Striking with Hunger
There were shortcuts to achieving everything and to fame many. But the best of these all and the tried one was to go on a hunger strike. Given the willingness it was not a difficult job to grab an opportunity to do so. One could go on a hunger strike on any issue one liked. No cause in our country was too petty to take recourse to such a great step. And no public issue is ever small.
I myself was lucky to get a golden chance. My colleagues pestered me to make a sacrifice for a great, common cause. Initially I was a little reluctant. Not because I feared being starved. I had vast past experience that lent me moral courage to accept this challenging offer. Numerous times earlier had I undertaken fasts when my conscience revolted against the autocratic and dictatorial attitude of my wife in this era of democracy. But, unfortunately, each time I had to give in, unconditionally. It was this lurking fear to meet a similar fate this time too that made me a little nervous and hesitant.
But my friends were insistent; they wanted me to get this unique honour. The day was not far off when I would be a great leader, they predicted. “Don’t you know”, they argued, “Mahatma Gandhi owed his position to successive fasts-unto-death he undertook for great public causes like these?” Their arguments had weight. I agreed.
My wife was very happy, very enthusiastic. “I will have peace in my home after a long time”, she said gleefully. Smile appeared on her face after ages. She looked beautiful then.
The day of reckoning came. I was fed well by my friends and well-wishers who brought my choicest dishes in plenty. I tried to push into my stomach as much as I forcefully could. “Who knows”, I thought, “for how many days I won’t get food?” I only wished my stomach could afford to be elastic enough to expand as much as it could to store in it maximum quantity to stand me in good stead during the days of my fasting. A camel could, it is said, store water in his throat for a number of days together. But God had not been that beneficent to man. Had He made us capable of stocking food in our stomach sufficient for a number of days, the ordeal of great sacrificing people, like me, would have been less painful.
But my stomach let me down completely. I had loose motions. Everything I put in my stomach got out in no time. I then realised, though belatedly, that I should have concentrated more on quality than on quantity. My wife still had no sympathy for me even at this great hour. “If someone else was to pay for your sumptuous food”, she taunted, “yet the stomach was yours own. You should have taken care of it then, instead of repenting and suffering now”.
A pundit applied tilak on my forehead and showered flower petals on me a little before the appointed hour. My friends and admirers then came forward one by one and put garlands around my neck with smiles and good wishes for the early success of my mission. They then took me ahead of a procession to the place where I was to start my fast.
This revived old memories. I recalled how, earlier, I had been garlanded only once and that too by my wife on the auspicious occasion of my marriage. But, alas, where had vanished that special sweet smile she gave me at that time! And how immediately after my marriage, as a part of the religious ceremonies exactly in the same manner we had performed puja on a he-goat and with a garland round its neck — like me now — had led it ahead of a family procession for a sacrifice to propitiate a deity.
I started my fast with great enthusiasm. But soon it was on the wane. In the evening my friends slipped away for their meals leaving me behind to count the hours and minutes that had gone by since I had my last bite of food. At night I could steal a meal, but I didn’t. I was not that morally degraded a person. I was honest and sincere to my cause and, at least, not a cheat.
My fast provided me ample time for introspection. I then realised how right and thoughtful had been many of our friends who didn’t foolishly undertake the suicidal course I had embarked upon. Instead, they resorted to chain hunger-strike which any association could painlessly sustain for months and, if necessary, for years together.
My friends took great care of me. They never allowed me to lose heart. “Don’t worry”, they consoled me, “You won’t have to starve for long. Government will soon bow before us. It will be a victory for us all. But the honour will solely be yours”.
But things didn’t turn that easy. Events didn’t move that fast. On the other hand, my stomach proved purely immature, selfish. It had no sympathy for the high ideals for which I had staked my life even. Every now and then it continued to emit strange sounds, reminding me of its emptiness. It made me miserable.
My associates raised a great hue and cry. “His physical condition had worsened”, they declared in their rallies, “and government will have only itself to blame for anything untoward happening to him”.
I too started pondering. “What would happen to my family, my loving wife, if I turned a martyr for this great cause? Who will look after them? Will my colleagues and supporters do so? Or will they shirk away from their responsibility towards my family the way do they stealthily slip away these days to have their meals leaving me starving? The occasional shouts of my zindabad and others’ murdabad threw away such nasty feelings. The vocal support of my supporters continued to inspire me and gave me more courage to continue my fight for the just cause.
Government was too callous. It sent doctors to examine me. They reported that my physical condition was satisfactory and there was no danger to my life. Cruel people! It was a matter of great person for a person who had not taken food for the last so many days.
One day it did happen, but only after a long, anxious wait. A posse of policemen at dawn whisked me away to jail. They charged me with attempting to commit suicide by forsaking food. Funny indeed! Insane of them, Could a sane person, like me, try to end his precious life?
In jail, the authorities were very tyrannical. They forced food into my mouth very cruelly. They were many and I all alone and, above all, grown weak. I could not resist them as forcefully as I should have. If I, per force, gulped a morsel of bread and a spoon of milk, they felt very happy with me. They patted me for my cooperation. They went on trying, repeatedly, with more success.
My well wishers outside did not keep quiet. They went on praying for my life. In meetings and rallies they shouted at the top of their voice, “Our great leader is continuing with his indefinite fast even inside the jail. He is heroically frustrating all attempts at forced feeding. Each day his condition is getting bad to worse”. The crowd cried, “Shame, shame”. They continued to warn the authorities of grave consequences they will have to face for their cruelty towards me and for anything unpleasant happening to me.
At last one fine morning a deal was struck. I was taken out of jail. An honourable minister offered me a glass of juice amidst shouts of zindabad and clicking of cameras.
Once again I was looked after well. Soon I was quite hale and hearty, a living martyr, again fit and ready to fight for another noble cause.
By Amba Charan