I was born two-and-half-years after Gandhiji's death, so I never saw him in flesh and blood. Hence all my understanding of him has come from meeting people who knew him and from reading about him and his writings.
I am going to narrate anecdotes about him from people who met and worked with him. Anecdotes help describe a person in human terms. No matter how great the soul is, once it acquires a human body then it is guided by the frailties of human existence.
Gandhi was no different. Many times he said that he was an ordinary human being but sometimes when truth spoke through him he became a super human being capable of moving millions of his countrymen and doing wonderful things. Thus he was a medium of higher forces and it is my belief that all great historical figures are such mediums whether good or evil.
My father, a freedom fighter, told me a remarkable episode about Gandhiji. In 1941, Gandhiji was supposed to give a speech in Allahabad where he wanted to spell out his ideas about the 'Quit India' movement. There were about 5-10 lakh people in the grounds and there was much din and noise. Again and again Nehru and Acharya Kriplani would come to the mike and tell people to remain quiet so that they can hear their leaders speak. But to no avail. Gandhiji was late in coming to the meeting. Once he came, he got on the dais and put a finger on his lip. A wave of silence spread over the field starting from the dais. My father said, he never saw such a thing in his life where a small frail man exerted so much power just by his presence and in a very non-violent way!
Gandhiji had a presence. That is a mark of a great soul and a very evolved spiritual being. To Gandhiji, spirituality came first. Other things like politics, public life etc. were by-products of his spirituality. There are many instances where people spoke about his aura or presence. Almost anybody who came in contact with him was influenced by his thoughts and ideas.
My father's friend, late Shri. Ratan Lal Joshi, who was editor of Hindustan and was also involved in freedom movement, told me of an anecdote.
A well-known writer from Allahabad, who was a friend of Shri. Joshi, used to write about Gandhiji's sexual experiments in a very derogatory manner. He thought that Gandhi was a sexual pervert and had gone senile. Gandhiji apparently wanted to meet him and discuss with him the issue. So a message was sent through Ratan Lal Joshi that he should come and meet Gandhiji about this issue.
The writer was thrilled and he prepared a four page questionnaire about Gandhi's sexual experiments. Both he and Shri. Joshi went to see Gandhiji. He asked the writer about his family, what his children were doing and told him that since he was such a good writer, instead of writing about his sexual experiments he should focus on good things and write about Raja Harish Chandra! All the interview time of 45 minutes was taken up in this chit chat. After the interview Shri. Joshi asked him why he did not ask those questions. The writer said that he could not get the courage to ask them!
A similar story was told to me by Lavanam. He is an 81-year-old Gandhian who was forced to join Sevagram Ashram in Wardha when he was 16 years of age. His parents Gora and Saraswati Gora, a great social reformer couple and atheist, were followers of Gandhi and lived in Sevagram. They decided to yank Lavanam out of the school and give him "Nai taleem" (new education) based on Gandhiji's concept of imparting education through manual work and handicrafts.
He said that his job in the Ashram was to cut vegetables and fruits. He used to hate it since he always felt that he should be attending school and not doing this manual work. Everyday Gandhiji would pass him on his way to his bath after his massage. He did not say anything to him but used to smile. This went on for almost a month. One day while going to his bath Gandhiji asked Lavanam what he was doing.
Being a young impetuous boy who was already peeved with this type of work he replied "Don't you see what I am doing? Gandhiji said, yes I can see that but have you tasted the fruits to see whether they are sweet or good.
Lavanam replied indignantly "How can I taste them? They will become jhutha as they are for the Ashram". Gandhi said "If I were in your place I would taste them and since nobody is watching, it does not matter". Lavanam told him that this is untruthful and not correct to which Gandhi replied, "You a 16-year-old want to teach me, the Pujari of truth about what is correct and incorrect?" and then he had a hearty laugh.
Lavanam said that in those few minutes of exchange Gandhi came to his level and put him at ease and became a great friend. Though a great camaraderie developed between Lavanam and Gandhi, Lavanam said that living in Sevagram was a mind-bending exercise. It was impossible to think critically and straight -- such was the power of thought of Gandhi.
Shri. B. B. Vohra, who retired as the Chairman Advisory Board of Energy during Rajiv Gandhi's time told me another anecdote.
In January 1948, he and his young friends came to Delhi from Punjab since they wanted to see Gandhi as it was rumoured that he may die any day since there had been many attempts on his life. Shri. B. B. Vohra told me that they walked few steps behind Gandhiji to the prayer meeting and his skin was glowing like copper. Vohra ji also told me that it was biting cold that day and he and his friends were wearing long johns, boots, overcoats and warm caps while Gandhiji was going to the prayer meeting in the evening in sandals and without a cap, had a simple khadi shawl on his body, and wearing a dhoti which left half of his legs uncovered! Like a great Yogi he had mastered the elements so he was not bothered by them.
Gandhiji was a great karma yogi who believed in the power of action and work. He never believed in any palmist, soothsayer etc. Shri Ratan Lal Joshi told me of an incident when a palmist went to Gandhiji to see his palm and maybe predict his future. He was informed that he will have to wait since Gandhiji was spinning his charkha. After a couple of hours of waiting the palmist enquired as to how long he will have to wait further. Gandhiji informed him, "Till I get Sampoorn Swarajya (complete freedom from British)"!
Gandhiji had his share of human frailties. He was quite a bully and he had fixed ideas about lots of things. Nirmal Kumar Bose, who was his secretary during his Noakhali trip in West Bengal in 1947, wrote that Gandhi would get very upset if the person who was assigned the work did not do it. This was despite the fact that the work was done by somebody else. Gandhi felt that there should be a discipline in the work force and so he acted many times as a military commander who wanted all his troops to do their assigned work without questioning.
Thus whatever Gandhiji wanted, either in the Ashram or in the Congress Party, took place. Shri. Ratan Lal Joshiji told me another anecdote about this. It was a common practice in the Congress Working Committee meetings for Gandhiji to ask all the members their opinion on a particular matter and how they would like to proceed on it. Shri. Rajendra Prasad who later on became the first President of India and a close associate of Gandhi once remarked "Bapu why do you do this drama of taking our opinions. Ultimately what you want and have decided will only happen". Joshiji told me that Gandhi had a hearty laugh at this comment.
He was also quite harsh on his family. His poor treatment of his sons and his wife Kasturba are well documented. He threw out his sister and her husband from the Sabarmati Ashram when he found out that they could not account for few paisa discrepancy in the Ashram accounts.
Gandhiji was a multi-faceted human being. Endowed with a very powerful mind, he thought deeply on all the issues affecting him and the nation. Thus how to have a good diet, keeping a healthy body and how to get rid of British were all equally important for him. Thus one issue of "Young India" (a weekly paper that Gandhiji published) carried an article on how to get rid of constipation and the importance of Gandhi-Irvin pact. To him both these things had equal importance.
Besides he actively talked and wrote about moral issues and Karma Yoga. Thus he combined in one person a commander of independence movement, promoter of peace, creator of a new thought of non-violent Satyagraha, and advocate of wholesome and healthy life. To my mind the only other person who combined all these qualities was Prophet Mohammad in 6th century AD.
Gandhiji was far ahead of his times. His 1930 Round Table Conference Speech in London is a master piece on the issue of North-South cooperation. Similarly he showed the way for sustainable development by his own example of living simply and producing highest quality of thought. His intuitive thinking of self-sufficient and sustainable rural economy is an idea in vogue and which he propagated and wrote about in 1920s. I think his ideas on sustainability are more relevant today than any time before.
Gandhiji's greatest asset was that he carried every Indian with him. That is the hallmark of a great leader. They were other great leaders in last century like Mao, Hitler, Stalin and others but they led their countrymen with force and fear. Gandhi led Indians by love and higher thought and that is the mark of a great soul.
At the time of his death almost the whole country mourned. My mother who had never met Gandhiji told me that there was no food cooked in the house on that day since everybody felt that a close member of the family had died. In millions of homes throughout India similar grief was witnessed on that day. That could only happen because every Indian identified with Gandhiji as one of their own - a mark of a great and noble soul, almost bordering on divine.