Dr Dwarkadas Joshi's demise after prayopveshan brings back memories of a similar event 27 years ago
While the Acharya awaited his final call..
The Ahmedabad-datelined death story of Gandhian eye surgeon Dr Dwarkadas Joshi who stopped taking food for three weeks brought back to me memories of a similar event 27 years ago. I was then a Pune-based UNI correspondent who had reached Paunar Ashram to cover the prayopveshan of Vinoba Bhave, among the greatest disciples of Mahatma Gandhi. Baba, as Vinobaji was affectionately called, had stopped taking food. He was lying on a simple bed in a cottage in the Ashram near Wardha and was awaiting his last breath.
I was until then not aware of the concept of prayopveshan (or prayopves) and of the Santhara or Sallenkhana, the Jain ritual fast to attain salvation. When I arrived at the Ashram I was aware that some newspapers had carried stories questioning the ritual and had termed it as a suicide. It was not legally permitted to commit a suicide, one newspaper had said, asking the government to intervene and prevent the Acharya to die this way.
The government had not taken any legal action on the demand. The 87-year-old Acharya was such a revered personality that Prime Minister India Gandhi had come down to the Ashram to persuade him to break the fast. Scores of central and state ministers, chief ministers, and veteran political leaders had made a beeline to the Ashram to take his darshan while he breathed slowly lying on the bed.
The demise of Dr Jain on September five in Ahmedabad was preceded with a similar resolve. The 94-year-old ophthalmologist had fell down on August 12 and had told his family members that he would like to follow the way Vinobaji left for the heavenly abode.
Dr Joshi had met Vinobaji in Mumbai. Through the Acharya, Dr Joshi could approach Mahatma Gandhi who inspired him to leave the medical practice in early 1940s to serve the people in villages. He followed the advice and served patients in and around his hometown Vadnagar in Gujarat. He worked extensively for Bhudan and Gram Swaraj movements in addition to treating the eye patients.
His son Dr Mihir and others in the family, the newspaper report tells us, bowed to his wishes honouring the Jain ritual. Dwarkadasji was given only Gangajal, from August 15 to September five when he breathed last. Scores of his friends, relatives, and former patients noticed that there was no pain, uneasiness, or regret on his face, when they came to meet him.
I reached the Ashram on November 14, 1982 late in the evening and met journalist friends who had been covering the prayopveshan for over a week. Pravin Bardapurkar (now resident editor of Loksatta), S N Datta (PTI) and T B Golhar (my UNI colleague) and others helpingly briefed me on the coverage until then. Everyone told me how Acharya's disciples were carrying out their normal routines without any signs of stress and grief. The Acharya had remained unmarried all his life and had no other family members.
The Ahmedabad story tells us that Chief Minister Narendra Modi had visited Dwarkadasji's house when the news about his fast reached him. After his demise, the Gujarat government gave him a Guard of Honour.
Vinobaji's death came about shortly after 9.30 a.m. His personal secretary came out of the cottage and spoke over the public address system of the Ashram in a very calm and controlled manner. "Babaji Ab Nahi Rahe" (Baba is no more). The Ashramites, who had been reading scriptures and reciting hymns round the clock since the prayopveshan began, did not utter a single word of grief. The doctor was called in. He checked the pulse and pronounced that the Acharya was no more.
I was the only reporter to witness the end of the santhara ritual. I was the only person at that point of time in that room where a telephone was available. I was already speaking to my colleague Golhar in his office in Nagpur and had not wasted a moment to dictate to him the flash, 'Acharya Vinoba Bhave passes away'.
The story moved over the UNI teleprinters within second and reached All India Radio, Delhi, that interrupted its ongoing broadcast and switched over to play the mourning tune. Maharashtra Chief Minister Babasaheb Bhosale read the story over UNI teleprinter installed at his official residence in Mumbai and quickly called the Ashram telephone number. By then, I had finished my call to UNI and was still there when he was on the line. It was to confirm again if the story was true, saying he had to intimate the Madam (the prime minister). He switched off the line and must have telephoned her.
The machinery of the State moved fast. The Ashramites had already made plan for funeral. A pyre was to be lit on the dry patch of bed of the nearby Paunar river. Baba's women disciples were already designated to perform the last rites.
The Wardha district police and administration swung into action to organise bandobast anticipating a rush of VVIPs and ordinary people alike. It was the Narakchaturthi day of Diwali festival, but the entire region in the vicinity spontaneously observed mourning. The Central government had announced national mourning. Mrs Gandhi cut short her visit abroad to attend the funeral and there were scores of other VVIPs assembled to pay respects to the Baba.
I could remember the details vividly because my colleagues and peers in journalism complimented me for the 'scoop' although I knew I did not do any thing special to score over other reporters. I merely happened to be there just at the nick of the time.
Post script: Over a decade earlier, in 1971, I was a trainee sub-editor at UNI's Delhi desk. One day, I edited a story in which some statement of Vinobaji was carried. The first paragraph had said "Veteran Gandhian leader Vinoba Bhave today appealed…etc.." The second para ended as '…Mr Bhave added".
Our news editor made an entry in our log book that evening: We in India should mention Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi not as Mr M K Gandhi, but as Mahatma Gandhi. Similarly, Vinoba Bhave is, for us, Achargya Vinoba Bhave will not be referred to anytime as Mr Bhave. It has to be the Acharya said, not Mr Bhave said.
(The feature appeared first in DNA Pune, September 19,2009)