Mahatma Gandhi and me in Calcutta
As I've noted on this blog, I was stationed in India during World War II. I am always disappointed when I find so many otherwise well-informed people who are unaware that U.S. troops served there and in neighboring Burma and China in that war. We were "the forgotten theater of war," overshadowed by the action in Europe and the South Pacific.
For much of my service in India, I was based at the Bengal Air Depot, an installation built on the grounds of what had once been a giant jute mill. It was located in what was then a sleepy village named Titagarh, north of Calcutta. I recently learned (via Google) that Titagarh has grown into an industrialized city with a population exceeding 100,000. It has expanded territorially so that it is now only 15 miles from Calcutta.
More than a thousand men were stationed at the base, supplying and servicing the 10th and 14th Air Forces and the Air Transport Command. Army trucks regularly drove into Calcutta to transport off-duty men who had daily or weekend passes. The trucks would drop the men off at an American Red Cross center on Chowringhee, Calcutta's main boulevard. A schedule was posted inside the center, showing when trucks would be available to return to the base.
Chowringhee, now known as Jawaharlal Nehru Road in honor of India's first prime minister, was a broad road containing those extraordinary contrasts that always shocked me about India. Shops, hotels and old Victorian buildings lined the boulevard. The wide pavements, however, also "housed" hordes of ragged, homeless families. The sight of men defecating or urinating on the street curbs was so common that no one seemed to be bothered.
During my stay in India, Bengal province was hit by a severe famine and epidemics of smallpox and cholera. I will never forget the dreadful sight of countless starving or dying people laying on the sidewalks. Vultures hovered overhead or pecked at the corpses of those already dead. And all the while, passersby casually strolled on the street, paying little attention to the horrid scene.
Meaning no disrespect for the local culture, I recall that personal or institutional compassion for the human suffering was rarely in evidence. Perhaps this reflected the Hindu belief that one's fate was predestined and that human efforts to cope with misery were thus futile. These social mores may have induced an Albanian Roman Catholic nun from Kosovo, known as Mother Theresa, to settle in Calcutta and establish what became a world-renowned charitable institution grappling with the human misery that I witnessed so much of during my two years in India.
The western edge of Chowringhee borders the Maidan, a huge urban park of grass-covered fields fringed with shady mangroves, covering an area of almost three square miles. The Maidan is one of the most conspicuous vestiges of British rule and has been described as "a haven of tranquility and respite" for Calcutta's residents.
I recall walking on Chowringhee one day in the fall of 1944 when the atmosphere was anything but tranquil. As I passed the Maidan I encountered an enormous mob of people crowded into the park. The noise was overwhelming. The following day, the local newspapers estimated that at least a million people had been crammed into the Maidan.
I cautiously approached the crowd to find out what has happening. I quickly learned that a thousand or more yards in front of us, the legendary Mahatma Gandhi was standing on a raised platform and making a speech. Gandhi, the major political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, had been released from a British prison several months earlier. He rarely visited Calcutta, and his scheduled appearance that day had produced the enormous audience that I saw.
Scores of loudspeakers had been installed across the Maidan's grounds so that the crowds far removed from Gandhi's platform might hear him speak. I assume that he was speaking in Bengali or Hindi. But I doubt whether the locals packed in at the edge of the park near me could possibly hear Gandhi's words. Nor was it even possible for any of them to clearly see "the Mahatma" so far off in the distance. (Gandhi's first name was actually Mohandas, but he was popularly called Mahatma--meaning "great soul"--a fitting title for a man who was worshipped by India's masses as a living saint.)
A man standing next to me offered me the use of his binoculars so that I might catch a glimpse of Gandhi, who was standing on the platform so far away. At 5'10" I was taller than most of the people crowded around me. I was therefore able to see this great man in person, although the view was not exactly well focused.
Gandhi was famed for preaching the doctrine of non-violence as the means of gaining India's freedom from British rule. (I am writing this as the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which seems so appropriate since Gandhi was the inspiration for Dr. King's own political philosophy.)
Indeed, the next day's newspapers reported that Gandhi's speech called for the Indian people to avoid violent action in their struggle for independence. Ironically, his message meant nothing to the young Hindu fanatic who assassinated the 79-year old Gandhi four years later because of the Mahatma's conciliatory attitude towards India's Muslim minority.
My personal exposure to Gandhi in Calcutta's Maidan that day 62 years ago was quite superficial considering how far I was physically removed from him and how I was unable to understand or even hear his speech. Nevertheless, I still remember the thrill of being as close as I was to one of the world's great men of the 20th Century.