We remember Indian independence activist and poet Sarojini Naidu, hailed as the Nightingale of India, on her 140th birth anniversary.
By Anu Kumar
Sarojini was to refer to her momentous first meeting with Gandhi several times later in the course of her political life. It was just after the First World War had broken out all over Europe in the July of 1914. Sarojini had been unable to meet Gandhi when his ship had docked in London, but the next morning she found herself in the suburb of Kensington, hoping to find Gandhi in the lodgings where he had checked in.
It was a part of London she was not familiar with and only when she had climbed up the steep staircase of an ‘old, unfashionable house’ and looked through a open door did she find before her, ’a little man with a shaven head, seated on the floor’. She went on to say that spread around him was ‘a battered tin of parched ground-nut and tasteless biscuits of dried plantain flour’. It amused her very much and she burst out laughing. It was this that drew Gandhi’s attention.
Later she described the scene: ‘He lifted his eyes and laughed back at me saying: “Ah, you must be Mrs Naidu! Who else dare be so irreverent. Come in,” he said, “and share my meal.”
“No, thanks.” I replied, sniffing, “What an abominable mess it is.”’
Gandhi was in London to support Britain in its war efforts. As animosity grew between the nations of Europe: Germany and Austria-Hungary ranged against Russia, France and Britain, and war appeared inevitable. Gandhi believed that it was an hour of crisis for Britain. He said, ‘England’s difficulty should not be turned into India’s opportunity’; rather, he felt that India’s support could help it in securing more concessions towards self-government from the British once the war was over.
For his part, Gandhi mentioned this first meeting with Sarojini in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi wrote that he had just arrived in London to organise an ambulance unit as his contribution to Britain’s war effort. He also knew about the Lyceum, a ladies club to which Sarojini belonged that was trying to sew as many clothes for the soldiers as they could.
At their first meeting, Sarojini placed before him some pieces of cloth cut to a pattern and he was to sew them in accordance to the directions provided. She met him again a few days later. At Gandhi’s suggestion, she started enlisting the support of Indian residents in England for the war effort. A master and disciple relationship developed between them, but she was never in silent awe of him. There were occasions when she even poked fun at him while she also disagreed with him, at times. She remained all her life one of Gandhi’s staunchest supporters.
There is an entire volume of correspondence between Gandhi and Sarojini that reflects three decades of the national movement and the journey towards freedom. They began corresponding in 1915 and, in their exchanges, he addressed her as a dear sister while she referred to him as a dear friend, whom she looked up to in every way. Over the years, they referred to each other in similar light-hearted, affectionate ways. In the mid-1920s, there are some letters where he addresses her as ‘Mirabai’ who was a medieval Bhakti saint devoted to the god Krishna.
Sarojini also wrote to him as she travelled to different countries and in one letter she writes, ‘from the Wandering Singer to the Spinner-Stay-At-Home’. She also calls him variously the ‘Apostle of Peace’ and the ‘Mystic Spinner’. As she was seeking to reconcile different wings of the Congress, he called her ‘Peace- Maker’. Somewhere along the line Sarojini also began describing him as ‘Mickey Mouse’ and the ’Little Man’. Just before he set off on a visit to Bihar as communal riots broke out in July 1946, Sarojini referred to him as ‘beloved pilgrim’. Sarojini could tease the Mahatma and even joke about him, but she held him in the utmost reverence.
She, however, refused to be his follower in the complete sense. ‘Good heavens, all that grass and goat milk? Never, never, never.’ She could even talk playfully of his poverty. Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit wrote in her memoirs, The Scope of Happiness, about the irreverence with which she could treat Gandhi whom everyone revered as the Mahatma. ‘The one person who was really able to help Gandhiji to relax and enjoy a joke was Sarojini Naidu. She was herself a unique human being with a fount of amusing stories and could say the most outrageous things without giving offence. It was she who nicknamed Gandhiji “Mickey Mouse” when he was at the height of his fame and he enjoyed this as much as anyone and asked all sorts of questions about Mickey Mouse, whom he had never seen on screen.’
What drew Sarojini was his single-mindedness, his good faith and large-heartedness. As she became more involved with the Congress, she was also one of Gandhi’s closest associates. In March 1930, when Gandhi announced the Civil Disobedience Movement by launching his Salt Satyagraha, a protest against a monopoly of the Salt Laws, he was soon arrested. On 5 May, the leadership of the movement fell to Sarojini. She, with several thousand volunteers, attempted to enter the Dharasana Salt Works near Dandi just as Gandhi had intended. The factory had been closed to bar the Satyagrahis from entering.
…Gandhi embarked on fasts often, as a sign of protest, and over the years these took a toll on his frail health. Most times she would join him and pray silently for his long life. She was by his side on 20 September 1932 when Gandhi embarked on his fast against the provision of separate electorates for the lower castes as per the ‘communal award’ offered by the British in 1932.
On 10 February 1943, Gandhi commenced a fast again that ended on 2 March. This was much to Sarojini’s relief for there had been rumours about his deteriorating health. Sarojini later said that towards the end of the seventh day of his fast, Gandhi, to all appearances, had died. …‘It was as though a light had gone out of the world.’ It was a miracle how his will asserted itself. She referred to the problem and paradox of ‘the marvellous little Mickey Mouse who has nibbled his way back to life from the lightly spread and knotted nets of death.’
Sarojini suffered frequent terms of imprisonment in her long involvement in the nationalist cause, one where she always marched in Gandhi’s footsteps. The lengthiest incarceration she served was soon after the Quit India Resolution had been passed on 8 August 1942. She was imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace in Poona along with Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. It was here that Kasturba Gandhi died of a long fever. Sarojini who was suffering from malarial fever too was released in March 1943.
Five years later, in 1948, only a few months after India had gained independence, Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullets. In her broadcast on 1 February 1948 Sarojini Naidu was to say: ‘My father, do not rest.’ She knew his message to India and all Indians would live on forever.
(Excerpted with permission of Hachette India, from Sarojini Naidu: The Nightingale and The Freedom Fighter: What Sarojini Naidu Did, What Sarojini Naidu Said by Anu Kumar.)