Asia Plateau was born in the wake of a march on wheels across India launched by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, on October 2, 1963. Russi M. Lala recalls those exciting days.
The beginnings of Asia Plateau go back to the March on Wheels across India, with the sound of marching bands, of elephant-led processions, of crowded meetings in the heat and dust of India, and to a few starry-eyed men and women who thought they had a part in changing India for the better.
It was a time of hope and of young hearts. Our hope was that India would become ‘a clean, strong and united country’. The purpose of the March was to awaken India to this destiny. Our unbounded confidence was supported by some friends from abroad.
On October 2, Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, after the prayer at the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari, the March began.
About four days later, as the bus was approaching Cochin, it was suggested that I went to Calicut and organize a reception for 60 people expected in four days’ time. I was given Rs. 300 in cash and despatched with two minutes of instructions to: (1) organize meetings; (2) get hold of a dhobi (washerman) who without fail would do the laundry within 24 or 36 hours, our stopping time; (3) ensure boiled water at all functions; (4) ensure that petrol was filled into our vehicles to take us to the next stop; and (5) if possible, organize a reception by the Mayor or others as we entered Calicut and, if there were a band, get it to march ahead of us.
Within a couple of days all the instructions were lined up, but I had some difficulty in locating a brass band. At noon one day I found myself walking in a forested estate to search out the bandleader. I heard the strains of a percussion instrument. There, in a village hut, dressed only in a lungi, was the local Jack Benny playing the trumpet. He said he had a team of three or four and they would turn up at the entrance to Calicut at the appointed time. I trusted him to dress suitably for the occasion.
I asked him what march tunes he could play. Confidently he said, “Colonel Bogey’s March.” I was delighted and relieved. As I turned to leave, I asked him what else he could play. His dark eyes lit up and a wide grin creased his face. Nodding his head, he said, “Colonel Bogey’s March.” There I left the single-tune band and the Mayor to receive the March. Whatever the trumpet may have sounded like, my colleagues felt that I had done a great job.
The visit to Madras gave us a great lift. Rajaji, former Governor-General and Chief Minister and a leader of Independence Movement, spoke at a gracious reception. “In the freedom struggle we dealt with an adversary from outside the country, but you are doing something more difficult – fighting the adversary within.”
In town after town, the response was amazing. Invariably at the end an appeal was made for funds and people would give generously of their money, very often in small coins, which we would have to count till late into the night.
At Jamshedpur, the March was arriving over the Dassera Holidays when pujas were held. I was repeatedly told nobody would come to our meetings. What do I do with all these people arriving in a couple of days? The thought came to see Dharamchand Kamani, a businessman. Seeing my predicament, he took it upon himself to organize the meeting, the procession and all. As I was leaving him, I thought I would fire my last shot. Rather greedily, I asked, “Do you think you could produce an elephant?” He looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I think there is a circus outside the town.” On the appointed day, three elephants turned up, a very fine band, a cheerful procession and a massive meeting on the public grounds.
Patna was historic because there, at the meeting in the Wheeler Senate Hall, the Vice-President of the students publicly requested that we hold a training camp for the young people in the coming summer.
Promptly Rajmohan Gandhi announced that we would hold two such camps, one in the north and one in south India.
During the March we had forgotten that we were individuals. We were all merged in one adventure. We did everything, all sorts of things we had never done before.
A Dream Come True
After the March, when we were consolidating the work in Bombay, a letter arrived from Rajmohan Gandhi. He wrote that apart from camps in north and south India, in view of the tremendous response, could we not organize a camp in western India, too?
We had a word with our lawyer, Jagdish Munshi, about our prospecting for a suitable site for a camp. Himself a Trustee of the Sanjeevan School in Panchgani, Munshi thought we should explore the possibility of holding our camp there. The Principal received us warmly. We estimated we would have about 300-350 at the camp and that is the number we had.
On the opening evening, April 29, 1964, the buses rolled in. The next fortnight was a triumphant time. Summer visitors and local residents flocked to our plays and meetings most evenings. Visitors missed their long walks in the evenings, but some of them may have found a new path.
After ten days, some local friends said, “You have all aroused so much interest and soon you will all go away. You must have a permanent centre in Panchgani.” The words were reminiscent of the student leader’s request that more training was needed at camps.
Rajmohan replied, “You give us the land and we will give you the centre.” They said they could not give the land but would help us to locate possible sites. The first site we saw was right at the beginning of Panchgani. On this land in the shadow of the magnificent plateau there was one silver oak tree. As we climbed up and turned to look at the valley, the view was breathtaking, with great mountain ranges in front.
The next four years went in designing and constructing the Centre. David Young from UK, with his engineering background, took on the responsibility of the building. Gordon Brown, an Australian architect, sent hundreds of original plans from his Adelaide office.
On completion of the first building, we decided to open the Centre on January 20, 1968.
It was crisp and cold with beautiful sunshine, clear blue skies. I was selected to give the key to Roland Wilson of UK for the symbolic unlocking of the gates. The crowd was pressing behind me. I handed him the key. As the gates opened and the movie camera and photographers clicked on the other side of the gate, the crowd behind surged past me. I allowed myself to relax, allowed myself to be pushed down the slope while the crowds forced past, forcing me to rotate freely once or twice, pushing me further from the gate.
I was the last to walk through the gate, slowly, lost in thought, a sense of peace descended on me. A dream had come true.