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`This girl is very dangerous’

Sunday 10 April 2005, by SHARMA*Jyotirmaya

Dashriben Chaudhry is 87 and full of memories of a bygone era. She lives in Velchi, a small village near Surat. She speaks about her long association with the Mahatma and his wife Kasturba, and also about a life lived the Gandhian way.

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Dashriben Chaudhry ... she taught Kasturba to read and write.

I WAS born in 1918 and had my first darshan of Gandhiji in 1924. I was very young but I started spinning and took to khadi. From the age of eight, I started wearing clothes that I had spun myself. In 1926, Gandhiji came again to my village, Velchi, and I met him. I was the youngest, so Bapuji came to me. I wanted to drape a garland around his neck, but couldn’t reach him, so he lifted me and I garlanded him.

He looked at the jewellery I was wearing and asked me, "What are these?" "This is my jewellery. My mama (uncle) got them made for me," I replied. "I see. But beta (child), we must live the life of a sadhu. Will you take these off", asked Bapu. "Yes, Bapuji," I said "I will take these off." Then, immediately, I asked my father to take them off.

I saw him again in a village nearby, where he exhorted us to convert others to khadi, because he felt that it was the only way to redeem millions out of their poverty and attain swaraj. In 1928, during the Bardoli Satyagraha, Sardar Patel said to me: "Child, you know how to read and write, and you can sing as well. You must go from village to village as part of a group and spread the message of satyagraha. You must sing songs and also make others sing them." By this time I had studied up to class three, and my grandfather was a teacher. My uncle was a naik mamlatdar, and another uncle was a senior teacher. While others only knew our adivasi (tribal) dialect, I knew Gujarati because I came from an educated household.

In 1929, I picketed against liquor shops. We used to destroy all the fruit on the toddy trees. By now, I had studied up to class four in my village school. Then I went to the kanyashala (girls school) at Valod. One day my uncle came and said that Gandhiji was not in favour of state education but preferred national education. I was pulled out of the kanyashala and sent to a school at Puna, where my uncle was a teacher. Kasturba also taught us things like hygiene and cooking in that school. That is where I first met Ba. The year was 1929.

One day, in 1930, a letter arrived at the school from Gandhiji. Ba asked Kalyanjibhai, a teacher at the school, to read the letter. Gandhiji wrote informing Ba of his intention of breaking the salt law and launching a satyagraha for the repeal of the law. He asked Kasturba to join the satyagraha and ask others to join in as well. He wanted girls from the school to go from village to village and spread the message of satyagraha and the need to defy the law. He asked Ba to prepare a band of volunteers to go to Dandi to break the salt law.

I opted to join the satyagraha immediately. I was used to such work. I had done this in 1928. Some other girls were scared because satyagrahis were beaten up mercilessly. Even my grandfather was badly beaten, but I wasn’t scared of going and disseminating the satyagraha credo in the villages. Another girl and myself set out for the villages under Premshankarbhai’s leadership and talked to the villagers about the need to break the salt law.

My father went to Dandi. Nine of them went from Velchi to break the law. The police beat them up mercilessly. Gandhiji was eventually arrested.

What do I think of the re-enactment of the Dandi March? Well, it is good that youngsters have got to know of Dandi and what Gandhiji did there. People must realise that when there is a fight to be undertaken against injustice, the Gandhian way of satyagraha can also be effective.

From then on, it was the period of civil disobedience. My father went to prison for nine months in 1932. After he returned, I went to Surat with six other women to picket a shop that sold clothes made in Manchester. The police came and caught us. We were taken to the magistrate to be tried.

The magistrate asked me: "What is your name?" I replied: "Dashriben Rumsibai". "Where do you live?" "India," I replied. "Where do you work?" "India," I said again. "What will you do now?" "Get swaraj", I said. The magistrate then remarked: "This girl is very dangerous. She hasn’t given even a single straight reply." "What is your age," asked the magistrate. I said: "How do I know? We are adivasis. We don’t know how to read or write." "Do you promise not to spin and wear khadi and promise not to utter Gandhi’s name," the magistrate asked. "I will do all this. We have come here to take swaraj. Whether we live or die, until the time we do not get swaraj, we will do exactly this," I replied defiantly.

I was sentenced to a year in prison. We were taken first to the Sabarmati prison for a month and then transferred to the Yervada prison in Pune. Kasturba was in Yervada as well, and when she heard that women from Gujarat had arrived, she came to meet us. I fell at her feet. "I don’t recognise you," said Ba. "I am Dashri. I used to be in school in Puna and you used to come and teach us various practical things," I said. "Oh, Dashri. You have grown so much. And even managed to come to prison," said Ba lovingly.

One day when I was doing the prescribed manual labour in prison, Ba came and asked me how I was coping. I told her that I was an adivasi and so was used to hard work. Then suddenly Ba asked me if I knew how to read and write. I told her that I did since I had studied up to class five. "Will you, then, teach me how to read and write," Ba asked. "I have just read 5 classes, so I just know how to read and write. How can I teach you," I asked. "All that I need now to learn is to read and write. That’s all," replied Ba. She was in the A-class prison and I was in C-class. I wondered if the prison authorities would allow me to go to Ba, but I was reassured by her that she would speak to them.

Ba had arranged for a primer, and so I taught her the alphabet. Gandhiji was in the same prison. If Ba had to communicate with him, the only way was to write a letter. In the past, she took the help of other women prisoners to write these letters. Then subsequently Ba asked me to teach her how to write a letter. I would write the letter format on a slate and then she would copy the same. One day, Ba needed to write to Gandhiji. I told her that she must now write the letter herself and not take anyone’s help. "What if I make mistakes," asked Ba. "If you make mistakes, I’ll help you correct them," I said. So she wrote a rough draft and after the errors were rectified, she made a fair copy in her own hand and sent it to Gandhiji.

Gandhiji had earlier tried to teach Ba how to read and write but had failed. This was in South Africa. When Gandhiji received Ba’s letter in Yervada Prison, he was intrigued. He recognised Ba’s handwriting. He wrote back saying: "When I used to teach you, I used to get irritated and you used to break into tears. Now, who has managed to teach you how to write? How did you manage to learn?" Ba wrote back saying that there was this little girl in the Puna ashram, who is now in prison with me and has taught me to read and write. Gandhiji wrote back: "Really, this girl has taught you? Well done, give this girl my grateful thanks."


(As told to Jyotirmaya Sharma.)

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