FOCUS: Gandhi And The Girmitya

Satendra Nandan’s fourth volume of poems, The Loneliness of Islands, was published in 2007.He’s currently writing a book, tentatively titled, Fijian-Indian Fragments: From Nadi to New Delhi. He’s a member
05 May 2015 09:15
FOCUS: Gandhi And The Girmitya
Mahatma Gandhi (seated middle), at Johannesburg in 1905

Satendra Nandan’s fourth volume of poems, The Loneliness of Islands, was published in 2007.He’s currently writing a book, tentatively titled, Fijian-Indian Fragments: From Nadi to New Delhi. He’s a member of the world’s first International Institute of Poetry Studies.


Poem for May 15, 2015

M ohandas Gandhi in the 20th chapter of his ‘An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments in Truth’ writes about his sudden encounter with a stranger– a ‘coolie’ named Balasundaram in South Africa. That unexpected meeting was life-changing for Gandhi and led to the abolition of indenture system, almost a century ago.

He’d proclaimed:

God is Truth.


He whispered;

And changed his mind–

It’s the other way round:

Truth is God.

When one is young one makes mistakes.

The dandy lawyer

In three-pieces of silk,

Always after nothing but the whole truth!

Then he began spinning

The wheel of fate

Or fire?

It’s difficult to tell

From this distance.

But truth is never far away.

One fine morning

As he sat in his attorney’s office

–London-trained and attired–

Shuffling legal papers

For litigious merchants,

Entered Balasundaram—

In ragged coolie clothes–


Bashed, battered, bleeding

Two front teeth broken

A godforsaken creature

Blood driveling from his lips.

Below the crinkled skin, a human face,

Carrying his safa, turban,

In both his hands

And babbling Tamil, his mother’s tongue.

It wasn’t an offering

Or a greeting but a plea:

Do something for us too:

We cannot pay our dues

To be members of a rich congress.
Gandhi was moved

By the laborer’s dignity, and the soiled clothes.

How shall I spin this one?

The General in his labyrinth is strong:

What decency has ever won against general smut?

The white doctor, the white magistrate

Their righteous indignation aroused

Against the white employer.

If I tell the truth,

Others will be truthful too.

That is the only basis of our lives.

Balasundaram was given to another employer:

He was a bonded coolie again.


It’s an ordinary story, a relic,

In any lawyer’s office

Among tattered and frayed files,

A daily occurrence,

From South Africa to the South Pacific,

And the crossings of the Atlantic.


But a strange thing happened:

As Balasundaram

Took of his blood-stained scarf from his head

Gandhi saw more than most;

His heart’s desire was fulfilled

To serve strangers in strange places.

He changed his sartorial tastes

Shaved his hair himself:

The coolie barrister

Became a coolie!


And began to spin

A thread that reached the Cross

On a hill between two thieves

And to a god exiled on Everest.


Miracles happen when the soul

Of a coolie

And a mahatma become one.


Balasundaram had given him a truth:

How can men feel honoured

In the humiliation of their fellow beings?


It was not a question he asked.

It was the answer he found

From the bleeding mouth of a coolie.

From then he began to spin

Closeted in the dust of his skin

The threads of many freedoms

When a coolie had morphed into a mahatma.


Then they shot him dead–

Three steel bullets of rusted iron.

‘He Ram!’

Was all he mumbled–

Two words, the last three letters of a coolie name.


And Balasundaram stood :

Alone by Sabarmati’s shore

He knew the river had changed its course

But not ceased its flow

And history had happened.

Miracles, too, are sudden, inexplicable,

Like birth or assassinations.


His head held high

His white turban shining like a star,

Next to a slice of the moon,

In his folded palms:

His heart without fear

On his face a single tear


His bare head in its last homage:

That this beauty is beyond human breath:

Even he saw it too late

In silence: that one death sometimes

Makes us all ONE

Nobler than we are.

And gives us Life in our lives.




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