"Gandhiji in Pachgani" was the subject of the essay. It won me a prize and it is the only prize I have won in my life. So that is how I remember Gandhji.
It was before independence, possibly a year or two before. Gandhiji was coming to Panchgani to rest and hold prayer meetings. The morning of his arrival, we stood in neat lines on the Silver Oaks-lined highway in front of the school, overlooking the valley of Krishna, Signal Point, Shivaji's Fort.
The memory is affected now, both by the passage of time and advancing age. I recall the car passing by, but not what car it was, and whether it was open-topped or closed. And I distinctly recall a blurred, smiling, toothless face, so familiar in hundreds and thousands of pictures I had seen. But that may be just memory playing its tricks.
Panchgani was very much as it is now, Silver Oaks, humming in the wind, red mountain mud that would enter wounds made by knocks on the shins by hockey sticks and turn them septic, the Sohaili brothers' Lucky Resturant in the bazar, Panchgni Stores, Mandroin was), the schools, the hotels, though my friend Amir Nansey was still to make his debut there, the tableland presiding over it all. In the summer, the tableland would be dry and hard, but in the monsoon and afterwards it would be covered with a thick carpet of orchids for miles and miles around.
It was to this Panchgani that Gandhiji came. I do not remember where he stayed, but he held his prayer, meetings at the Batha Girls' School.
We were taken in batches to the prayer meetings. They were generally crowded affairs though there was nothing much to them. A chorus sang Gandhiji's favourite hymm, his sort of theme song Ė Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, very soothing in the evening air, we would join in, clapping our hands. Then Gandhi would give a sermon, though I do not know whether sermon is the right word.
At the end of the meeting, we would all go to him and fold our hands. Some of the boys would go with their autograph books. I did not, even then I did not care for autographs or posing for photographs with celebrities, except cricketers.
It was then that we learnt that Gandhiji charged Rs. 10 per autograph (our pocket allowance was Rs. 2 per month). We were shocked and a little embarrassed, though it was explained to us that the money was for Gandhiji's fund for Harijans. As far as I remember, only one boy took his autograph and for a long time he was considered as a sucker.
Today, I wish I had got an autograph. I would have passed it on to my children and they to their children. As it is, I have got only the essay prize to remember him by. And I have not even kept that prize.