The Man Who Kept His Promises

Published as Promises to keep, 29th September 2017 in Young World, The Hindu 

September 4th, 1887 was the day of my release. Or so I thought. I stood on the deck of the ship and watched Bombay grow smaller. Had it only been a year since I had come to India, eager to work here? It seemed much longer and I was glad to be leaving India and going home to England forever. 

There were many Englishmen on the ship, but I stayed away from them. They loved India and were longing to return after their holiday.  What would they think of me, for giving up in a year? I was happier talking to the quiet Indian man who was close to my age. Although his English was halting, he was going to England to study law. I admired him for his courage and enjoyed his company. There was a settled determination about him which I respected. I ran into the wall of that determination when I invited him to join me for lunch. 

‘No,’ he said, ‘I will not touch meat, wine or women because I promised my mother,’  

I had made promises too, to my parents, when I had come out to India. I would work hard, I had promised, I would do my best. And yet, I was going back, tired of living and working in India.  Why was my new friend so keen on keeping his promise? 

‘Promises are only words,’ I said. 

‘I was taught that promises are never only words,’ he said. ‘They are wider and deeper than the ocean we are crossing,’

‘And that is why they are dangerous,’ I said. ‘As dangerous as the widest, deepest, wildest ocean. They can pull you down, they can break you!’

I was angry with this thin Indian man, with his serious eyes and his certainty. Why couldn’t he have been like the other Indians on the ship, eating meat with gusto? 

He was smiling at me as if he could see deep into my heart and knew my secret crime of breaking promises. ‘My promise makes me strong,’ he said. ‘If you keep yours, will that not make you stronger too?’

He never shared a meal with me, we never discussed promises again. But his words stayed with me. By the time the ship docked at Southampton, I had decided to spend a few days at home and return to India. I would see if my promise could make me stronger. 

Shipboard friendships rarely survive and neither did ours.  But I was not surprised, years later, to read about how he fought for the Indians in South Africa first and then for India herself. Such fights needed strength and I knew that all the promises he had made and kept over the years had given him that strength. 

He showed Indians and the world how nonviolence made you stronger, how sympathy made you a better human, how determination could make impossible things happen. People called him Bapu, Gandhi, Mahatma. But to me he was always the man who kept his promises.   


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