The quintessential Indian nari

Anjali Jhangiani
Sunday, 30 September 2018

A session at Pune International Literary Festival threw light on how Kasturba Gandhi was a rebel in many ways and made her own contribution to India’s Freedom Struggle 

The Mahatma Today, a session at the Pune International Literary Festival held from September 28-30, featured Neelima Dalmia Adhar, the author of The Secret Diary of Kasturba, and Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. “Pune holds sad memories for me because I associate it with the death of both my great grandparents. Bapu’s murderer studied here and Ba was incarcerated in Aga Khan Palace,” said Gandhi at the start of the discussion. He also announced to the audience that he doesn’t think he’s ‘special’ in any way, but just ‘lucky enough to be born into this ancestry’. He added that he prefers people referring to his great grandfather as Bapu rather than Mahatma because he believes that the latter is an escapist term for something larger-than-life and un-doable. 

When posed with a question about the importance of non-violence in the wake of mob lynchings, he said, “Non violence was not something that Bapu invented. It is an ingredient required for civilisation and the existence of society. People make fun of candle marches, but they don’t stop doing it. This shows that it is the only balm society can apply to heal itself. But non-violence is not a pill that you can pop and make terrorism go away. Bapu is not around anymore, but we cling on to his image. We must ask ourselves if we are good enough to inherit his legacy?”

The conversation steered towards Kasturba as Adhar answered questions on her book and her perception of Ba. “She surrendered her life to Bapu from the time she married him at the age of 14 till she died in his arms at the age of 74. Every moment of Bapu’s life is documented but somehow we’ve managed to obliterate the memory of Kasturba. She was not just a mute shadow, she had a positive contribution to his life. She supported him even at the cost of her own womanhood. She was tormented to see the breakdown of the relationship between her husband and her son Harilal,” Adhar said. 

When asked if she considers Ba as a traditional Hindu woman, Adhar said, “Ba was self confident and an outgoing woman who reinvented herself getting married into this family. A girl with that kind of characteristic traits cannot become such a ‘doormat’. My endeavour through my book was to create this person who we forgot and history ignored. In my interpretation, Ba was the quintessential Indian nari who gave in to her husband’s whims and fancies, which is typical of Indian traditional woman. But she was also a rebel in many ways. She had vocal arguments and tiffs with Bapu for being a controlling husband. She was not allowed to go anywhere without his permission. When the couple was returning to India from South Africa, they were given lovely gifts at a party. Someone had given Kasturba a lovely necklace, specially made for her. But Bapu did not allow her to bring it to India. She fought, but eventually gave in. But there was a binding strength between them.”

Replying to her comments, Gandhi said, “Ba wasn’t a ‘doormat’. Bapu knew his limits, how much he could push her. There was a time when the gram devikas wanted to spend his birthday with him in the ashram, so he told them ‘your brother is a poor man who can’t afford to host you, so bring your own food’. When Ba saw the girls unpacking and eating what they brought, she sent her grandson to find out what’s going on and was appalled when she got to know that they were told to bring their own food. How could her husband not show hospitality! She immediately sent a message to them to come to her cottage and she would make khichadi. Bapu knew everything that happened in the ashram because he had spies reporting to him. When he was informed about this defiance of Ba, he said that there’s a chance the Queen of England would listen to him, but not his wife.”

But the two agree that the greatest injustice to Ba has been to see her as an accessory to Bapu, when in reality, she was a freedom fighter in her own right. “In 1943, before the Quit India Movement had started, a public announcement had to be read to the public by Bapu but he was arrested. While they were deciding who will read out the address, Ba stepped up and did it. She was arrested for this and was sent to jail where she suffered terrible diarrhoea and almost died because the British denied her medical attention. There was a commercial sex worker in the lock-up with her who saved up some money to bribe the guards, but she gave it to them to get medicines for Ba. She was transported to Aga Khan Palace because they feared she would die and didn’t want to take blame for it. She was serving a sentence in her own right, not because of Bapu. But she is always remembered as his wife, just like Sita is remembered as Ram’s wife,” Gandhi said.

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