The wives of the Ieading Indian nationalists lie shrouded in obscurity. Tagore, Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari, Bose, Ambedkar—in the meticulous documentation of their careers, their spouses figure scarcely at all. One reason is that in most cases the wives died early; another, that even while they lived the wives were expected to stay out of sight.
The great exception, of course, is Kasturba, wife of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Born in 1869, the same year as the Mahatma, she lived till 1944. She bore him four children, ran his various homes, and went several times to jail for his cause. That she lived so long, and played her part in public campaigns, are two reasons why she is part of the nationalist consciousness. A third reason is that the man she married was the greatest of modern Indians. A fourth is that he wrote about her, and at some length, too.
In Gandhi’s autobiography, he speaks with characteristic frankness about their relationship—about how he imposed upon Kasturba his radical ideas about celibacy, the simple life, and the removal of untouchability. ‘I was a cruelly kind husband’, writes Gandhi: ‘I regarded myself as her teacher, and so harassed her out of my blind love for her’. He reproduces, with a honesty only he could summon, their conversation when he decided to give away ornaments gifted to them. Kasturba reminds him that he had once forced her to surrender the jewels her parents had given her. Now, he sought ‘to make sadhus of my boys’, deny their wives any jewellery, and take away a necklace gifted her by admirers. ‘Is the necklace given you for your service or for my service?’, asks Gandhi, sharply. Kasturba’s answer deserves to be enshrined—the metaphor is inescapable—in letters of gold: ‘I agree. But service rendered by you is as good as rendered by me. I have toiled and moiled for you day and night. Is that no service? You forced all and sundry on me, making me weep bitter tears, and I slaved for them!’
The words must have even more eloquent in the original Gujarati. Gandhi comments that ‘these were pointed thrusts, and some of them went home. But I was determined to return the ornaments. I somehow succeeded in extorting a consent from her. The gifts received… were all returned’.
It is fair to say that those Indians who know of Kasturba know her through her husband’s recollections, directly, or as amplified on the screen. However, the narrative of Gandhi’s autobiography ends with the Khilafat-Non-Co-operation movement of 1919-21. In the decades to follow Kasturba continued to live a very interesting life indeed. She was jailed during the Salt Satyagraha, and again during the Quit India movement. She lived and worked alongside her husband, and continued to argue with him.
Some glimpses of this later phase of Kasturba’s life are contained in a charming memoir by Sushila Nayar, now long out of print. Nayar writes here of Kasturba’s stature in the national movement, of how ‘she had become the Ba (mother) to India’s millions’. She writes also of her bonds to her sons and their children, and of her own child-like love of the game of Carrom (which Kasturba played daily while incarcerated in Poona, always expecting to win). There is a wonderfully moving account of her last illness, and her wish to have, close to her, their long estranged son Harilal. He had rebelled early against the father, but stayed devoted to the mother—and she to him. Nayar does not however tell the story of how, when Gandhi’s train once stopped at Katni station, they heard a cry: ‘Mata Kasturba ki jai’. This was most unusual, for the cheers usually were for the more celebrated husband. It turned out to be Harilal, ‘looking very poorly in health, with all his teeth gone and his clothes in rags’. He walked up and handed over an orange to Kasturba. When Gandhi asked what he had brought for him, Harilal answered: ‘Nothing. If you are so great, it is because of Ba’.
After Kasturba’s death in 1944, a trust was formed in her memory. Now in its sixtieth year, the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial Trust is headquartered at Indore, and has branches in as many as 22 states. It runs schools for women and children, as well as craft centres. Also under its purview is a well-equipped women’s hospital in Sewagram, where I once met Sushila Nayar, still serving, in what turned out to be the last year of her life. Other outstanding social workers associated with the Trust have included Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Ashoka Gupta, and Radha Bhatt. I have heard it said that the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial Trust is perhaps the most genuinely Gandhian of all the Gandhian institutions still around.
Having read thus far, readers of this column will know what is coming—surely it is past time that we have a proper historical biography of Kasturba? There is a book in the market which presumes to be one, but it is far too sentimental and poorly sourced to really qualify. But for the prospective biographer there is material aplenty—memoirs by Gandhi, Sushila Nayar and others, government records and newspaper archives, and letters by her sons. I think I know just the person—I will try persuading her at once.
Published in The Hindu, 9/10/2005