Gandhi was in the habit of taking a brisk walk every evening. He would walk for three or four miles, covering the distance in about three quarters of an hour. Accompanying him on the walk would be some members of the Ashram community, children and some visitors to whom he wanted to talk during the walk, thus saving on the time that he would otherwise have had to find from his heavy schedule of work. The walk was not merely a stint of exercise but also a period of relaxation. Gandhi would be up to his pranks with children or would be provoking laugher with his banter and wit.
On a cold December day in 1939, as he stepped out of the Ashram for his walk, he found a human form with a bundle in his hands about to enter the Ashram. On seeing Gandhi, the visitor halted six steps away, kept his bundle down and did obeisance to Gandhi.
Gandhi looked grave, a thick pall of sorrow fell on his face. He recognized the man before him. It was Parchure Shastri, a famous Sanskrit Scholar and poet who had been with him in the Yervada Jail in 1922. In these years, Shashi had contacted a vicious form of leprosy. He had tried treatment at many hospitals, and with many doctors. Nothing had helped. He wanted to disappear from view and meet what was in store for him. But before making his final exit, he wanted to have a darshan (glimpse) of Gandhi. So he had written to Gandhi asking for permission to meet him. In the meanwhile, the Second World War had broken out. It was feared that Gandhi might be compelled to start some form of Civil Disobedience, and might be lodged in Jail. He would then have no chance of meeting Gandhi before he met with his end. These thoughts prompted Shastri to arrive on the scene, before, as he thought, it became too late. Gandhi looked at him with infinite sadness, and said that he had received Shastri's letter but had thought that Shastri would wait for his reply before arriving at the Ashram. Shastri explained: "I know I should have
waited for your permission to come to the Ashram, but somehow I could not restrain myself, and so I left Hardwar to come to you." Gandhi explained to him that he wanted Shastri to come. But there were many others, including women and children, in the Ashram. He was debating in his mind whether it would be proper for him to ask Shastri to live with him in the Ashram, knowing the nature of the disease from which he was suffering. Shastri realized Gandhi's difficulty, and said: "I have had your darshan. This bundle contains the yarn that I spun while at Hardwar, with the hope that I will be able to give it to you some day. My purpose is served. I shall now spend the night under the tree in the distance, and go away in the morning." Gandhi asked him whether he had a meal. When he learned that Shastri had not eaten, he asked one of the inmates of the Ashram to fetch food for him, and serve him. Gandhi then resumed his walk with a face that was overcast with pain and introspection. That evening he was silent during his walk. Others in the entourage too were silent. He returned to the Ashram, and after the evening prayer, went to his bed. But he could not sleep. The picture of Parchure Shastri and the dilemma that he was facing kept sleep away. What was he to do? Could he turn Shashi away? Could he make him reside in the Ashram if the other inmates of the Ashram resented or panicked? By the morning all aspects of the question had been weighed, and Gandhi was clear on what he should do. As soon as the morning prayer was over, Gandhi spoke to the inmates of the Ashram. He explained the situation and the risks. He wanted to keep Shastri in the Ashram and nurse him back to health. But he could do so only if they also welcomed him. He felt that God in the form of Parchure Shastri had come to test his sincerity. To turn Shastri away would be to deny himself and God. But to let him stay would be to expose the Ashramites to risk. The members of the Ashram too had been entrusted to his charge by God. Would they share the risk with him, and welcome Shastri? The members of the Ashram community were unanimous in declaring that Shastri would be welcome in the Ashram. The next morning a tardy but special hut was set up for Shastri near the hut that Gandhi occupied. Every morning Gandhi would go to him, talk with him and cheer him up for a while. He would then wash and clean the leprous wounds on Shastri's body. These were days when momentous political decisions were being taken. The Ashram was full of the leaders of the nation who were there for discussion with Gandhi. But everyday Gandhi found time to dress Shastri's wounds and massage his ailing body. Gandhi determined the patient's diet, and the food served to Shastri was taken to Gandhi for inspection thrice a day. In a few days, the Ashramites took over the task of dressing Shastri's wounds. But Gandhi would go to the hut everyday, in the morning and evening and spend some time, talking to Shastri. Once when he went to see Shastri on his day of silence, Shashi recited Sanskrit poetry and talked animatedly on many issues. But Gandhi could not talk. After listening to Shastri with a smile, Gandhi produced a fresh orange from his shawl, and offered it to Shastri with a smile. That was his answer. Before he left his hut, he had remembered that it was his day of silence, and taken the orange along as a token of his love and concern. Shastri's face reflected the glow of love. Shastri's stay in the Ashram extended itself to years.
The affection and attention that he received from Gandhi and the Ashramites, and the treatment that followed helped him to recover.
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