Portrait of Courage

“Could you scan the Gandhi sketch for me so I can make a copy?” I asked my sister Shaila with a sense of nostalgia standing in front of the signed sketch dating back almost 70 years.

“I’ll have to make sure the paper is not too fragile and if I can remove it from the frame.” She responded vaguely as she put grey cups brimming with hot chai on the table for us.

“You should have it restored professionally to preserve it further.” I suggested, picking up my cup, taking in a deep breath of ginger. A sense of comfort settled over us as we both looked at the picture hanging on the narrow wall near her living room window.

The absence of the artist acutely shared between our silent sips.

The artist had been our father. The portrait was that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation. Papa had drawn the portrait when he was about 14 or 15 years old, dating it to the mid 40’s, sometime right before the Indian Independence. Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence and civil disobedience had become a national uprising in India’s final push to freedom. The Quit India Movement officially launched in August of 1942 was the final straw after the British committed the Indian forces into World War II without any consultation. This unrest in India during World War II culminated in a quick and bloody birth of two nations, India and Pakistan on August 15th 1947. Thus, ending the 300-year long British rule over the Indian Subcontinent.

Each stroke of pencil under the glass was a line tracing me back to Papa’s story. To our family’s story and his concluding days.

Papa grew up with his 6 siblings in and around the North-Eastern Indian town of Patna. Far removed from our ancestral village on the Western most edge of the country close to the coastal desert. Our small community migrated as contractors finding construction jobs with the British. Specifically, building and laying out the foundation for the Indian Railways, and endeavor started by the British to connect the entire country. My great grandfather, grandfather and Papa were all in this family business.

But before he was an engineer, a railway contractor or my Papa, he was a teenager.

“Papa, tell me how you met Gandhiji and got him to sign your sketch?” I would prod Papa as a young child. Referring to Gandhi using the reverent ‘ji’ a common suffix given to elders in respect.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Pencil sketch of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi signed in Patna in 1947

Fidgeting on the mustard sofa against the velvet tufted cushions facing the narrow wall next to the window in our family’s living room I’d gaze at this sketch. Most times I’d stare at it in wonder the familiar story jostling around in my mind with different dialogues and outcomes. And at other times because the wall gecko, a common house pest had slithered behind the picture frame and I could see its tail. My heart thumping loudly waiting for it to dart out or fall on the table next to which I sat.

“I sketched the portrait before Gandhiji came to Patna for the a prayer meeting at the Gandhi Maidan.” Papa would recall, a far away look in his eyes transporting him back to the large dusty public meeting venue in Patna.

I’d look at him in awe. How was it possible that Papa was so gifted, brave and lucky? I was 4 years shy of Papa’s age when he’d drawn that portrait of Gandhi, and had even met him. And here I was where wall geckos and spiders easily scared me.

Even then I sensed the lack of my own accomplishments.

“But how did you meet him?” I’d ask again with anticipation, knowing the answer, a knot forming in my chest, as if what came next required bravery beyond my reach.

“I went with my friends to listen to Gandhiji at the Maidan. There was a huge crowd but there was a pin drop silence when he addressed the crowd.” I was mesmerized by the power this moment must have embodied. A restless country and my father as a young boy on the cusp of Independence held my imagination.

“Then?”

“So, the day after the prayer meeting, Gandhiji was heading back to Delhi and his train was going to stop at the station close to where we lived about 10 kilometers outside of Patna.” Geographically I had no clue where this was as a child but I was right with him on the journey.

“Since your Grandfather, Bapuji was a railway contractor, the local railway officials knew me. They allowed me on the platform and I crossed over and waited along the route on the opposite side of the platform on the lower tracks.” He built the suspense.

“As the train approached, I ran alongside and jumped on the train from that opposite side since there were no crowds and entered the coach carrying Gandhiji. I found Gandhiji sitting with his assistants by the window. And I approached them.” Papa’s excitement was palpable.

I had stopped breathing; my small face all eyes, waiting for the final act of bravery.

“Gandhiji, could you please sign my sketch I made of you?” Papa boldly approached the great man.

“Let me see if it’s any good.” Gandhiji gestured the teenager to come closer.

“Hmm, it’s not bad, but I’ll only sign it if you donate 1 Rupee for the Quit India Movement.” He added, testing how much this signature was worth to my father. 1 Rupee was quite a lot of money back then.

“I paid Gandhiji’s assistant 1 Rupee and Gandhiji signed my sketch. I got off the train just as it pulled into the station and jostled through the crowd to get home.” Papa’s gaze moved back to observe my rapt attention.

Recklessness and courage must be the two sides of a coin. Recklessness is youth’s companion that made it possible for that teenager to run along train tracks and jump into a moving train. But courage is a muscle that you tone over a lifetime whether facing a living legend or surviving the large and small indignities of life. Courage is that patina which enhances your profile with age.

It takes courage to take a stand and educate all his daughters when girls were not afforded the same rights. It is courage and vision that helps guide an older generation to leave inheritances for his sisters along with his rightful share. It took a brave heart even though broken, by the constant strain between mother and son, to leave home at middle age and start over in a new city across the country. And most of all, it was the brave face of Papa that gave us all courage to keep on going over the last two years that he spent in silence due to the stroke.

“His generation must have so many stories to tell, what a time they lived through.” Mused my sister, sipping her chai.

It was courage I sought in the portrait today. Courage to tell our stories.

Leave a Reply