Gandhiji’s better half

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Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi provides rare insights into her life, with facts and a fertile imagination

Kasturba Gandhi by Giriraj Kishore Translated by Manisha Chaudhry Pp 424. , Rs 795 Niyogi Books

Kasturba Gandhi, a bio-fiction written in Hindi by Giriraj Kishore and translated into English by Manisha Chaudhry is a must-read, because it is one of those rare works, where a writer picks up an over-shadowed historical figure and brings to life their amazing journey using facts and his/her imagination. 

Writers are often scared to work on such subjects because they fear criticism from the academic world, and fear that they may be accused of bringing alive a biased view. 

Kasturba Gandhi was so much more than just Gandhiji’s wife. Her personality and character were as remarkable as her husband’s. Apart from being the first Indian woman to voluntarily face jail in South Africa in her fight for basic rights for women, hers is a story of how a young girl was married off to her affluent neighbour by her parents, who hoped that she would have a comfortable life while staying close to them. But life had only sacrifices and challenges in store for her, and she tackled and coped with each one of them while occasionally even telling off her dominating and difficult husband when he became unbearable.

If you read Gandhiji’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with the Truth, it’s an honest account of his journey where he talks about his life and frailties, which is a very credible account of the larger than life figure talking about all his pros and cons, but the book just doesn’t do justice to his wife, her story doesn’t really feature in it. This is the main reason why Manisha, one of India’s prominent feminist writers was interested in translating a work that did justice to a remarkable woman who was as great as the Mahatma.

“As a feminist, I have always been interested in how history and literature represent women. Women and their experiences are central to understanding any event or issues in its completeness,” she says. How literature and history have represented women is central to understanding how patriarchy operates and how it mutes their voice and lived reality, and only allows such representation that serves the ends of the dominant narrative. 

Manisha points out how a figure such as Gandhi, “Has been written about extensively from multiple perspectives, and this continues. In popular culture, we have had only marginal encounters with Kasturba. She is there in a few anecdotes and even fewer photographs, head duly covered and almost always standing behind the Mahatma. But surely she has her own story, and her part in the Gandhi story has to be much more. The journey of MK Gandhi to Mahatma Gandhi is not an ordinary one so how could her journey be any less ordinary?,”she adds.

Manisha got the feeling that Giriraj Kishoreji felt the same. He is deeply interested in Gandhi and has written many books on him, but he also wanted to feel closer to Kasturba. “His novel is his way of holding up a lamp to her,” feels Manisha.

The book reveals to us how she retains her identity, basically that of a Gujarati housewife on one level, who is devoted to her husband and his beliefs. Doesn’t leave him when things get difficult, especially in South Africa, when she is with her children and he is constantly experimenting with life. She has to put up with them constantly changing homes, from a mansion to a farm, his decision to educate the children on his own without sending them to school, bringing home a leper to live with them, suddenly deciding to practise abstinence for life, deciding that they will donate all their income to the betterment of others and not enjoy any perks of his wealth and realising that she and the children were perhaps number 10 in his life. 

For Manisha what is most appealing is how Girirajji’s work shows her grow and  adapt to different circumstances. “She must have had tremendous equanimity to be able to handle the constantly changing scenarios as Gandhiji was a greater experimenter in his life,” reveals Manisha.  She also has a capacity to love and accept the vast number of people who entered her life.

What do you think could be a few let downs for her as a wife? “We can only speculate about this but probably the biggest let down must have been Gandhi’s behaviour with their son Harilal. She must have felt very torn between her roles of wife and mother many times, with all her children but Harilal’s decline and tragic end must have been very hard on her,” she explains. Having a non-supportive father who often deprived his son of well-deserved chances in order to not show favouritism was the main contributor to Harilal’s life. 

The book highlights some of the personal hardships she faced with great strength as Gandhi’s wife. Even the early years when she was a teenager life with Gandhi were tough. There were his temper tantrums to deal with, then him leaving to study in London. Along with his absence, she had to put up with being excommunicated from the community since her husband committed the sin of travelling abroad to study! Then came the new life in South Africa with children in tow. “After  having lived a fairly protected existence until then, it must have been difficult to leave the family behind. All the new experiments with lifestyle, food, living on the farm, living under Gandhiji’s constantly changing personality must have been tough and a lesser person than Kasturba would have buckled under pressure,” adds Manisha. She becomes the first woman who went to jail for satyagraha. It goes to show that satyagraha, as a concept and strategy grew only because so many people took it forward and Manisha believes Kasturba’s contribution had a huge role. She was one of its first foot soldiers.

For a woman from a middle-class family to see most of her immediate family in and out of jail, coping with the underlying threat of violence would not have been easy but she never gave up. Giriraj Kishoreji’s novel shows her belief in the institution of marriage, loving a difficult person, accepting his cause and fighting for people’s rights. When you think of MK Gandhi’s life and his journey as Mahatma and the father of the nation, her role in it has been neglected in history and both Giriraj Kishore and Manisha try to do justice to it.