SAINTS & HEROES: Of Truth and Shame

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For five hours, as Gandhi's body was pulled through the streets of Delhi, Vallabhbhai Patel crouched on the funeral cart, his head bowed; not once did he raise it. Alongside, barefoot in the dust, walked Jawaharlal Nehru. Said Nehru: "I have a sense of utter shame."

The shame spread through the world with the news of Gandhi's murder. The event brought the shock of recognition, rather than the shock of surprise. More forcibly than anyone in his age, Gandhi had asserted that love was the law; how else should he die but through hatred? He had feared machines in the hands of men not wise enough to use them, had warned against the glib, the new, the plausible; how else should he die, but by a pistol in the hands of a young intellectual?

The world knew that it had, in a sense too deep, too simple for the world to understand, connived at his death as it had connived at Lincoln's. The parallel between Gandhi's martyrdom and Lincoln's was close and obvious. Each went down in the hollow between the crest of political victory and the crest of moral defeat. And Gandhi's ashes were not cold before the world had begun to vulgarize his saintliness (as it had vulgarized Lincoln's*) by insisting, against the facts, that there was no vulgarity in him. The world finds it hard and self-shaming to believe that truth can be glimpsed from the earth; its heroes must be projected into a nebulous world of "mysticism."

In the little circumstances surrounding Gandhi's death, in the sordid surroundings of his funeral, there were hints of the real Gandhi, the Gandhi who did not escape reality but pursued it in the teeth of all the windy words like "power" and "progress."

The story of the death and funeral of Gandhi, however, is best read after a glance south from Delhi, to the place where stands a monument, the Taj Mahal, to another dead Indian. The great Shah Jehan built it to immortalize the memory of his empress' beauty. It is man's most eloquent effort to deny that the body and its beauty dies. It is a triumph of the mortician's art. Some may try to raise a Taj to Gandhi (the prettifiers will scarcely be able to stand statues of that ugly body). But Gandhi's true monument will be his story—told again & again.

"Let Me Go Now." On the night before his death, Gandhi had recited a homely Gujarati couplet known in Porbandar (where he was born in 1869). It went:

This is a strange world, How long have I to play this game?

His last hours were full of this sense of imminence. A few minutes before his assassin shot him down, Gandhi had looked at the tinny dollar watch that dangled from his loincloth. He had been talking with Sardar Patel, Deputy Prime Minister of India. "Let me go now," said Gandhi. "It's prayer time for me."

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