Leprosy, Gandhi and Parchure Shastri

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    The sense of calm is the first thing that strikes you about the village of Sevagram in Maharashtra. It is as if the Mahatma had never left. Located in Wardha district in the north-east of the state, Sevagram was home to Mahatma Gandhi from 1936 to 1946. Set up as a base for the Mahatma in Central India, it comprises cottages and other simple structures that he needed for his life and work.

    Among these structures is a bamboo cabin with a sign that reads ‘Parchure Kuti’. The Spartan and spotless cabin, with thatched sheets and a sloping tiled roof, is situated right next to ‘Bapu Kuti’ or ‘Bapu’s Cottage’, where the Mahatma himself lived. It was the abode of Parchure Shastri, a friend of the Mahatma, a Sanskrit scholar, a poet and a freedom fighter.

    The Mahatma’s war against untouchability and the discrimination of the caste system is well known but it was in this cottage that he led the way out of another form of untouchability, by personally tending to Shastri, who was afflicted with leprosy.

    Not only were leprosy patients considered ‘untouchable’ by society, the stigma attached to the disease had religious connotations as well. Hindu Shastric traditions identify leprosy as a condition that entails profound ritual pollution and is seen as a manifestation of ‘sins’ committed either in this life or a previous life. Shastric traditions even allow for the outcasting of leprosy patients, who then lose their social identity in Hindu society.

    Gandhi believed that something as simple but powerful as compassion through the medium of service could change the attitude to this ancient but abhorrent practice. So, through a labour of love, he washed, massaged and treated Shastri’s wounds from the day his friend arrived at Sevagram in 1939, to the day he left the village in 1942 for a leprosy home in Dattapur (Wardha).

    The friendship between Mahatma Gandhi and Parchure Shastri goes back to 1932. Gandhi was arrested and jailed along with several others, during the civil disobedience movement in 1932. They had been imprisoned in Pune’s Yerawada Jail. There Gandhi came to know that Parchure Shastri was also imprisoned in the same jail. However, since Shastri was a leprosy patient, he had been placed in a separate ward. When the Mahatma’s requests to visit him were consistently turned down, he began to write to Shastri to buoy his spirits.

    Interestingly, when Gandhi broke his historic fast unto death, which he had undertaken from 20th to 26th September 1932, and which eventually led to the Poona Pact, he did it in the presence of Rabindranath Tagore and Parchure Shastri. The ritual breaking of the fast was preceded by the chanting from the Upanishads by Shastri.

    Shastri had arrived at Sevagram in an advanced stage of leprosy, but after three years of being in the Mahatma’s care, his health not only improved significantly, he also served at Sevagram Ashram, where he solemnised many marriages.

    Narayan Desai, son of the Mahatma’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai, narrates an interesting anecdote about the friendship between the Mahatma and Shastri in his book Bapu Ki Goad Mein (1969). As is well-known, in 1939, the Indian National Congress and the British government in India were at loggerheads over the participation of Indian troops in the Second World War. The Congress opposed the unilateral decision of Viceroy Linlithgow, who declared India a “belligerent nation” in the war, without consulting Indian leaders. This precipitated a serious political crisis. To resolve this crisis, a meeting was fixed between the Mahatma and the Viceroy in Shimla in 1939.

    However, soon after the Mahatma, and other leaders and Congress workers arrived in Shimla, the meeting was postponed by a week. While the others chose to bask in the enchanting hill station, the Mahatma decided to return to Sevagram. When his surprised colleagues asked him to explain his decision, pointing out that the great distances it involved would give him just two days at Sevagram, the Mahatma replied, saying that he would have at least two days at Sevagram.

    When his colleagues asked him what was so pressing that he should travel all the way to Wardha and back, the Mahatma replied with a counter-question: “I believe you consider serving Parchure Shastri a work of great significance!” Commenting on the incident, Narayan Desai argues that in the worldview of Mahatma Gandhi, serving a leprosy patient was as significant as talking to a Viceroy in the interest of the nation!

    In fact, the Mahatma always lamented that the nation had never fully utilised the potential of Parchure Shastri since he had been ostracized on account of his illness. In one of his letters to Shastri, dated 21st June 1944, the Mahatma had said, “I have always been pained that the country cannot fully utilise your learning.”

    Parchure Shastri died on 5th September 1945, the cottage he left behind at Sevagram being a reminder that compassion and love can change something as stubborn as the human mind.

    The Mahatma’s encounter with leprosy through Shastri was not the first time he had come up close and personal with the disease. Pragji Dosa (Bombay Samachar, 1988) writes that during his Satyagraha campaign in South Africa, the Mahatma was addressing a gathering at Natal (1894) on the occasion of the founding of the Natal Indian Congress. At the venue, he noticed a few people standing under a tree, some distance away, listening to him intently. In spite of his request to come forward and join the others, they hung back. So the Mahatma decided to go to them. As soon as he started walking towards them, one of them cried out, “Gandhibhai, do not come near us, we are lepers.”

    Ignoring this, the Mahatma went across to meet them. Some of them had lost their fingers, others their toes, while still others had lost their hair. When the Mahatma inquired about the treatment they were receiving, they said, “No doctor is willing to treat us, we treat ourselves with the juice of bitter neem.” Asked if that was helping, they replied in the negative, saying they were dying a slow death.

    The Mahatma was so disturbed that he made serving leprosy patients one of his life’s missions.

    He also included it in his 18-point Constructive Programme, as an issue that needed to be addressed. In this context, he stated, “If India was pulsating with new life, if we were all in earnest about winning independence in the quickest manner possible by truthful and non-violent means, there would not be a leper or beggar in India uncared for and unaccounted for!”

    It’s been 73 years since India achieved Independence, a mission that eventually cost the Mahatma his life. But the lessons this great leader wanted all Indians to learn are as relevant today as they were when he sat by his friend’s side and showed that compassion and love for fellow humans is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.


    Saurav Kumar Rai is a Senior Research Assistant at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He works on aspects of social history of health and medicine.

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