A Man For All Seasons
By Bert Slocombe
Sometimes chance meetings between people of different ethnicity, cultural mores and religious beliefs can leave their imprint for good, even to the point of changing one’s life objective and purpose.
Such was my good fortune as a young British soldier, who, after completing war-time service in Europe, was assigned to India with thousands of others to wind down the centuries long love/hate relationship between a restless, economically deprived, and occupied people to a paternalistic, self-seeking, and authoritarian colonial nation:
As a young English school boy, I was taught in school that India was the Crown’s Jewel and pride, an example of Britain’s exemplary political skills in government! It was not until my military time spent in India, when I immersed myself in the history and culture of this sub-continent, and began to appreciate these colorful and hospitable peoples of many faiths and political persuasions that I realized my school text books on India were far from what I now knew to be true. It was a shocking truth I had difficulty in accepting that I was a citizen and part of a nation that for centuries had held a whole Asian nation under its political and military thumb and had mercilessly exercised an economic stranglehold on its wealth and human potential.
From my boyhood I had heard occasionally from my parents about an Indian man named Gandhi, and sometimes I had seen photos of him in the News Chronicle the family’s daily newspaper, skinny, and scantily clad with a dohti or loin cloth which immediately turned me off.
It was in 1947 that this kaleidoscope of events began to make sense when the Padre of my Regiment stationed at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun close to the foothills of the Himalayas informed us that Mr. Mohandas Gandhi was coming into our area and was scheduled to speak to a large group of Indian ‘Outcasts’ at a close by area called ‘Happy Valley.’ The ‘Outcasts’ were the millions of ‘Untouchables’ who, by virtue of their birth were classified into the ‘favored’ or the ‘unfavored’ of Indian society, which I learned to loathe with almost a holy hatred. In the Hindi language these millions of Indian society were called ‘pariahs’ which literally means ‘dogs.’ Fortunately, under the progressive government of Mr. Nehru, this nefarious word was legally outlawed.
Our Regimental Padre, a progressive and outgoing product of the British Anglican Church, had, unknown to us, contacted Mr. Gandhi’s secretary, and asked if it would be possible for the Mahatma to spare a little time for a few of the Regiment’s Interested members? Within a week Mr. Gandhi answered in the affirmative and a date and time was arranged.
I had already made up my mind that I wanted to become a ‘working’ volunteer in the New India and already had agreed to be an assistant manager of a Tea Plantation high up in the hills of Shallong in Assam, Northern India: Awareness of cultural norms are important in sealing friendships in any country and India was no exception. Entering Mr. Gandhi’s lowly residence we removed our army boots and socks before walking into the room where Mr. Gandhi was sitting cross legged on a raised wooden dais with his entourage of devoted followers. We guys sat cross legged on the earth floor in front of him.
Mr. Gandhi was well aware that many of us young soldiers had to return to England to complete our education hindered by several years of war, and he encouraged us to do just that before returning to India to share our modern skills and know-how with the newly free India scheduled for complete emancipation in 1948.
Mr. Gandhi welcomed us to ask him any question related to the future inevitable independence of India and this we did with alacrity. “Would the new Indian government welcome those of us who would like to return in a ‘working’ capacity?”
He made it quite clear that we would be welcomed back into the work force of the new and progressive India but with one proviso–that in our working activities in assisting building up the new Indian nation, we would not be allowed in any way or form to undermine the loyalties of the Indian people to their newly elected government.
During this friendly conversation of around 3 – 4 hours Indian tea was provided for us and were welcomed to leave the room at anytime to stretch our legs (We were not accustomed to sitting cross-legged for any length of time) or to attend to bathroom needs after the cultural expression of putting our hands together, and briefly bowing our head towards our host.
Mr. Gandhi was adamant that we learn to speak and write Hindi the national language of India, and not to rely on the corrupted form of Urdu which all commissioned officers stationed in India had to learn.
Throughout this historic interview Mr. Gandhi never once mentioned the shameful ways we British had treated him over the many years he had led his people in ‘Non-Violent Disobedience’ activities against the British Raj as his way of gaining Independence for his people: Not once did he mention his continual personal vilification and demonization by a frustrated British government. Neither during this long dialogue did Mr. Gandhi in any way condemn Britain’s long-time economic plunder and exploitation of his people.
On leaving, my thoughts were only of this amazing man’s extraordinary gift of ‘forgiveness,’ which to me were truly ‘God-Like’ in a world seething with mistrust and fear of each other: Mr. Gandhi whose presence was removed by an unforgiving assassin’s hand of a fellow Hindu just before his nation’s emancipation and freedom will always have a very special place in my own thinking of how I perceive other nations and the healing power of forgiveness.