It was one of those times in summer, in early 1961. I was returning back to Waltair from Madras, after handing over his passport to my father who was on his way to Paris for a meeting with UNESCO. Of all days, the River Krishna decided to get into 'spate' and she did it successfully. So the Madras-Calcutta Mail, which normally goes via Vijayawada, and reaches Waltair in about 20 hours (in those days) was diverted via places I hadn't known existed! Instead of the normal 20 hours, it took close to 40. Fortunately I had no luggage, except for a jute bag containing my change of clothes and toothbrush and paste. I was in one of those unreserved 3rd class compartments, which was packed like a sardine can, filled with Malayalees. One can imagine the mayhem, with their non-stop rapid-firing dialogue that filled the compartment!
By the time I got down at Waltair, I felt I had corns on my rear!
Resigning myself to the long travel, I took out from my jute bag, Gandhi's book on 'My Experiments with Truth'. Next to me was an old gentleman, whom I didn't notice at first. He had with him quite a few magazines and novels, having come fully prepared for the ordeal. After some time, when he had finished reading one of the Telugu magazines, I made bold to ask him if I could read it.
Sleeping was out of question; sitting itself was at a premium. Came dinnertime, and at the station, I found that there was nothing available as the train was unscheduled, and they did not anticipate a massive crowd to descend on them. I resigned myself to starvation till I reached home. Just then, the gentleman sitting next to me opened a large Tiffin carrier, and looking at me said, 'There is enough and more for the two of us.' Never did food taste so delicious. To top it, it was a typical Vijayawada style of cooking, where the chillies were liberally used. As I was eating I was steaming from my ears! And as we were eating, we started talking. And I told him what I was doing, and why I had come to Madras, and then asked about him. He was silent for a few minutes and then said he had retired in 1947 after serving the British India Police as a D.I.G. a senior position for an Indian at that time. I asked him for any memorable or exciting cases that he handled during his service. He smiled. Then he said, 'I have many, but I will narrate to you an incident that took place when I was an Inspector at Vijayawada. This concerns the person whose book you are reading. It took place in the late thirties.'
I was very curious of what the incident was, and waited for him to tell me.
We managed to wash our hands and sat relaxed as much as possible, and lit our cigarettes, and then he began.
'I was the Inspector at Vijayawada, a rarity in the British Police for an Indian. I was known to be very tough, but very fair in my dealings. I had brought in a lot of secure feelings in that city, and was always on the prowl, looking for mischief-monger, eve teasers and the like. I would not hesitate to arrest such persons, whoever they might have been. There used to be pressures brought onto me, but I would never wilt. Gradually, I won the people's respect and support, though I was serving the British masters!
One day I got a message from Madras, which was then the Presidency Headquarters that Gandhi was visiting Vijayawada, and that I should make preparations to ensure that everything should go off peacefully, but to be alert and if necessary, stern. I was asked to assess the requirements of the police needed for security purpose, and if I thought reinforcements were needed, that I should ask for it.
The local Congress leaders were friendly with me, and that evening, after office, I went to meet them in their office as a casual visitor. And there was total excitement amongst them. 'Gandhiji is coming! Bapu is coming! How do we plan all this?' was all that I could hear.
I probed a little, and came to know that things would be peaceful. I went back and sent a message to the S.P., a Scotsman, who was at Madras, and assured him that I could manage with the present force in my hands. 'Be careful, ole' chap! Otherwise, your head will be on the block!' he said. I assured him, I would.
Soon, the great day dawned. There was a complete festive look in the city. It was decked up with marigold bowers and arches, a large pandal was put up with the tri-color draped behind, durries were in place, and I had arranged for my C.I.D men to mingle with the crown in plain clothes.
I had gone to the station in my full uniform, not to receive him, but to ensure that there was no trouble. But as he alighted from his 3rd class compartment with that beatific smile and that halo around his head, something in me made me step forward and salute him! Bapu raised his head and folded his palms in greeting with his toothless smile. I felt I was Blessed!
Bapu was taken in a huge precession by the citizens of the city, which slowly wended its way through out the streets finally arriving at the huge maidan where the pandal for the evening had been put up. He was constantly cheered, 'Gandhiji ki Jai! Gandhiji ki Jai'. And he slowly walked up to the dais, with his staff, and his two grandnieces. It was a great and emotional scene, that one cannot forget,
It was Bapu's prayer time meeting as well. He started with his Bhajan on 'Vaishnavo Jan to', and after that, he started his talk. He spoke to the people to support the struggle for a Free India, but while undertaking this struggle, he also cautioned them that the British should in no way be physically harmed. The fight was against the establishment and their policies, not on their people, who were here in the call of duty. And then he appealed for monetary support for the party activities. His Hindi to Telugu translator was doing a splendid job by conveying what Gandhiji was saying. I was standing near him, enthralled. Suddenly from the crowd, a little girl, could not have been more than 8 or 9 years, jumped onto the dais, and before the police could catch her, she was at Bapu's feet. She was in tatters, but in her poverty, there was total peace and serenity on her countenance. Bapu bent down and smiled at her, holding her tender face in his equally tender hands. 'Kya Chahihey, Beti?' ('What do want, Child?') he asked. Without a word, the girl removed her silver anklets, a few glass bangles and her thin gold chain and literally poured it into his hands. At that Bapu's eyes were streaming with tears.
Her mother came forward, and seeing me, begged me not to arrest the child. 'She and I work in houses, cleaning vessels and cleaning the homes. We make around Rs.20/ a month, and somehow live by. Her father deserted me a few years ago.' I assured her I wouldn't arrest her.
Bapu called me, and asked me what the mother said. I told him.
He fell silent, while two large tears dropped from his eyes. 'I yet have hope for India,' was all that he said, even as he had his hand on the child's head. Gandhiji did not speak any more that day.'
I fell silent at the end of his story. I was moved. 'You can imagine how I felt! And how Bapuji felt' was all he said. By then, we were chugging towards Waltair. I asked him his name. 'Subba Rao. I retired as I.G. of Police in Free India,' he said.