A book I cherish greatly, and which I bought in the great Sunday book bazaar in Delhi’s Daryaganj—since closed by a philistine police force—is a 75th birthday tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. Four hundred pages long, beautifully bound and printed (at the Karnatak Printing Press, Bombay—also probably by now a victim of history), it assembles essays by truly diverse hands, such as Nehru, Kripalani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Nandalal Bose among the Indians, and Einstein and Pearl Buck among the foreigners. Of the forty contributions all but two are about the Mahatma. The first is a remembrance of the recently deceased Kasturba, reproduced from Gandhi’s autobiography. The second is an essay on Mahadev Desai by the anthropologist and writer Verrier Elwin.
Elwin’s essay is an encrusted little gem. It begins by stating what his subject meant to him, but moves quickly on to what he meant to the Mahatma. Mahadev Desai was officially Gandhi’s secretary, but actually ‘he was much more than that. He was in fact Home and Foreign Secretary combined. He managed everything. He made all the arrangements. He was equally at home in the office, the guest-house and the kitchen. He looked after many guests and must have saved ten years of Gandhi’s life by diverting from him unwanted visitors’.
If this was not enough, Mahadev was also ‘Gandhi’s Boswell’, the recorder of his words, the scribe who presented his Master’s Voice to all India, and beyond. Thus ‘Mahadev’s task was to make Gandhi real to millions. He made him perhaps the best known man in the world, certainly the best loved. The punctual, vivid, intimate stories that appeared week by week in Young India and Harijan displayed to readers all over the world a personality so lovable that love was inevitably aroused in response’.
In Mahadev’s portrait of Gandhi, writes Elwin, ‘the politician was somewhat in abeyance. That was natural for Gandhi as a politician is fully represented by his own speeches and statements. It was Mahadev’s special privilege to be able to show the world the Mahatma off the stage and below the platform.’ And where Mahadev excelled was ‘in showing us Gandhi the debater….He was never more pleased than when he could show his Bapu confounding an opponent in argument, putting him down, chuckling him out of countenance. I used to suspect that sometimes he deliberately introduced people into Gandhi’s presence for the express purpose of sharpening his wit and enabling him to display his truly marvellous powers of debate’.
The journalist Mahendra Desai, who edited Mahadev’s diaries, and whose father Valji Desai was also a close associate of the Mahatma’s, once told me that it was Elwin’s essay that inspired the full-length biography of Mahadev written by his son Narayan. From this book—written originally in Gujarati and published in English translation under the title The Fire and the Rose—we learn that Mahadev Haribhai Desai was born on the first day of 1892 in a village in the Surat district. He displayed, early on, a love of literature both Gujarati and English. At fourteen, he passed the matriculation examination of the Bombay University. He then moved to Bombay, where he took a first class in his B. A., majoring in Philosophy and Logic. The next step—very logical for an Indian of his social and educational background—was to take a law degree.
Mahadev qualified as a lawyer in 1915, the year Gandhi himself returned to India. It was through the younger man’s love of literature that they met. Mahadev had translated the liberal thinker John Morley’s book On Compromise into Gujarati, and went to Gandhi to seek his advice on how best to get it published. Over the next two years they met off and on, each becoming progressively more impressed with the other. Finally, in November 1917, Desai decided to join Gandhi full-time. For the next twenty-five years he lived with him and for him. As the historian Rajmohan Gandhi observes, ‘Waking up before Gandhi in pre-dawn darkness, and going to sleep long after his Master, Desai lived Gandhi’s day thrice over—first in an attempt to anticipate it, next in spending it alongside Gandhi, and finally in recording it into his diary’.
Twenty-two years younger than Gandhi, Mahadev yet died five-and-a-half years before him. Narayan Desai’s book begins with a moving account of Mahadev’s passing, in the Aga Khan palace where Gandhi and he had been confined when the Quit India movement began. He spent his last hours on earth with his head on Gandhi’s lap. When he finally stopped breathing, Gandhi called out in agitation: ‘Mahadev! Mahadev!’. Later, when asked why he did so, the Mahatma answered: ‘I felt that if Mahadev opened his eyes and looked at me, I would tell him to get up. He had never disobeyed me in his life. I was confident that had he heard those words, he would have defied even death and got up’.
Mahadev had served his Master for most of his life, but the last act of service was to be Gandhi’s. He bathed the body himself, albeit ‘with shaking hands’. Then he chose to wrap Mahadev in the coarse sheets available in the jail—‘as befitting the death of a prisoner’. Then he lit the fire, such that—in Narayan Desai’s words—‘he who had been the father all his life now performed the duties of a son’.
Published in The Hindu, 23/10/2005