Kasturba Gandhi was constantly by Bapu’s side in every political activity he undertook – his life partner in every battle from their earliest days. She became his co-worker – and spiritual complement when he chose the path of non-violence and renunciation. Yet, even on her 150th birthday, Ba’s struggles have been overlooked, says Ratnottama Sengupta.
On October 26, 2019, The Hindu reported that a special screening was done in Mumbai of a new biopic that delved into Kasturba Gandhi’s influence on the Mahatma. I was delighted to read this. Frankly, it mitigated my sense of indignation that, while the whole world was celebrating the 150th Birth Centenary of the Father of the Nation, nobody even whispered the word, Ba. For, we all know that Kasturba Kapadia was born just months before Mohandas. But Kastur, as Bapu would endearingly call her, was the only one amongst the ‘First Wives’ to overcome her own taboos and social restrictions of those times, and go out there, in the public arena, to stand by her husband in every righteous act of his.
Directed by Manish Thakur, the film made with primarily theatre actors highlighted her sacrifices made not only for her children, her husband, her family but for her country – willingly, out of her own sense of righteousness and not merely at the behest of the world leader, and not even following him blindfolded, like an uneducated, illiterate dutiful wife.
It must not have been easy being the half-clad fakir’s wife. Imagine you are in your teens and your firstborn dies. Your husband goes away for three years to train in law at London’s Inner Temple. After two years of uncertainty at home, and he goes away to South Africa to represent an Indian merchant in a lawsuit. There he stays on for 21 years, raises four sons, frequently moves base from Durban to Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg to Phoenix Settlement to Tolstoy Farm to Champaran to Sabarmati to Yeravada to Sevagram to Calcutta to Pune to Noakhali to Delhi…
At no step of this 62-year-journey of her saat phera – marriage vows – did she know what new Experiment with Truth she would be pushed into. Torn between love for her offspring and honor of her husband, she voted for the latter. She coped with life when he was in one jail, her son in another, and she herself in a third one. She had to adjust to his routine, his schedule, his principles, his politics. She kept in touch with her children and grandchildren and suffered estrangement between her son and her husband – to the extreme point where, even today, Harilal is introduced as the son of Kasturba Gandhi. And when she died on February 22, 1944, she had a solitary funeral inside the jail as her husband said, “Either every Indian comes to pay their respect or not even my children…”
Was all this because she was obstinate, stubborn, obdurate? Because she was so-o influenced by her iconic husband, slave to his command? But what about her influence on him? To understand the sacrifices of the Woman Behind the Mahatma, one must scan her relationship with her husband. Like Bapu, Ba – as she was to one and all – was also born in Porbandar – on April 11, 1869. With him, she also participated in the Quit India Movement, in the Bubonic Plague, in the internship at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where she breathed her last. But while the Ramakrishna Mission annually devotes a day – January 5 – in celebration of the Divine Mother, Sri Sri Sarada Maa, and even Indira Gandhi’s insignificant ‘vanar sena’ is highlighted in every story on her, Ba’s struggles have been underplayed by the Gandhi Ashrams; mostly overlooked by feminists, and reluctantly regarded by historians.
This struck me as I participated in the three-day National Seminar on ‘Gandhi in Indian Literature,’ which was a part of the six-day Festival of Letters hosted by the Sahitya Akademi – the National Council of Letters – in Delhi (January 28 to February 2, 2019). For, the topics here ranged from Gandhi in the Eyes of the World to Gandhi’s Economics and Ecology, from Swarajya in a Globalised World to Gandhi in Fiction, Plays, and Films. But Gandhi and Kasturba? Scarce thought was spared for the lady who led from the front when it came to making bonfires out of colorful saris and ‘reshmi churis’ – glass bangles – that came from foreign shores, making India’s Non-cooperation Movement such a phenomenon.
Kasturba has been essayed memorably by Rohini Hattangadi in Lord Richard Attenborough’s celluloid epic, Gandhi (1982) against Ben Kingsley. She has been portrayed by Pallavi Joshi in Shyam Benegal’s screen adaptation of Fatima Meer’s The Making of the Mahatma (1996) against Rajit Kapur. Shefali Shah was Ba in Feroze Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father (2007) against Darshan Jariwala. Seema Biswas was her in the play, Gandhi Virudh Gandhi against Atul Kulkarni. Neena Kulkarni played the same persona against Naseeruddin Shah in Gandhi Versus Gandhi.
Hattangadi again played the doughty lady in Jagadamba, conceived in Marathi specifically for her. Charting the journey of a simple girl who went on to become the Universal Mother, the monologues resonate with the dilemma of an Antigone or an Electra as Kasturba is torn between a mother’s love for her firstborn, and a wife’s unquestioning faith in the tenets of her husband.
In reality, Kasturba did not follow Bapu blindly. She was not unquestioning, nor resigned to her fate as the wife of the Mahatma. She had it in her to resist Bapu’s experiments until she understood what they were all about – and once convinced, she would not trail behind.
Gandhi has been criticized, even lampooned about his dependence on women: Didn’t Manu and Abha – the ‘walking sticks’ he rested his hands on either side – carry his spittoon, his glasses, and his rosary on Tees January too? – they chuckle. Unfairly, staunch feminists criticized him for allowing only so much freedom to women without truly empowering them. For myself, I discovered Ba’s truth as we approached 70 years of his death and 150 years of his birth. At his juncture, I curated four film festivals and panel discussions across Delhi, Kolkata, and Singapore. One of these discussions, Gandhi’s Gifts, explored five of his legacies that live on to make him more than a face on the greenbacks or the name of the high street in every Indian city. These five areas, to my mind, are:
4.World Power or Influence on World Leaders
5. Women’s Empowerment: specifically, recognizing women force – Stree Shakti – and accepting his wife as a collaborator staking her all in his struggle for independence.
It is in this league that we find neither Mrinalini Tagore, nor Emillie Schenkl Bose, neither Ruttie Petit Jinnah nor Savita Bhimrao Ambedkar, nor even Kamala Nehru striding shoulder to shoulder with their respective celebrated husbands. Kasturba, on the other hand, was constantly by his side in every political activity he undertook – his life partner in every battle from their earliest days, making her a natural claimant to the honorific of ‘Mother of the Nation’ though she died before 1947. From Satyagraha in South Africa to the Quit India Movement in India – when was Bapu’s ardhangini not there? Not without reason was Bapu-n-Ba the First Indian Power Couple to be featured on a postal stamp after Independence – on Gandhi centenary, in 1969.
Perhaps less known is how she became his co-worker – and spiritual complement of the man who chose not only the path of non-violence but also renunciation – call it ‘voluntary poverty’ if you like. Could he have sustained his life choices – indeed, his life of punishingly principled public commitments – with ascetic fervor, had Kasturba not stood rocklike behind him?
Kasturba was married at age 14 to a yet-to-be-14 Mohandas when – to quote him – “marriage meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives.” In their early days, he was possessive, even manipulative: he wanted her to only follow his command, and on her part she obeyed. When she lost her firstborn, it was his ‘lust’ she had succumbed rto. He did not consult her when he took his vow of celibacy – Brahmacharya – but she defended his decision. When they were gifted gold jewelry in SA he decided to donate all of it and she suppressed her yearning to keep them for her daughters-in-law. Still, Gandhi writes, “…she was very obstinate. In spite of my pressure, she would do as she wished…”
When their adult life began, so did their separations: he went to London, he went to South Africa, he was incarcerated. And those were years when FaceTimes were not even dreamt of, mobiles were unknown, phones were nascent, even letters were few and far between – especially for small-town women like Kastur, an unlettered bride who educated herself to read and write in Gujarati and English. Ironically perhaps, these separations may have knit them emotionally together.
We all know about Kasturba’s resentment when Gandhi forced her to remove the shit pot of their guest in South Africa. She outgrew her objection once she understood that this was to make her abhor caste inequity as much as her evolved husband did. At the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in Johannesberg, recognizing its ‘potential danger’ Gandhi quickly intervened, isolating the Coloured victims and bringing them to the attention of the authorities without which the plague would have been an uncontrolled catastrophe even in the age of Apartheid. Ba said, “I will go with you to serve in the camps.” Rightly, her husband dissuaded her: perhaps he had learnt his lesson through the death of Emily Blake who sailed from Great Britain to nurse the victims in Rietfontein camp (set up seven miles out of Johannesburg by cleaning out a leper’s asylum). “Instead, go to people’s houses and talk to them of preventive health,” he suggested. So Ba, so far a housebound wife, took on the alternate responsibility and, as his public life expanded, “… my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work.”
That was but the beginning. She involved herself in the Phoenix Settlement; in Durban, she took part against the ill-treatment of Indian immigrants, was arrested, and sentenced to hard labor. While in prison, she led other women in prayer, encouraged educated women to teach the uneducated ones how to read and write. Once back in India, in spite of her chronic bronchitis, she would take part in civil actions and protests across the land. In 1917 she worked on the welfare of women in Champaran: while Gandhi was working with the indigo farmers, she taught hygiene, discipline, reading, writing. She was by his side in 1922 ignoring her poor health. She not only joined the boycott of foreign goods, she would even carry a charkha with her when she traveled and told women that if in every home, the women were to spin, they would revolutionize India.
In 1939 she was arrested in Rajkot when she took part in a non-violent protest against the Raj. She served in the Ashrams – and when Gandhi was imprisoned, she took his place to even address the gathering.
In August 1942, when people were wondering who would address the gathering at Shivaji Park since Gandhi had been arrested for his Call to Action at the Indian National Congress meet, Ba stood up. “I will address you,” she said. “Bapu poured his heart out for two hours at the AIC meeting last night. What can I add to that? Only that it remains for us to live up to his ideals. The women of India will have to prove their mettle. They have to join the struggle regardless of caste or creed… with Truth and Non-Violence as our watchdogs …” Here was another Laxmibai of Jhansi, riding forth into the battleground when the chips were down!
Clearly, Ba revealed herself as a person who had an inner reserve of strength that could provide Bapu uncalled for support at unexpected turns in their life. She revealed a unique ability to motivate other women and inspire people by her own actions. It was not just for him, it was because she was true to her innate self.
Speaking in the panel discussion at Victoria Memorial Hall Kolkata in October 2019 retired civil servant Anita Agnihotri narrated an incident that had moved her as a creative writer. This happened when the Gandhis were interned in Pune’s Aga Khan Palace, a year before she was to breathe her last. One day she asked for a notebook. Though, strictly speaking, this was not a jail, yet any stationery required had to be requisitioned. Perhaps Kasturba, who knew enough Gujarati and English to write letters, wanted the notebook to write her memoirs. But Bapu snubbed her saying, “First you learn how to write, then you will get a notebook.” Vexed, she ended her effort to write – and when Bapu finally gave her a notebook she refused to accept it. “Not getting a notebook at the right time often makes women’s history undocumented – and therefore relying on oral narratives,” the Bengali writer sums up. For, against the 370 books on Gandhi, she found only four books on Kasturba: two biographies, and two imagined or fictionalized biographies!
(The views expressed are personal.)
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