Chapter 7, Pt 2 of 4
THE TURNING POINT AND THE INDIA LEAGUE
Strange enough, just then Nazi Germany was dominating the world scene, and Herr Hitler’s star was rising up to reach its zenith. His highly mechanised army had successfully invaded Czechoslovakia during March and yet his thrust for power had increased instead of being quenched. He wanted his country to be the most feared and powerful in the world. He and his associates wanted all the nations to believe that Germans were the best fighters and finest people on earth.
I often wondered at that time whether nations were not like individuals in the way that they also passed through some reactionary periods when they lost all sense of proportion and humility: when they even risked most destructive wars to gain their own ends.
During that time we received an invitation from one of the Indian organisation? in London to join in a reception given to Mrs Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. We did not want to miss this opportunity of meeting and listening to this widely loved and admired lady who was making no end of sacrifices for the cause of Indian independence. We accepted the invitation straightaway and reached the hall well before the appointed time. We saw many distinguished English and Indian people come and take their proper places.
There was a great hush when this slightly built, well-poised, charming lady, wearing a homespun white sari entered the hall. Her prematurely greying hair seemed to make her look more attractive than ever and her smile was simply enchanting. She walked round greeting people with folded hands and trying her best to exchange a few words with each individual present there.
Later on she gave a simple, sincere and yet quite a forceful speech.
Mrs Vijay Lakshmi Pundit spoke the true words but alas it was already too late to prevent the worst from happening.
Herr Hitler certainly took a very grave risk when he entered Poland on September 1st. Most of the people were hoping against hope that he would stop at Czechoslovakia and the terrible catastrophe of a major war would be avoided, but his invasion of Poland shattered all hope. The British spokesmen announced on the wireless that they could not put up with any more aggression. That Hitler’s onslaught must be stopped without any more delay. That we would have the war and get it over with.
Even the men and women in the streets were saying the same things. We all felt very uneasy because we anticipated the declaration of war any time. We heard that some of the children from London were actually being evacuated to safer areas.
I stood and watched my two children from the French-doors. Vijay was having a game with David, the boy next door, through the fence, and the baby was feeling pleased with herself because she could take a few steps alone. How innocent and helpless they looked. It was a good thing that they knew nothing of the fear’ and trouble which loomed over us.
Then came the Sunday morning of 3rd September: when the Prime Minister was to broadcast to the nation on this all-important question. I think nearly everybody left their usual occupations for that hour and gathered around their wireless sets. I know that our High Road was almost deserted. Mr and Mrs Selby and their small daughter, Joy, had come over to us that morning and we all sat in our dining-room, in front of the radio, waiting, wondering and feeling very nervous indeed. I noticed that even the children were unusually quiet and they also sat with their eyes fixed to the radio.
Promptly at 11.30 a.m. the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, spoke with firmness and emotion. “As you know we had given the ultimatum to Germany soon after the news of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis reached us.” He went on: “We had even sent a second and final ultimatum to them, but we have had no response. Therefore, from now on Great Britain is at war with Germany. We have a clear conscience and we firmly believe that we have taken up arms for a just cause. God save the King.”
It was a very short announcement but it stunned us. We did not move and simply looked at each other silently. Then to our great horror, we suddenly heard the wailing noise of the air-raid warning.
“Dear, dear, they are over us already,” Mrs Selby cried out. “It might be a gas attack. Run somebody, get some blankets so that we can cover the windows.”
I rushed upstairs and brought four of them and we all got busy holding them up and trying to fix them somehow. I watched the innocent bright smile on my baby’s face; she thought we were getting the room ready for a game. It was not long before we heard the “All Clear” and heaved a sigh of relief. We let go of the blankets and saw the daylight once again. That warning had nothing to do with an air raid we learnt afterwards. It was meant for an exercise only. But I must say that that false alarm frightened and unnerved us more than the many real warnings we heard afterwards. It must be that we human beings gradually adapt ourselves to any circumstances and even get accustomed to facing danger all the time.