He stays in GD Birla’s house on Albuquerque Road, almost next doors to the house Jinnah has vacated on going to become Pakistan’s Head of State. The national capital and its surrounding areas are gripped by massacres and the spewing of hate. The two Punjabs on either side of the border are aflame.

On 1 January 1948, a Thai visitor comes and compliments him on India’s independence. “Today... Indian fears his brother Indian. Is this independence?”, Gandhi asks in response. Gandhi smarts at the Government of India’s new cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru deciding to withhold the transfer of Pakistan’s share (Rs 55 crores) of the “sterling balance” that undivided India has held at independence.

The attack on Kashmir is cited as a reason for this. Patel says India cannot give money to Pakistan “for making bullets to be shot at us”.

Gandhi’s intense agitation settles into an inner quiet on 12 January when the clear thought comes to him that he must fast. And indefinitely. “It will end when and if I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities...”

Devadas, though in the same city and meeting his father constantly, decides to put his thoughts down in a letter written late at night on 12 January. He pleads against the fast: “You have surrendered to impatience...Your patient labour has saved thousands of lives...By your death you will not be able to achieve what you can by living. I would therefore beseech you to pay heed to my entreaty and give up your decision to fast.”

Gandhi says the letter and its last sentence have touched him but he asks Devadas to join in the prayer that the temptation to live may not lead me into a hasty or premature termination of the fast.

Devadas’ letter to his father, dated 13 January 1948 :

Your statement has been written in haste. Quite a few improvements could have been made in it. I had wished to tell you my views about the propriety of your fasting. But as I had no hint of the oncoming fast, I made no attempts to tell you these. . . . My chief concern and my argument against your fast is that you have surrendered to impatience, whereas your mission by its very nature calls for infinite patience. You do not seem to have realised what a tremendous success your patient labour has achieved. It has saved . . . thousands of lives and may still save many more. . . . By your death you will not be able to accomplish what you can by living. I would, therefore, beseech you to pay heed to my entreaty and give up your decision to fast.

Makar Sankranti, 14 January 1948

Chi Devadas, I have been through your letter early in the morning after the prayer. I also understand the little talk we had yesterday. My statement was not issued in haste in your sense of the word. In one sense it was, because I took less time in drafting it than I normally would.

The reason for it was the four days of reflection and prayer that preceded it. That statement was the result of reflection and prayer, and so it cannot be called a hasty one either in my language or in the language of anyone who knows. The statement certainly needed some polishing for improving the expression and making the language more refined and I made the changes the moment you suggested them. I did not want to hear either from you or from anyone about the propriety of my fast. That I have listened to you so far is a sign of my modesty and patience. You got the notice the moment I thought about it. Your main anxiety and your reasoning are meaningless. It is true you are my friend. It is true that you have risen high. But you can never cease to be a son and so your concern is only natural. However, your reasoning displays shallowness of thought and impatience. I consider this act of mine as the extreme limit to my patience. Is patience that kills its very object patience or stupidity?

I can’t claim credit for what has been achieved since my arrival in Delhi. It would be sheer conceit on my part to do so. That one or more lives were saved through my efforts has no value for the world. Only the All-knowing God can see its value. It is nothing but ignorance to say that “one who had been patient from the beginning of September has ceased to be so all of a sudden”. It was only when in terms of human effort I had exhausted all resources and realised my utter helplessness that I laid my head on God’s lap. That is the meaning of the fast. Read and think over Gajendramoksha which is considered the greatest epic. Perhaps then you will be able to value my action. The last sentence of your letter is a beautiful expression of your love. The origin of that love is ignorance or attachment. That this attachment is universal does not make it enlightenment. So long as we are unable to leave aside the question of life and death it is an illusion to think that we can do a particular thing only if we are alive. Strive as long as you are alive is a beautiful thing to say but bear in mind that striving has to be in a spirit of detachment. Now perhaps you will understand why I cannot comply with your request. Rama who has prompted me to go on fast will bid me give it up if He wants me to do so. In the mean time you, I and all of us should realize and have faith that it is equally well whether Rama preserves my life or ends it. I have only one prayer: “O Rama, give me strength during the fast so that desire to live may not tempt me into premature termination of my fast”. Preserve this letter which I have dictated to Manu after deep thought and read it from time to time.

Blessings from Bapu

New Delhi

Patel speaks on 15 January: “Let it not be said that we did not deserve the leadership of the greatest man in the world.”

In Pakistan prayers are offered for Gandhi’s life by “Muslim women in the seclusion of their purdah” and though he does not specifically mention the fast, Pakistan’s Governor General Jinnah sends a message through India’s High Commissioner Sri Prakasa urging Gandhi: “to live and work for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity in the two dominions”.

On the sixth day of the fast a delegation of over 100 persons representing different communities call on Gandhi pledging that “...we shall protect the life, property and faith of the Muslims and that the incidents that have taken place in Delhi will not happen again.” It is 18 January. A cold wintry day.

Gandhi contemplates the pledge and the appeals made in person by Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad, Pakistan’s High Commissioner Zahid Husain, a representative of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. Gandhi has prayers sung from five faiths and then in complete silence, accepts a glass of orange juice from Azad.

Relief is in the air, tears in eyes. Including those of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who then tells Gandhi that he too had been fasting since the previous day. After Nehru leaves Birla House, Gandhi scribbles a note for him and sends it through his secretary, Pyarelal: “End your fast...Live for many long years and continue to be Hind’s Jawahar.”

The moneys due to Pakistan are released.

During this moment of catharsis, a group of people plan to kill Gandhi. A non-lethal bomb is exploded at the evening prayer meeting in Birla House on 20 January. This is no experiment or rehearsal, but part of a conspiracy to create pandemonium in the course of which fatal shots are to be fired at Gandhi from behind a trellis to his rear. Gandhi controls the congregation’s reaction by simple, direct words asking for calm. And by asking Manu to start singing the Ramdhun. While the bomb-planter is apprehended, the would-be assassins flee.

On 29 January 1948 , Devadas writes:

I had had one of those rarest of rare experiences, that of being alone with Bapu for a moment. It was my customary call at 9.30. He was in bed...I stepped in and was greeted by “what news?”...I...had no news to give. So I asked: “How does the ship of State fare?” He said: I am sure the little differences will vanish. But things may have to await my return from Wardha. That won’t be long. The Government is composed of patriots and no one will do anything that is in conflict with the interests of the country. I am sure that they must hold together at all costs and they will. There is no difference of substance. There was more conversation on the same lines and I would have invited the usual “crowd” even at that hour, had I tarried. So, preparing to leave, I said: “Bapu, will you sleep now?” No, there is no hurry. You may talk for some time longer if you like.

The men who had fled the scene on January 20 return ten days later.

“I hate being late” is the last full sentence spoken by Gandhi in Gujarati to Manu and Abha as he reaches the prayer ground on 30 January, a few minutes behind time. He has been absorbed in conversation with Patel.

A jostle, and the rosary and prayer book held by Manu who has been pushed, fall. Three shots ring out.

“Wake up, Bapu,” Devadas sobs into his father’s pulse-less form. “Wake up, please.”

Ramchandra Gandhi says years later: “Three bullets did not stop Gandhi; Gandhi stopped those bullets in their track.”

Scorching Love: Letters from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to his son Devadas

Excerpted with permission from Scorching Love: Letters from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to his son Devadas, Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Tridip Suhrud, Oxford University Press.