How a chance encounter with the Mahatma changed one Canadian's life
From his small apartment in a seniors building in Mississauga, Ont., a retired Canadian law professor reminisces about how a chance meeting with Mohandas Gandhi all those years ago changed the course of his life.
At the time, Fali Balsara was a young police officer recruited by the British under the Defence of India Act.
There were many perks that came with a government job like that. But one of the discouraging elements was the fact that if recruited under this act, leaving the service of the Raj could entail imprisonment.
A uniformed position in India in those days came with considerable clout, but unconditional loyalty was expected in return.
This was August 1942, when the young and dapper sub-inspector was sent off on his first assignment.
At that point, Gandhi and members of his Indian National Congress had just launched the Quit India movement in Bombay (now Mumbai) to try to move the British colonial powers out of India.
Already a beloved political and spiritual leader, Gandhi's non-violent approach of passive resistance had taken the country by storm. But this was still in the midst of the Second World War and the authorities were not about to have any challenge to their order.
As a result, Bombay's deputy commissioner of police, H.E. Butler, dispatched Balsara and his team to arrest Gandhi.
"I was dumbstruck," Balsara, now 90, recalls. "We used to call him Bapu, meaning father. However, it was part of my job so I complied."
Balsara and his team were to escort Gandhi in a special train to Poona, a quiet city 192 kilometres south of Mumbai, where he was to be held at the Aga Khan palace.
That train journey changed the course of Balsara's life.
'Humble to a fault'
"Bapu spoke to us," reminisces Balsara, "His calm demeanour amid so much uproar over his arrest completely took us by surprise. He was humble to a fault and respected all who served him."
Balsara recalls that, by the time the train reached Poona, he and his police guards were thoroughly mesmerized by Gandhi's personality and his unshakable belief in India's right to its own destiny.
In those few hours it dawned on him that the path of non-violent resistance that Gandhi had chosen to guide India to freedom was so completely at odds with what he was doing as a police officer.
'We were so influenced by Gandhi's charisma and his captivating toothless smile that on reaching Poona we decided to quit our jobs, even though we knew quite well that we would be imprisoned," said Balsara.
That is exactly what happened: all six police officers became prisoners of the Raj.
Just over five years after this incident, on Jan. 30, 1948, Gandhi was killed, felled by an assassin's bullet in New Delhi while on his way to prayers. He was 78 years old and had lived just long enough to see India's independence from Britain the year before.
Since, 1934, there had been six attempts on his life.
A lawyer, politician and, many say, saint, he is now officially remembered as the Father of the Nation.
Change of direction
They went on to spend 14 days in close proximity to Gandhi as the British considered them mutineers.
"The days I spent in jail with Gandhi, I remember vividly to this day," Balsara says. "He convinced me to become a teacher, as according to him it was the noblest of all professions."
Back in Mumbai, Balsara's mother was worried that her son, then just 23, was now a prisoner of the Raj and in so much trouble with his employers.
However, her brother, who worked for the governor of Burma, was able to pull some strings and appealed to the governor of Bombay, Lawrence Roger Lumley, to pardon Balsara for his youthful enthusiasms.
On being pardoned, Balsara was discharged from service and went back to school where he would earn a doctorate in social science and then emigrate to Canada in 1964, first to teach at the University of British Columbia and then in Toronto.
Balsara taught at several universities and colleges in Canada before retiring as a professor of law and economics from York University.
The lessons he learned from Gandhi, Balsara says, have stayed with him his entire life. "He taught me that one's worth as an individual lies only in your action."