Ex-Director, Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi
KASTURBA Gandhi’s 76th death anniversary falls today. Back in the early 1920s, the world learnt of a son and a husband who poured his heart out in the pages of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In his writings, Mahatma Gandhi transcends the boundaries which hide private from public and emerges as the foremost name in the small list of illustrious and sensitive men of the 20th century who have spontaneously empathised with the women’s cause.
Gandhi made his inner sentiments public in an age when such confessions were frowned upon. Kasturba entered his life at a very tender and impressionable age. She was his adolescent bride to whom he was passionately attached. In his later life, he felt ‘ashamed for this attachment’. In the pages of his autobiography, we see the blossoming of a teenaged girl into a woman with a mind of her own.
An important frame in Gandhi’s autobiography is the picture of Kasturba, bewildered and unable to comprehend the change that was going over this barrister, so much dressed like a European and living a similar life with a governess, for his children. He now changes his style of living, dispenses with servants, engages himself in public activities, undertakes protests, suffers police brutality, but does not retaliate, goes to jail and has all sorts of similar reformist visitors, hospitality which taxes Kasturba’s fortitude and health. At one point, where the reformist husband forces her to clean the toilet of his visitor, Kasturba says enough is enough. Then there follows a violent conflict between the two.
The quarrel reaches its peak with Gandhi asking his wife to move out of the house. When she retaliates, a repentant Mahatma goes over the entire gamut of man-woman relationship. He sees his conduct as wrong. The incident provides a reformist impulse as strong as the one of his ejection from a first-class compartment of a train in South Africa had done. When the Mahatma was on the verge of pushing Kasturba out, she shook him to the core by her words. He describes this incident thus: “The tears were running down her cheeks in torrents and she cried, ‘Have you no sense of shame? Must you go so far to forget yourself? Where am I to go? Being your wife, you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks? For heaven’s sake, behave yourself, and shut the gate. Let us not be found making scenes like this!’ I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her. We have had numerous bickerings, but the end has always been peace between us. The wife, with her matchless power of endurance, tolerance has always been the victor.”
It is significant to note that the Mahatma himself terms this recollection as ‘sacred’. In Gandhi’s evolution as the upholder of women’s cause, his sojourn in South Africa was important. Above all, it brought Kasturba to the forefront. It was as though Gandhi rediscovered her, through her active participation along with hundreds of other women who joined the men for satyagraha in protest against the Immigration Regulation Bill and the £3 tax. This enthused Gandhi to no end. Hailing the women’s resolution to oppose the South African government’s move to declare all marriages not performed under the Christian law, null and void, he wrote in the Indian Opinion: “The remarkable resolution of the Indian women of Johannesburg on the marriage question... marks an interesting development of the passive resistance campaign. We congratulate our plucky sisters.”
In more ways than one, Kasturba was the Mahatma’s first disciple. She adjusted herself to a routine which went against her own orthodoxy. But ultimately, it was she who was the unsung heroine, without whose support the metamorphosis of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the Mahatma would have remained an abortive endeavour.
In 1929, Horace G Alexander, in a letter to Gandhi, drew his attention to a book which gave him an impression that Kasturba and Gandhi ‘were not always of one mind’.
It is amazing how some deep-rooted misconceptions about the personal relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba have prevailed and survived from the very beginning of their public life and is still used for Gandhi baiting. I often hear the young people say they do not like Gandhi because ‘he was very cruel to his wife’. How did they get to know about it, they have no answer. We all learnt about it only because MK Gandhi made an honest confession of his wrongdoings.
The confluence of dynamic and dedicated women at Gandhi’s ashrams, presided over by ‘Ba’, made them develop into centres for rural regeneration and self-reliance. It is this legacy bequeathed by ‘Ba’ to the Kasturba Memorial Trust, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1945 in memory of Kasturba, who passed away on February 22, 1944, while still in prison.
The story of Ba and Bapu needs to be told and retold as they are important in our long history of misogyny: Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership was partly his own, but a part, however minuscule, he got from his wife, and he was man enough to acknowledge the debt he owed to her. Eventually, Kasturba, the wife and individual woman, was subsumed for him by the persona of the ‘women of India’.
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