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Saturday, July 18, 1998

Been there, seen that: 101-yr-old-man still rages at Dyer's "fire"

N Bhanutej  
BANGALORE, July 17: Imagine Jallianawallah Bagh, 1919. General Dyer barking out his `fire' order, sending the guns booming; thousands of people, peacefully protesting the Rowlatt Act, falling prey to bullets. Imagine being there...witnessing a massacre.

For Pandit Sudhakar Chaturvedi, it was an experience that changed his life, that brought him into the thick of the freedom struggle. An episode that this 101 years young man from Bangalore still recalls, as if it happened just yesterday.

But then, Chaturvedi -- born in Balepet in 1897 -- has more stories about the freedom struggle than perhaps any venerable historian. In fact, he is a living encyclopaedia of the days of the raj.

Not surprising, considering he was privy to most of the information and the decisions that shaped the course of India. Besides, he has been to all the jails in the country, from Peshawar to Vellore.

The list of course doesn't end there, going by what he says. Among his most cherished memories is one of Sardar Patel offering himministership in the old Mysore state -- which he ultimately had to turn down.

An Arya Samaj product, Sudhakar Bhayya -- as he was known to many -- took his Veda Vaachaspathi degree (equivalent to a post graduate degree) from Gurukul Kangdi at Hardwar, under the guidance of Swami Shraddananda, a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Soon after his education, he was attracted to the freedom struggle under Gandhiji and joined the non-violence movement.

Chaturvedi recounts how he was travelling from Calcutta to Darjeeling in a third-class compartment with Gandhiji, in 1938. Gandhiji was dictating and Chaturvedi was taking down notes. During the journey, the train refused to climb a steep gradient as there were too many compartments attached to the engine. The railwayman, without any warning or engaging brakes, detached the last three bogies -- one of which happened to be their compartment.

The three coaches rolled down the gradient at great speed. ``I stopped writing but Gandhiji continued to dictate,unmindful of the danger in store.

He asked me why I'd stopped writing. When I said that the two of us could die, he smiled and said, `at least you will die writing'.'' Incidentally, Chaturvedi lost the use of his right hand in that accident.

Chaturvedi has to live with his share of bitter memories too -- of communal riots, murders, arson, rape and robberies. Acharya Kriplani, Chaturvedi remembers, once gave his wife a poison pill during the height of communal tensions in Bengal in 1947. The idea was that she should consume the pill if somebody tried to outrage her modesty. Chaturvedi took away the poison pill, saying that it should be given to the person who attempts to rape her.

But, he recalls, human kindness was not lacking even in those days of communal frenzy. Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan saved him from a mob in the Frontier once. Again, a 90-year-old Muslim risked his life to give shelter to Chaturvedi in Bengal for three months.

Now, in Bangalore, Chaturvedi lives with his adopted children. He nevermarried, and he says so without batting an eyelid. ``My youth was spent in the struggle. By the time we got freedom, I was over 50 years. Who would give me a girl then?'' he asks.

But there is no trace of bitterness in him; for him, just fighting for the country is more than enough. A fact proved by the fact that Chaturvedi never accepted the government pension for freedom fighters. ``Sacrifice is its own reward. Nobody can give it a price,'' he explains.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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