his arm. The body was still warm. The head still lay in Abha’s lap. Gandhiji’s face wore a peaceful smile. He seemed asleep. ‘We kept vigil the whole of that night,’ Devadas wrote later. ‘So serene was the face and so mellow the halo of divine light that surrounded the body that it seemed almost sacrilegious to grieve….’
Outside, a vast multitude gathered and asked for one last view of the Mahatma-their beloved Bapu. The body was accordingly placed in an inclined position on the roof of Birla House and a searchlight played upon it. Thousands passed in silence, wrung their hands and wept.
Near midnight the body was lowered into the house. All night mourners sat in the room and, between sobs, recited from the Bhagavad Gita and other Holy Scriptures. Thus, ended the long night of 30 January 1948.
But Mahatma Gandhi continues to live in our midst with his immortal message ‘My Life of My Message’.