The Light Has Gone Out

A "playlet" excerpted from Pat Duffy Hutcheon, On the Shoulders of Giants: Senior-level R.E. Curriculum for Unitarian Universalist Churches, 1987.

TIME: Afternoon of January 30, 1948.

PLACE: Birla House in Delhi

CHARACTERS: Mahatma Gandhi, Patel (Deputy Prime Minister of the newly independent government of India) Maniben (Patel's daughter and secretary) Abha and Manu (young female cousins of Gandhi) and Madeline (a long-time friend and supporter).

As the play begins we see Gandhi, seated on the floor of his room, reading the Bhagavad-Gita. There is a knock and Madeline enters.

MADELINE: May I come in?

GANDHI: My dear old friend! It is so good to see you. What brings you to Delhi?

MADELINE: There was business for the ashram, but chiefly, I came to see you. We have all been concerned for you, since news came of your latest fast. I wanted to see with my own eyes that you had not damaged your health.

GANDHI: And if I had? You know that I have always said that, as no one can escape death, why live in fear of it? But never worry. I may seem to court death, when the cause is vital enough, but no one loves life more than I. And since my fast ended eighteen days ago with the pledge from the Congress Party and all the religious communities to keep the peace and protect minorities, I have felt a renewed desire to achieve my old dream of living to the age of 125.

MADELINE: Once again you have achieved the impossible! First you managed to prevent violence in Calcutta when all the rest of the Dominion was engulfed in a bloodbath. And now you have pacified Delhi. To think that, just a few months ago on your 78th. birthday, you felt that you had failed!

GANDHI: I well remember how I resented the congratulations that day and thought that there should have been condolences instead. My dream of a united India was destroyed. Hindus and Sikhs were killing Moslems in the streets, and in Pakistan it was the Moslems who were doing the killing. I felt that mine was a lonely voice, preaching moderation and brotherhood in a wilderness of hatred. I even prayed to die rather than continue as a helpless witness to the butchery of man become savage.

MADELINE: I'm afraid the savagery is still there - boiling beneath the surface. Your friends were terrified to hear of the attempt on your life the other day.

GANDHI: The bomb that was thrown at the prayer meeting? It did no harm.

MADELINE: Thank God! Will the culprit be punished?

GANDHI: Not because of any demand of mine, but I expect the law will take its course. I feel pity for those poor, misguided youths. They call me a Moslem, and they want my life in reprisal for all the murdered Hindus. They cannot understand that -- yes indeed, I am a Moslem, and a Hindu, and a Buddhist, and a Christian, and a Sikh and a Jew as well. Nor do they understand that a reprisal for a reprisal, a death for a death, means the death of all India!

MADELINE: Trust you to pity those who try to kill you!

GANDHI: Yes, I pity them. I wish to use what remains of my life to teach them something better to live by than narrow tribal orthodoxies and fears of those who believe differently.

MADELINE: Haven't you done enough, Bapu? Why not return to your ashram and work there on basic literacy and village industry? Surely India cannot demand more than that of you in your old age.

GANDHI: Perhaps I will, someday. As you know, my desire has always been to work at the village level, developing the new India for today, rather than an idealized free India in some distant future. But now the future is here, and we still have the old Indians. We are free to create a nation or destroy it. And, as I had feared, we are not ready!

MADELINE: But you devoted your entire life to the task. What more can one person do?

GANDHI: My entire life! It seems to have gone like the wave of a hand. I was a child of thirteen when I was married -- blindly following my family's wishes. And I was only seventeen when I went against the family and sailed off to England to study law.

MADELINE: I recall hearing that your uncle disowned you then. But you did return as a lawyer, to find your wife and son waiting but your mother dead. You left for South Africa soon after, did you not? I always wondered why.

GANDHI: That was a turning point for me. Two things happened at that time to change my life. One day I went to the office of a British agent whom I had known in London, to ask him to help my brother. But rather than being greeted as an old friend I was rudely shown the door. I was no longer a school chum, but merely an Indian trying to get above my rightful station. I realized then that I could not survive in India without losing my self respect.

MADELINE: And the other event?

GANDHI: Soon after moving to South Africa to practice law the need arose for me to travel by train. I purchased a first class ticket and seated myself. When the conductor came by he ordered me to the baggage car -- as a "Colored" -- and when I refused to go he threw me off the train.

MADELINE: But you stayed in South Africa and you did change conditions there.

GANDHI: Yes, my wife and I stayed twenty years, and raised our family there. We established the Tolstoy Farm, for mistreated and immigrant Indians. It was during that time that I threw away my lawyer's suit and began to dress as you see me now, in sandals, loin cloth and blanket.

MADELINE: Nevertheless, you did practice law all through that period.

GANDHI: Yes, I used the law to gain justice for the Indians there, while working politically to change the law.

MADELINE: What made you decide to return to India?

GANDHI: In 1914 a new law was passed in South Africa removing all unjust legislation aimed at Indian settlers. I felt that my work was finished there.

MADELINE: Your homecoming then must have been a far cry from that earlier return from London.

GANDHI: Yes. They said that I was a hero to the downtrodden. Our great poet, Tagore, gave me the title of "Mahatma", and I was generally acclaimed. But, during the following fifteen years, I am afraid the rulers of India began to suspect that they had nourished a viper.

MADELINE: Who can blame them? You were involved in the two events that were most pivotal in the destruction of the British Raj.

GANDHI: What do you mean?

MADELINE: Was it not you who recommended the work stoppages which ended in the notorious Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of almost four hundred peaceful Indian workers by General Dyer in 1919? And did you not lead the raid on the government salt works in 1930 in which wave after wave of non-resisting people were beaten to the ground by armed guards? It seems to me that you held up a mirror to the British Raj and they simply could not stomach what they were being forced to do in order to continue governing India.

GANDHI: I remember it all, as if it were yesterday. My fast for concessions, the periods of imprisonment, then the invitation to meet with the Viceroy and the trip to England where the Prime Minister and the British people welcomed me with open arms. What an astounding people are those colonizers of ours!

MADELINE: What I recall most clearly are the years immediately before the war.

GANDHI: Yes, from this distance they seem idyllic. I was devoting myself to spinning and Basic Education at the village level; to the nation-wide use of Hindi; to relief of the Outcastes, and to the strengthening of the Congress Party. But most important on a personal level -- those were the years when I was perfecting my creed of nonviolence. At that time I still had my dreams of a united, independent India. All through the war I held on to those dreams and I really trusted that the British shared them.

MADELINE: Just as you believed, when you supported the British cause throughout those years, that they would never pull out without leaving structures for self government firmly in place.

GANDHI: Yes. Yes, I did believe that.

MADELINE: Do you feel now that the British betrayed you?

GANDHI: Not me. India. By giving in to the ambitions and hatreds of Jinnah and by leaving too precipitously, they betrayed India.

(There is a gentle knock, and in response to Gandhi's "Come" Abha and Manu enter, followed by Patel and his daughter Maniben.)

GANDHI: Welcome, dear friend. And Maniben! Be seated.

PATEL: Bapu, I received your message and came as soon as it could be arranged. How do you do, Miss Slade?

MADELINE: I am well, thank you. The Mahatma and I have just been indulging in memories. I will leave you to your business, Bapu, and will return tomorrow.

GANDHI: Until tomorrow.

PATEL: What is it that is so urgent, Bapu?

GANDHI: Is it true that you are considering breaking with Nehru?

PATEL: It is difficult for me to continue in the role of Deputy Minister when we do not see eye to eye on important matters.

GANDHI: But you are indispensable to each other; and together, to India! I have little confidence in the ability of Congress to govern without the two of you sharing the leadership. You are a skilled administrator, while Nehru has the charisma that leadership demands. Nehru has the vision; you, the integrity. Please hold fast together. Otherwise, I despair for India!

PATEL: Perhaps I have begun to doubt the practical possibility of Nehru's vision, and of yours. I must admit that all this murdering of Hindus in Pakistan is making me less accepting of Moslems in general. Tell me, Bapu, how do you maintain your tolerance and commitment to nonviolence in the face of all this evidence of man's inhumanity to man? Hundreds of thousands of needless deaths! How can any new nation survive such blood-soaked birth?

GANDHI: What better evidence could you have that violence only breeds more violence? Long ago I decided that nonviolence had to be more than just a technique for the prevention of conflict between groups, important as that is. For me, it had to be a code of personal ethics including truth, love, service, scrupulous choice of means when struggling for goals, non-hurting by deed and word, tender tolerance of differences and moderation in the pursuit of material things. Because I accepted nonviolence as a total life stance it continues to support me in every situation. And I know, in the very bowels of my being, it is the only stance that can work for human beings over the long term.

PATEL: I wish it were as clear for me. But you have convinced me. I will stick with Nehru and see it through.

GANDHI: I thank you. And now I see my two timekeepers motioning to me to leave for prayers. Please have tea before you begin your homeward journey. But do not let them serve you the cattle fare they give me.

MANU: Carrot juice, Bapu! You know you like it.

PATEL: Wait! I must tell you that I cannot completely agree with you about nonviolence in the present situation.

GANDHI: Well, I can do no more than echo Tagore's favorite song, "If no one responds to your call, walk alone. Walk alone!"

(Gandhi goes out. There is silence. Then -- a single shot and a strangled cry of "Hey Rama!" The room darkens.)