by Mike Fox
The Mission Hall, set back a little from the pavement and constructed entirely of brick, deal and roofing felt, was hemmed in on either side by rows of dowdy terraced housing. Within its distempered walls on this still Sunday evening, hymns had been sung and a sermon preached. Now, as the congregation stood and the punctured harmonium wheezed out the national anthem, only one person remained seated.
The divergent behaviour of Ernest Jones, though noted, had long ceased to attract comment, or even the Minister’s censure.
Perhaps this was because his midweek bible classes had gained such improbable traction among Brentford’s youthful delinquents.
Or it could have been to do with the gentle glow of heat that radiated along the arm of anyone who shook his hand.
Or perhaps it was because the small congregation remembered that some decade and a half ago, and barely seventeen, Ernest’s pacifism had led him willingly to Flanders, from whence he had returned, hands callused from stretcher bearing, cheeks ticking from shell-shock, a mild but unflinching opponent of nationalism of any sort.
Whatever the reason, there was something about Ernest that escaped the condemnation of even the most exacting Methodist sensibility.
So the news, that he intended to travel to a place called Sevagram to commune with a Hindu dissident, aroused a modicum of astonishment but no real opposition. Prayers were said for his safety, and the contents of a collection plate put up towards the cost of his journey. Following this, a deputation was convened to stand on the quay at Tilbury and wave him off on his third class passage to Bombay.
During the journey it would be fair to say that Ernest passed largely unnoticed amongst his fellow passengers. Possibly in other circumstances the simplicity of his manners might have set him apart. Or the habit of engrossing himself in a book of philosophical discourse close to a lively game of quoits. Or his tendency to murmur a prolonged and unselfconscious grace before meals. And undoubtedly the inexplicable sense of lightness felt by those with whom he shared even a few feet of space could have caused remark, had the beneficiaries been able to attribute it to its rightful source.
With other diversions prevailing, however, little of this seemed to register. And so, in the absence of distraction, he was able to devote his thoughts entirely to the purpose of his journey. He read, for the fifth or sixth time, the transcript of the speech sent to him from India in reply to one of his letters.
But let there be not a semblance of breach of peace even after all of us have been arrested. We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle. Let no one commit a wrong in anger.
And this prior to an act of civil disobedience of unprecedented nerve and choreography: a two-hundred and forty mile march of many thousands demanding the right to produce a substance as plain and fundamental as salt. Incarceration, brutality, and other deprivations had beckoned, but the marchers understood that no-one must hurt, or hate, another. Ernest breathed the sea air, his eyes distant, his brow creased in thought.
India, when he reached it, dwarfed anything he had been able to imagine. His train journey, branching inland through vast plains of scorched earth and arid scrub, might have proved disconcerting. A baby, swinging in a hammock above, had urinated on the passenger sitting next to him. The carriages were more packed than the rush hour Piccadilly line, with bodies pressed tightly together, while heat fell out of the sky and baked everything beneath. Ernest, though, sat undaunted. As anyone back at the mission might testify, he was not without fortitude.
He left the train at the small town of Wardha and after an hour of wandering was directed to the Congress hostel. Once inside the foyer, nods and gestures guided him to the roof, where he was handed a blanket and left to fall into an exhausted sleep beneath a sky of blistered stars. Early in the morning he was shaken into consciousness and beckoned downstairs to where a tiny, single-horse carriage stood outside the main entrance.
‘Sevagram?’ the wizened, toothless driver enquired. This transpired to be his only word of English, but somehow, it seemed, the telegram had got through.
They rode together in silence. Ernest had done his research. He knew that, with his twenties not long behind him, he had already exceeded the average life span of this vast and ailing country. All around was evidence of deep, abysmal poverty and yet, as his pilgrimage neared its end, he could only think of the hope that had led him here.
After the best part of a jolting, dusty hour, a settlement of random buildings came into view, surrounded by a simple picket fence. The driver slowed his horse and pulled up, indicating that Ernest should dismount. Ernest smiled his thanks and passed over all his loose change, then stepped down and shouldered his rucksack. He watched the driver pull away before turning towards the gap in the fencing that seemed to act as an entrance.
And there, before he could prepare himself, stood a cheerful, bald, jug-eared man, brown-skinned with slender, glowing limbs, clad only in a dhoti and shawl. He wore gold-rimmed bifocals. There was no doubting his identity.
‘I’m afraid you must take us as you find us, Mr Jones—I assume you are Mr Jones?’ He smiled, and Ernest was struck by the ugly beauty of his face.
‘I am, sir.’ Ernest pressed his hands together and bowed uncertainly. Though he’d been thinking about it for days he had no idea how to address or indeed behave in front of a Mahatma.
The old man passed him a clean white cloth, which had been dampened.
‘I suggest you put this on your head, or the sun will soon play tricks with you. And there’s no need for formality. Come,’ he took Ernest by the arm, ‘we have prepared you a cold tub.’
As they began to walk he could feel trembling in the younger man’s body, and moved his hand to rest on Ernest’s shoulder. He gave him a conspiratorial glance.
‘Now, as we are going to spend some time together may I call you Ernest?’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘Then in the interests of equity you must call me Mohandas.’
‘Thank you, Mr Gandhi. Thank you, Mohandas.’
Gandhi waved his free hand towards the collection of hut-like buildings that formed the ashram.
‘This is where I live when I am not in jail.’
Ernest found himself without a reply. Instead he let the Mahatma guide him to a rough, boarded structure with a canvas roof.
‘I’ll leave you to refresh yourself—you’ll find soap and a towel inside. The latrines are just over there should you need them.’ Gandhi pointed to a line of fencing built from random planks, behind which could only be an earth closet. ‘Once you’re ready please come and join us in the dining hall for breakfast.’ He patted Ernest’s shoulder a couple of times then turned and left him to his thoughts.
Ernest stood watching the small figure step away across the soil yard, the sandaled, ten-to-two feet and forward-leaning stride just as he remembered from newsreels.
Inside the wooden assemblage he found a staved tub, beside which stood a small earthenware jug and the promised soap and a hand-spun towel. He removed the cloth from his head, undressed, and immersed his lower limbs and torso in the blissfully cool water. Reaching for the jug he poured several scoops over his face and hair. After his long trek it felt like a moment of renewal. For a few minutes he allowed the heat to seep from his body. Then, after a frugal application of soap he suspected might be scarce, he rose, stepped out of the tub and towelled himself vigorously. By the time he had pulled the freshest of his clothes from his rucksack, his chest and back were beaded with sweat again.
Outside, looking round, his eye fell on the largest building, the only one with any claim to geometry, and guessed it must be the dining hall. On either side of the entrance were images of spinning wheels, protruding like mouldings from the stucco walls. A line of sandals, some woven from rope, spread along the ground, and he hastily removed his shoes and socks before entering.
In the shade of the hall the heat was no less, although it had a different quality. In all there were about thirty people taking breakfast, the men mostly separate from the women. Gandhi was sitting on a cushion near the open doors. Ernest guessed that the woman to his left was Kasturbai, the Mahatma’s wife. On his right sat a distinguished looking man who smiled and patted the floor beside him. Ernest sat down, cross-legged like everyone else.
‘I am Narenda Dev,’ the man said. ‘Gandhiji has undertaken to cure me of asthma. What brings you here, may I ask?’
‘Satyagraha,’ Earnest replied simply. ‘I’d like to learn more about it.’
‘Then you’ve come to the right place.’ Narenda Dev smiled again, and returned to his food. A female waiter, moving noiselessly on bare feet, brought Ernest a tray with a bronze bowl of cooked vegetables and what looked like a flat circle of baked wheat. The young woman tipped a palmful of salt onto his tray, and placed a cup of water by his ankle. Ernest thanked her and she nodded. He saw that those around him ate with their fingers, and so, tearing the wheat and scooping, did the same. There was much chatting and laughter, and Gandhi joined in. Only Kasturbai remained silent, looking often towards her husband, deeply attentive to his presence.
When everyone had finished their breakfast the waiters brought out small bowls filled with water, and Ernest joined the others in rinsing his hands. A short prayer, ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti,’ announced a formal end to the meal.
Once he had risen and stepped outside Gandhi came to speak to him again.
‘As you are here for a month, Ernest, we intend to put you to good use. We invite all our guests to take part in the duties of the ashram.’
In consequence, Ernest at various times found himself employing his amateur carpentry skills on a storage shed, attending to the latrines with a coarse-toothed rake, and, he being a senior clerk back home, acting as amanuensis while the Mahatma dictated a selection of his morning letters. After one such occasion Gandhi suggested he should join him on his daily walk. It was the first time they had been alone together since Ernest arrived. The older man carried a bamboo staff, which he prodded vigorously into the ground with each step. Despite the fierce sun his stride was long and purposeful.
‘How do you find our strange little community, Ernest?’ he asked, once they were out on the dirt road beyond the Ashram perimeter.
Ernest was silent for a few moments. ‘I’ve been made very welcome,’ he said eventually. ‘Everyone’s friendly and kind.’
Gandhi nodded. He had noted the hesitation.
‘We are glad to have you with us. But I imagine it must all seem a bit different?’
Again there was a pause. For several seconds there was only the sound of their steps before Ernest replied.
‘I don’t pray like the people here, Mohandas. I can’t. It’s not to do with having a different religion. I feel the same during services at home a lot of the time.’
Gandhi’s stride didn’t slacken, and though he might have been aware of the catch in the younger man’s voice he continued to look forwards before speaking very quietly.
‘There is no requirement to pray like anyone else here, Ernest. Pray your own prayers and I will pray with you.’
Thinking back later, Ernest was unable to say exactly what made him begin to weep at that moment. Perhaps it was the Mahatma’s melting presence. Or perhaps it was that in those surroundings he’d begun to feel less restrictingly English. He wiped his eyes and smiled an apology. With Gandhi’s palm resting on his shoulder, they completed the walk in silence.
By the end of his third week, Ernest had fallen with surprising ease into the rhythms of the ashram. He rose at five-thirty each day. He read the Bhagavad Gita and discussed it with other residents. He became accustomed to the astonishing taste of mango pulp. He witnessed Prime Minister-to-be Nehru hurriedly grind a cigarette into the ground before entering a meeting with Gandhi. He noticed the unusual mix of obedience and self-directedness in everyone he met. Although he would not have described himself as singular, in this place he felt no more singular than anyone else.
When the final week of his stay arrived, the Mahatma suggested they should walk together again. It was strange how natural such a possibility could now seem. Nothing about this small, humorous man, so different from anyone Ernest had known, felt alien.
‘Tell me about your family, Ernest.’
Gandhi, as before, had set off at a sharp pace.
‘I have a mother and a sister. My father died when I was nine.’
Perhaps a dozen respectful steps passed before Gandhi spoke again.
‘And do your mother and sister share your convictions?’
‘It’s more that we understand each other. They come to the Mission Hall for services. We’re like you, Mohandas, we all believe in passive resistance to injustice and war.’
‘To be frank, Ernest, passive resistance is not a term I prefer. I find it misleading. And I certainly don’t take you for a passive man—look how far you’ve come to be here. I have found that resistance to wrong or oppression, whatever the circumstances that call for it, needs certain conditions to be truly effective. These conditions are internal—the strength we hold in our hearts—and external—peaceful, well considered action. Satyagraha more than anything thrives on a quiet but responsive state of mind.’
Ernest looked down at the dust kicked up by his steps.
‘I fell well short of that in France, Mohandas. But I did keep my faith. I used to play draughts with the padre during the lulls, and he told me he came across two types of soldier, the ones who turned into atheists after their first shelling and the ones who turned to God. I was one of the second lot.’
‘But you didn’t go to war as a soldier?’
‘No, I was a conscientious objector. “Conchie” was my nickname at work for a year when I came back.’ In their correspondence Ernest had forborne to mention the medal for distinguished conduct he had refused.
‘When we went out with the stretchers there’d be German soldiers killed and injured alongside ours. You could see they weren’t any different, just men with wives and kids back home. That’s why I oppose nationalism and everything that goes with it. It doesn’t make sense.’
Gandhi pursed his toothless mouth.
‘Fundamentally I agree with you, Ernest. But I’m afraid nationalism will not go away. I’ve come to believe that the problem is not nationalism in itself. Rather it’s the division it inevitably creates. It both unites and divides. That is its paradox.’
Ernest fell silent. They passed a clump of spindly trees.
‘Have you ever felt afraid, Mohandas?’ he asked eventually.
‘Many times when I was younger.’ The Mahatma nodded in affirmation, then glanced at his companion incorrigibly. ‘But in my dotage fear seems to have passed me by.’
They walked on quietly for a while. Ernest could feel something of Gandhi’s presence seeping into him, his clemency, his indomitable will. He wondered if everyone who stayed here came to feel that.
‘What will you do when you return home?’ They were nearing the ashram again. The heat was unrelenting but Gandhi seemed unwearied by it.
‘I’ve thought while I’ve been here. I’d like to start a school for boys who’ve got themselves into trouble. Maybe somewhere away from London. I’ve done a bit of work like that at the Mission. I’d base it on the principles of Satyagraha.’
Gandhi smiled. He observed the set in the younger man’s jaw. He had also begun to recognise something less tangible.
‘I’ve no doubt it will go well,’ he said.
On the morning of his departure the entire ashram stood to see their English visitor on his way. In his rucksack was a bible, with an inscription, given him by the Mahatma, and a small parcel of food wrapped carefully by those serving in the kitchen.
Gandhi watched Ernest mount the cart and begin his ride home towards the unpretentious pavements of Brentford and, he suspected, the likelihood of another war. Just before the cart disappeared he and Ernest exchanged a final wave, and the old man turned away, the look in his eyes unusually inward.
‘Pavitra,’ he murmured, as if to himself. ‘You never know where you will find it.’
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath and Outliving the Muse (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story Voices (Ayaskala) was nominated for Best of Net 2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.