[dropcap]M[/dropcap]AHATMA Gandhi was in London in 1931 to participate in the Second Roundtable Conference when he met several eminent persons of Great Britain. These included Arch Bishop of Canterbury, editor of Manchester Guardian C P Scott, Madam Montessory among others. Gandhiji’s principal secretary Mahadev Desai, who accompanied him during his London visit, had kept copious record in his diary of these meetings. Mahadevbhai also filed weekly reports for the ‘Young India’ weekly.
Among the unusual person who sought a meeting with Gandhiji was famous comedian film actor Charlie Chaplin. This meeting impressed the comedian so much that he made his famous movie ‘Modern Times’ five years later. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin acknowledged this saying it was meeting with Gandhi that inspired him to make the movie on the dehumanising effect of automation.
When asked by newspapermen about his meeting with Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin said, “Gandhi was the most entertaining person he had met.”
However, Mahadevbhai was the only privileged journalist present when Gandhiji and Charlie Chaplin met. His was the only eyewitness report of this meeting published in Young India. There are photographs of the two but no reports in any of the newspapers other than Young India. Here is what Mahadev Desai reported :
Charlie Chaplin Meets Gandhiji
By Mahadev Desai
Young India, October 8, 1931
Perhaps few would believe that when Gandhiji was told that Mr. Charlie Chaplin would like to see him, he innocently asked who that distinguished person was. For several years Gandhiji’s life has been such as to allow him no time to see or hear or read anything that does not come to him in the ordinary course of work that he has cut out for himself. But as soon as he was told that Mr. Chaplin, came from the people and lived for the people, and that he had made millions laugh, he agreed to meet him at the house of Dr. Katial who has placed himself and his car at our disposal during Gandhiji’s stay in London.
Mr. Chaplin struck me to be a genial, unassuming gentleman and nothing like we find him on the film. But perhaps in concealing himself lies his skill. Gandhiji had not heard of him, but he had evidently heard of Gandhiji’s spinning wheel and the very first question he asked was why Gandhiji was against machinery.
The question delighted Gandhiji who explained to him in detail why the six months’ unemployment of the whole peasant population of India made it important for him to restore them to their former subsidiary industry.
“Is it then only as regards cloth?”
“Precisely,” said Gandhiji, “In cloth and food every nation should be self-contained. We were self-contained and want to be that again. England with her large-scale production has to look for a market elsewhere. We call it exploitation. And an exploiting England is a danger to the world, but if that is so, how much more so would be an exploiting India, if she took to machinery and produced cloth many times in excess of its requirements.”
“So the question is confined only to India?” said Mr. Chaplin grasping the point quickly. “But supposing you had in India the independence of Russia, and you could find other work for your unemployed and ensure equable distribution of wealth, you would not then despise machinery? You would subscribe to shorter hours of work and more leisure for the worker?”
“Certainly,” said Gandhiji. The question has now been discussed with Gandhiji for the hundredth time, but I have not come across a lay foreigner who grasped the situation so quickly. The reason was perhaps his freedom from prejudice or prepossession and certainly his sympathy.
This sympathy came vividly out when Sarojinidevi reminded him of his visit to an English prison. “I can face a crowd of rich people,” he said, “but I cannot face these prisoners. “But for the Grace of God, say I to myself, you would have been with them. One feels quite inferior to the occasion as one cannot do anything. What difference is there between us and them excepting that of the bars around them? I am for a radical prison reform. Crime is a disease like any other and it should be treated not in prisons but in houses of correction.”