When the Great Soul Met the Immortal Tramp

Maybe it is high time for mankind to consider switching over to the gangly dream weaver’s unpretentious philosophy of life before being pitched back to the stone age by destiny…     Read More…
31st March 2013, Sunday: In the summer of 1931, the great soul and the immortal tramp happened to be in the British capital at the same time.
Gandhiji and Chaplin, at far right standing is Sarojini Naidu

Gandhiji and Chaplin, at far right standing is Sarojini Naidu

Gandhiji was in London as the sole representative from India to participate in the second Round Table Conference. On the other hand, after a Spanish spree and before returning to California, it was largely for the British premiere of his film ‘City Lights’ that Charles Chaplin had been in the capital city.

Upon arrival, Gandhiji characteristically declined to accept the hospitality of the British government by refusing to be put up in an expensive West End hotel. Instead, he preferred to stay in Kingsley Hall, a community center run by the pacifist sisters Muriel and Doris Lester. As a matter of fact, the next twelve weeks Gandhiji lived in one of the tiny roof top cells of the center, just like any other volunteer occupying the facility who worked from dawn to dusk for a meager

Kingsley Hall

Kingsley Hall

weekly pay of two shillings. (During the filming of the 1982 Gandhi biopic, joining hands with community groups Richard Attenborough had initiated the refurbishment of the community center. Since then the facility is open for use by all communities. The cell in which Gandhiji had stayed has been restored to its original ‘glory’. The rest of the space is being utilized by the Gandhi Peace Foundation as a library.)

Chaplin at this point in his career had begun to show interest in meeting the likes of Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Churchill, due to a newly found inclination towards politics. Perhaps as a consequence, Gandhiji received a telegram from him requesting for a meeting. Initially, Gandhiji was not very keen to meet with Chaplin because all he had heard about the latter was that he was a clown. But Gandhiji’s host Muriel Lester managed to persuade him for the chance meeting: “Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.”

The Life of Muriel Lester - book cover

The Life of Muriel Lester – book cover

Chaplin’s observations in his autobiography were more audacious. Churchill’s confidant and Conservative party MP Brendan Bracken was of the opinion that the British government had given in much to Gandhiji , and if the government did not detain him in prison soon, India would eventually be lost to Britain. When Chaplin expressed his disagreement to such an unfeasible solution, Churchill commented that he should run for parliament under the Labour party ticket. Indian medic Dr. Katial’s first floor apartment was located at the corner of Hudson’s road in East End, an area mostly populated by the working class. Chaplin sat in waiting for Gandhiji in Dr. Katial’s house. A few minutes later, sounds of greetings arose from hundreds of ordinary citizens who had gathered outside to welcome the half-naked seditious fakeer. Apparently, Gandhiji had arrived.

“Indeed, I am sympathetic towards the Indian hopes and its independent movement”, Chaplin said to Gandhiji. “At the same time, I would like to know why you are opposed to machinery. After all, it is a natural outcome of man’s genius and part of the evolutionary progress. It is here to free him of bondage and slavery, to help him to leisure and higher culture.”

Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough

“I understand”, Gandhiji spoke without the slightest trace of emotion. “However, our primary task is to rid India of English rule. The machines in the past had made India dependent on the English and boycott was a method of ridding itself of the dependence. That is exactly why it is our patriotic duty to spin our own clothes by the hand wheel. It is also another way of taking our fight to the British empire. Life in this part of the world is very much different from that of a tropical country like India. Mechanised life, especially taking into account of the weather suits you fine which are not the case with us. Even our eating habits are different. Our country men with the exception of a negligible minority consume their food using their hands rather than knives and forks.” The meeting made front pages in most British newspapers the next day. Chaplin was quoted as saying: ‘Gandhi is a tremendous personality and a dramatic figure’.

Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times'

Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’

Before the meeting, Gandhiji had no knowledge of Chaplin’s world, neither had Chaplin of Gandhiji’s ideology. Nonetheless, they were drawn to each other by the involuntary trespassing of emotional lineage over the suffering of humanity. Ironically though, five years after they met, Chaplin admitted: “Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity.” Subsequently, his movie ‘Modern Times’ denouncing machine age was released.

Gandhiji in the DVD movie jacket

Gandhiji in the DVD movie jacket

Drowned in the deceitful hopes of Industrialism we had identified the role of Gandhiji as that of a dream weaver. It is us who have failed in recognizing the ethical strength in Gandhiji as an individual and Gandhism as a doctrine.

Despite the 1996 joint ban on Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by the industrialized countries in the Northern Hemisphere, it still left much to be desired. Don’t the possible images of landscapes sinking into the sea due to the Arctic melting, and the onslaught of terminal illnesses triggered by the extra ultraviolet B radiation from the sun, leading to the extinction of the bottom rung of the food chain, make us shudder? May be it is high time for mankind to consider switching over to the gangly dream weaver’s unpretentious philosophy of life before being pitched back to the stone age by destiny.

[ This article appeared in a ‘Khaleej Times’ -published from Dubai- special report in January 2013.]


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