One day before he is assassinated, Gandhi steps out of Birla House into newly independent Delhi, wanting his approaching death to be a final, redemptive message.

When he saw the five or six Gandhis who were pushing and jostling their way into a crowded compartment on the train to Amritsar, Gandhi was astonished; he hurried towards them, running part of the way. The crowd was huge and unmanageable. All those who were waiting tried to get into the compartment at the same time. Everyone tried to drag the others off the train in order to climb aboard themselves. Some even resorted to physical assaults. The entire railway station echoed with abuses and cries for help.

Gandhi stood diffidently near the door. But the crowd was growing bigger by the minute. He thought he might not be able to board the train. Fortunately, the crowd pushed him involuntarily into the compartment. Inside, he found that passengers numbering four to five times the compartment’s holding capacity were packed into it.

Without any effort on their part, everyone had been pushed by the crowd to some part of the compartment. Gandhi felt depressed. His knees were aching intolerably. The train began to move. ‘Here, Gandhi sir, come this way! Here’s a bit of room for you! He looks really old. Give him a little room, the poor man. In spite of everything, he is one of us, isn’t he?’

The clutch of Gandhis who had grabbed some space on a side-berth invited him to sit next to them.

‘He seems to have come from far away! What might be your good name, sir?’

Looking in wonder at each one of them, all made up to look exactly like him, the Mahatma replied: ‘Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi...’

They broke into loud guffaws.

‘That we all know, don’t we? I was asking your real name – the name your parents gave you ...’

‘It was my parents who gave me this name.’

‘Your native place is Porbandar, then?’

‘Yes, that’s where I was born. Now, for the past few months,

I have had to stay in Birla House. I walked out of there early this morning. Though I didn’t have any plan when I left, now I am travelling to Amritsar. It’s my wish to visit Jallianwala Bagh. It’s been a long time since I last saw it.’

‘It seems like a nut has come loose in his brain!’

‘That’s how much you know. In fact, this old man is smart. These days, fascination for such places has grown tremendously. Large crowds of tourists visit them every day. All you need to do is to put on this disguise and hang around there, doing nothing. You can earn more than enough money within a month.’

Unable to bear his disgust, the Mahatma closed his eyes. So this is how it’s all turned out. Bhagwaticharan was not a lone man. The police officials he had met early that morning, the ticket clerk at the railway station and the pathetic people present in that compartment must have come across innumerable counterfeit Gandhis.

‘But, Gandhi sir, please don’t imagine that like you we have put on this makeup in order to beg on the streets,’ said a middle- aged Gandhi in a tone of admonition.

‘This man here, he is a Gujarati. A big landlord, he was in the Congress party for many years. He has even been to jail once. Only after we got Independence did he put on this disguise. He has still not met the real Gandhi. But his speech, gait and bearing are as striking as the real Gandhi’s!’

‘If he has no intention of begging, then why put on this disguise?’ asked the Mahatma, his voice shaking.

‘That’s a good question. Our man has decided to contest elections. Sir, there is no easier way to ensure your win! Shave off your head. Wrap a piece of khaddar around your shoulders and waist. Hold a brand-new copy of the Bhagavad Gita in your hand. Then, step onto the street and keep walking. Like him, you must also walk at a brisk pace...!’

The more Gandhi heard, the more surprised he was. The man seemed to revel in what he was saying. As he was not quite past middle age, he must have made strenuous efforts to appear old. He had a slight paunch, and in order to hide it, he kept his stomach drawn in all the time. But he had no teeth. He might have had them pulled out in order to fit the disguise perfectly.

‘Is it possible to earn the trust of people through such gimmicks?’ asked the Mahatma, genuinely puzzled.

‘This serves simply to draw people’s attention. To straighten out your enemies and bring them around, you have to employ other strategies.’

‘Only through non-violent means, I hope?’ Gandhi asked him, looking at the man expectantly.

‘Non-violent means? What a yarn!’ he replied, accompanied by a belly laugh. Then he confided in a low whisper, as if it were a secret: ‘Just a few more days! Let the event come to pass. Then I will become like Maharana Pratap. My men will chase them over and beyond the Himalayas. But Gandhi sir, you should go and beg on the streets, take care of your survival! Why are you wasting your time, listening to all these stories?’

The Mahatma started thinking about his own Astapovo.

The train stopped tirelessly at every single station on the way and started again. Despite travelling all day, it could not have covered even half the distance to its destination. The rush at the time of boarding had subsided totally. Four or five stops after Delhi, the clutch of Gandhis took their leave. But a fresh bunch of them got on board at every stop. Spectacles, khaddar and a copy of the Gita in one hand – the disguise is indeed very easy to assume, thought the Mahatma. Each man had his own reasons for wearing the disguise. The Mahatma noticed that there were several others who had also made themselves up to look like him. A young fruit vendor told him that this disguise helped them to escape from the rioters and the police.

‘Even if the disguise is obvious, there is no problem. They think it would be a sin to kill someone who is wearing it. If I hadn’t put it on, I would have been killed along with my parents when our settlement was set ablaze last month,’ he told Gandhi. ‘This disguise comes in handy even in selling fruit. Isn’t it special to buy an orange from a mahatma rather than from an ordinary fruit vendor?’ asked the young man, laughing.

Gandhi bought a couple of bananas from the youth and ate them. Then he lay down on an empty berth, stretching his legs. His body felt hot. Was it a symptom of pneumonia? They must be nearing Astapovo!

*      *      *

The dew began to fall as early as two o’clock that afternoon. To keep warm, one of the Gandhis sitting directly opposite the Mahatma began to smoke. Another gave up his disguise temporarily and put on a long, woollen overcoat.

Darkness had already begun to fall when the train halted at a very small station shortly after Panipat. Gandhi saw about twenty policemen leap aboard the third class compartment in which he was travelling. He imagined he was as good as caught. Immediately after they received the information in the morning, they must have swung into action.

The police held each passenger at gunpoint and grilled him.

Gandhi decided not to submit to any type of coercion. He must not change his decision even if Nehru or Patel came personally to plead with him. He scanned the platform to check if he had a visitor. The platform was deserted and empty. The station master could be seen in his worn-out uniform. After furling his flags and tucking them under his arm, the station master inspected the compartments one by one.

‘What is your name?’ Gandhi felt that he had seen the police officer somewhere.

‘Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.’ ‘Where are you coming from?’

‘From Delhi...’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To Amritsar. I plan to visit Jallianwala Bagh.’ ‘Why are you going there?’

‘It’s been a long time since my last visit.’ ‘Show me your belongings.’

‘But I haven’t brought anything with me! I am carrying only a little money in a knot in my dhoti, money I earned with my spinning wheel. Apart from that, I have an old copy of the Gita with me, sir.’

The police officer asked Gandhi to untie the knot in his dhoti and show him the money; then he left.

To the Mahatma, it was hugely disappointing. There were only about a dozen passengers in the compartment. It had become completely disfigured by waste and rubbish strewn all over. The spaces underneath the seats were filled with several kinds of fruit peels and the remains of food. When he said that it was their collective duty to keep the compartment clean, other passengers laughed at him. In the afternoon, Gandhi started cleaning the compartment on his own. When he returned to his seat after sweeping up the rubbish and throwing it out, his fellow passengers threw coins at his feet. He gathered them silently and put them away inside the knot in his dhoti. By now the Gandhis, too, were disfigured beyond recognition. Their makeup had come undone. On the shaven faces of the young Gandhis, black stubble had begun to sprout. The usual hour for the Mahatma’s prayers was approaching. A passing peanut vendor told them that it could take a very long time for the train to depart.

Have I reached Astapovo?

Thinking that he would walk for a while, he got off the train and set out alone.

Birds at the station were singing their nesting hour melodies. Nervously flapping their wings, they became agitated on seeing Gandhi. He walked away from there, not wanting to disturb their solitude. He imagined that he had finally arrived at a place where no one paid him any mind. This was a freedom he had never experienced before! Seated on a bench coated with bird droppings, Gandhi commenced his prayers in the dim light of a lamp-post.

‘Why are you sitting here, sir? Are you a passenger?’

When he saw the station master standing before him, Gandhi tried to get up. ‘Yes. I must get to Amritsar. I heard that it would take a long time for the train to start, so I came here to say my prayers. Do you have any information on when

it might depart, sir?’

‘No. I don’t know. It is unlikely that anyone else would

know either. We have received a message saying they’ve torn up the tracks.’ After saying this, the station master looked oddly at Gandhi. ‘So you are going to Amritsar? Do you have a ticket?’

It seemed to Gandhi that the station master, whose natural instinct was to smile, was making a strenuous effort at pretending to be strict with him.

‘Here.’ The Mahatma untied the knot in his dhoti and gave him the ticket. The station master moved a couple of feet away and examined it. When he looked up at the Mahatma, who had followed and stood near him, he was alarmed.

‘Sir, what is your name? Please tell me.’

He spoke the truth, as always: ‘Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.’

Anxiety shone on the station master’s face as he looked intently at Gandhi.

‘Bapuji, please forgive me. I’ll be right back. I need to examine this.’ He hurried away with the ticket in hand.

It is most likely that I’ve come to the right place, thought the Mahatma. Suddenly, his body began to shiver. He was assailed by a fatigue he had never experienced before. He felt an unbearable pain in his joints. This seems to be the right time in the right place, he told himself.

His eyesight dimmed suddenly. Feeling weak, he sat down on the cement bench. Hasn’t the station master finished his scrutiny yet? He thought catching a nap might make him feel better. He shook out his upper garment and covered himself with it as he lay down, folding his legs. The train which had brought him here stood motionless before him, like a corpse. If you left out the station master’s small room a short distance away and the lamp-post, the place was really a jungle. The birds were crying incessantly.

A large bird perched at the top of the lamp-post with its black wings open was peering at him. This must be the bird which is going to announce my death to the world, thought Gandhi.

Dhaniklal will be the first to reach the spot. He may bring Manu along with him. I must leave my final statement with her, the Mahatma decided.

How wonderful it would be to have Ba here at this moment! Katurba had never fully understood the meaning of his statements. But there was no one who understood his silences as well as she did. Ba particularly liked Mondays when he undertook a vow of silence. It was on Mondays that she got the opportunity to stay with him all day, never leaving his side even for a moment. If she were with him, he wouldn’t even need to make a final statement, thought the Mahatma. For him, her death was an irreparable loss. His eyes brimmed with tears.

‘Bapuji, please get up. Your train is leaving. Bapuji... Bapuji! God, what will I do now? There is nobody here to help. Bapuji, Bapuji! O God...!’

The Mahatma heard the station master’s agitated voice and the long toots of the train’s whistle. He could not open his eyes. His consciousness was precarious, hanging by a slender thread. Whose train is this? Where is it starting from? Where is it heading to? Whose voice is this? Where are these sounds coming from? Is it Kastur’s voice? Or of the little bird that lives on top of the tall red cedar tree? Else, are these the cries of the black-winged bird perched at the top of this lamp-post?

The Mahatma tried to open his eyes. He could not bid the world goodbye without making a statement, could he?

After covering Gandhi with a blanket, the station master ran with his green lamp, raising its flame on the trot, to see off the train which was about to depart for Amritsar. Shortly after, when he brought Gandhi some hot water he had prepared especially for him, he found that the Mahatma had sat up. On seeing the station master, the Mahatma gave him a toothless smile.

‘Your train has left, Bapuji. You may have to wait another eighteen hours for the next train to Amritsar.’

The Mahatma sighed. Fortified by a sip of hot water, he was able now to get up and sit properly.

‘Thank you. This seems to be God’s wish. If he has readied this spot as my Astapovo, I could not go past it so easily, could I?’

The station master’s face had turned pale.

‘Bapuji, please forgive me. Help me avoid the blame for such an unpardonable crime. There is no one here! You will have to make even your final statement only to me, Bapu. I don’t think I have the strength to bear it. Forgive me. The train to Delhi will be here within the next one hour. Please return to Delhi. It is there that everything must come to pass.’

The Mahatma laughed at this.

‘Everything is decided, then! But, please tell me something. You recognized me right at the very beginning – how did you do it? You would have seen lots and lots of Bapujis, right?’

The station master laughed.

‘That’s quite easy, Bapu. Not one among those countless Bapujis ever bought a ticket. On being questioned, they would say, I got you freedom, isn’t that enough? They would be spoiling for a fight. Besides...’

The Mahatma intervened. ‘Besides, you had anticipated all this, hadn’t you? You knew in advance about my journey and its objective!’

The station master grew agitated. ‘But, Bapuji, please listen to what I have to say. It must not end like this. This should never be your message to the world!’

The Mahatma raised his index finger to silence him. Then he continued: ‘No, my dear brother, I cannot retreat now. I have made my choice. I believe firmly, brother, that this world will understand the rationale behind my departure from Delhi and my arrival here. But, aren’t there any doctors around here? Pneumonia has begun its virulent attack!’ He lay down again.

‘No, Bapuji. Nobody around here knows the first thing about pneumonia. Please agree to my request. Everything should happen only in Delhi,’ he said and glanced at his wrist- watch. ‘God, only ten minutes left for the train to come. There’s little I can do before that.’ After mumbling to himself, he said to Gandhi, ‘You must have reckoned this more clearly than anyone else, Bapuji. You must have walked out of there not with a wish to die, but with a desire to live. Your departure was intended solely to draw attention and elicit obedience, just like all the fasts you had undertaken earlier.’

As if he had no response to offer, Gandhi remained silent.

‘But now, all your adversaries will see this from a different angle, Bapu. They have made up their minds. Yesterday or the day before, they might have faced defeat. But now, they have started their war against you. Today or tomorrow. Tomorrow or the day after... it’s only a matter of days now.’

‘What you are saying is true. But where did it all go wrong? I’ve been thinking only about this for the past three days! I considered every man my brother. Even those white men, who happened to be my enemies by dint of history, I loved them too. I tried to teach our people to do the same. I attempted to convey the message of truth and non-violence to everyone. In a way...’ the Mahatma hesitated.

‘In a way, you brought us the message of Christ! That’s why the British Government could never kill you. You appeared to them not as a Christian but as Christ himself, Bapuji!’

‘Yes, I am a true Christian; a Christian truer than Christians themselves.’

The Mahatma smiled. Talking to the station master was like talking to his own conscience. It was strange how his conscience was a station master in an obscure village.

‘That’s the reason our colonial rulers laid down their arms at your feet and left the country. They were unable to fight Christ, their god.’

‘I am a Hindu. A true Hindu. Rama is my god. The Gita is my philosophy.’

‘If someone accused you of having pulled off this deception, what would your reply be, Bapuji?’

Gandhi was silent.

‘Tell me, Bapuji. From which sources did you formulate your precepts? From which god of our soil did you learn non-violence? Is there anyone among our gods who did not take up arms? Which of them forgave his enemies? On being asked to give away his shawl, which one gave away his dhoti as well? Who, on being slapped on one cheek, showed the other? Or, at the very least, did any of our gods follow the tenets of simplicity that you have urged everyone on to? Tell me, Bapuji...’

Gandhi heaved a deep sigh. ‘What should I do as a satyagrahi? Please tell me, dear brother!’ he said. Tears had formed in his eyes.

‘Please go back, Bapuji,’ pleaded the station master.

‘No, that will be tantamount to death!’ he said, repeating his teacher Tolstoy’s famous sentence.

His conscience was angry now.

‘Speak your own sentences, Bapu...! Face up to us in your own way. We are lying in wait to murder you. We have started this war to wreak vengeance on one another. We wish to settle accounts with history. The blood of a thousand years flowing on the streets of Delhi hasn’t dried up yet. Teach us the nobility of your precepts or receive as gift the bullets discharged from our guns.’

The station master was gasping for breath.

‘You will attain a poetic death, just as you wished, in the railway station of this remote village. Then we, your followers, will either betray you after your death or get killed. We will impersonate you even as we destroy your way of life. This sacred land is going to be filled with Bhagwaticharans. You will be ordained as God – merely a god who is powerless to change anything. Then, in the name of that god, a war of retribution will begin. It will last till your identity is completely erased.’

Both men fell silent.

The large black-winged bird, which was watching over Gandhi from the top of the lamp-post, intoned a cry of lamentation as it flew away. Its cry could be heard until it had traversed a long distance.

‘Is this some kind of prophecy?’

‘Prophecy or superstition – you can call it anything you like. But these things will come true, Bapu!’

Gandhi was absorbed in deep contemplation. He closed his eyes.

‘No, I won’t accept defeat. I will make my adversaries understand the poetic nature of non-violence!’

‘Bapuji, then you must live out your entire lifespan – that is, one hundred and twenty-five years...’

The Mahatma closed his eyes and fell silent.

‘Bapuji... the train to Delhi has arrived.’

Gandhi found himself a seat in an overcrowded third

class compartment. He was merely another Gandhi among the several Gandhis travelling in the same compartment. The station master ran to him, panting, with a mug of goat’s milk and a handful of groundnuts.

‘You must stay well, Bapuji! Your death must be the message of our lives!’ he said to the Mahatma as he wiped his streaming eyes.

*      *       *

Two days later, at three o’clock in the afternoon of 30 January 1948, the train in which Gandhi was travelling arrived in Delhi. When he reached Birla House on foot from the station, the time was fifty minutes past four.

Anxious that it was nearly time for his prayer meeting, the Mahatma entered Birla House hastily through the backdoor. In the mansion’s expansive garden, Mahatma Bhagwaticharan sat looking at the burgeoning rose bushes. It is not known whether he noticed Gandhi’s arrival. Gandhi hurried past him, turned into his room and entered the bathroom. He was washing his face when he heard Dhaniklal calling out to him.

‘It’s time for the prayer meeting, Bapuji! He is here.’

The Mahatma replied in a loud voice.

‘I’ll be there in a moment, Dhaniklalji. Please ask him to wait.’

Translated from the Tamil short story, Pirakoru Iravu (2008).

Excerpted with permission from Farewell, Mahatma, by Devibharathi, translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, Harper-Collins India.