Abstract: Usha Menon, in her article on “Mahatma Gandhi”gives a crisp and innovative re-rendering of The Story of My Experiments with Truth to shed new light on the greatness of Kasturba, who never got the richly deserved recognition from her husband or history. The re-analysis of some of Gandhiji’s famous statements, Menon says, proves that he was “the typical Indian male of the early twentieth century”, who refused to understand or sympathise with his wife’s needs, and instead, forced her into the role of the silent “monument of patience”.
Keywords: behind the Mahatma, the power of Kasturba, de-mystifying Mahatma Gandhi, tolerance
As we approach yet another celebration of India’s Republic Day memory wafts back. Once more we see and think of the bygone era, of Mahatma Gandhi the Father of our Nation who regarded truth as the greatest guide on earth. Once he was dubbed “Mahatma”(the great soul) by Tagore. How do we see him today? Our first president, Rajendra Prasad has stated that “Mahatma Gandhi did not set out to evolve a philosophy of life or formulate a system of beliefs and ideals… his actions and actual teachings were always influenced by considerations at once moral and eminently practical…”(from Homage in Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, (1884-1886) The Publications Division, Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. Of India). This assessment of the Mahatma sets one thinking, particularly when we see that he had touched every aspect of India’s life, be it food, clothing, occupation or social set up. He spiritualised politics as no one had been able to do before. He said “I count no sacrifice too great for the sake of seeing God face to face…”and added that “the seeker after truth should be humbler than dust…I am devoted to none but truth and I owe no discipline to anybody but truth.”The Mahatma’s words quoted from his autobiography (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, translated from the original in Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1927), impress us with their simplicity and sincerity. One could not but hail the man who stood before hide-bound tradition and had the strength to proclaim “I do not advocate the surrender of God-given reasoning faculty in the face of ancient tradition (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth). Gandhi knew that he was hailed as the father of our nation, that he was looked upon as the mahatma of the masses. He was aware that every word and deed of his was looked up to and imitated without question. It is the consideration of this fact that makes the image of this great leader lose lustre when he declares “I have never made a fetish of consistency. I am a votary of truth and I must say what I think and feel at a given moment on the question without regard to what I may have said before on it” (The Story Of My Experiments With Truth). Rajendra Prasad has remarked in his Homage (in the Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi 1, 1884-1896, Publication Division, Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. Of India) – “his opponents and sometimes even his followers saw apparent contradiction in some of Gandhi’s actions…. his actions and actual teachings were always influenced by considerations at once moral and eminently practical “Francis Watson and Hallam Tennyson in their publication Talking Of Gandhi, (Orient Longman Ltd. Bombay1969) present snippets of dialogue from a variety of people, where a slightly different picture of Gandhi emerges. Mrs. Polak speaks of a worried Kasthurba Gandhi thus: I think the great thing that disturbed her was the education – or lack of education – of her three children.”Charity evidently did not begin at home for the great leader ! In the same work Susheela Nayyar remarks “in Gandhi’s time we all lived in an atmosphere of unadulterated idealism…”She speaks of the dream they had of free India “and this dream was very beautiful…. Gandhi spiritualised politics.”Today, suddenly it is as though the bubble has burst and the dream shattered. We have to look with fresh eyes and new reasoning at the past. The halo recedes and the starkness of reality emerges.
Even now on the threshold of the twenty-first century when I read certain lines in Gandhi’s autobiography, I am jolted. I know that the male population of India, at least a good section of it, would question such statements. Gandhi the name was a synonym for saint, specially for those of us who were brought up in post Independent India. But strangely enough it is only now at this stage of adulthood that I took up afresh The Story Of My Experiments With Truth The snippets that I had gathered so far had painted a picture of a saintly man who sacrificed everything, Christ like, for the sake of fellow men. The child at Rajkot who grew into the advocate in Africa and the Mahatma in India — they were all different facets of his amazing personality. But alas, the saintly aura dulled and a mere mortal emerged. The Mahatma turned into irate husband and domineering father, in fact, into the typical Indian male of the early twentieth century. A man willing to clutch at tradition, physical force, or anything else to gain his point. Will someone explain the justification of Gandhi’s aphorisms when his actions belie his words? Indeed I saw the greatness of Kasthurba, a woman brought up in the heart of tradition thrown willy-nilly into her husband’s experiments. She was asked to fling away without question all that she was taught to uphold as sacred. Her husband would brook no opposition. He reserved for himself the right to commit blunders, to change his mind when he thought it fit. She was but a puppet who must move in the direction he chose. Lesser women would have strived to escape from life itself rather than stay on and endure the ordeal of living with such an experimenter. I salute you, Kasthurba.
I read again the autobiography where Gandhi says “My Himalayan blunders have seemed trifling to me because I have kept strictly to this path I have gone forward according to my light.” Where in this scheme of things was Kasthurba ? Did she have to bear the burden of his mistakes ? Gandhi has stated: “my ambition was to make her life a pure life, learn what I learnt and identify her life and thought with mine.”With this noble resolve in mind he adds that instructing her was impossible because : “when I woke up from the sleep of lust I had already launched forth into public life which did not leave me much spare time. I failed likewise to instruct her through private tutors,” and they say, charity begins at home ! Gandhi evolved through his politics, his mistakes were overcome or silently put aside. Kasthurba, did you ever want to read, to teach, to have your voice heard ?
Gandhi spoke with disarming honesty of the lust which overcame him at the time of his father’s death. Ashamed of himself he feels that it was just punishment that he was not by his father’s side during the last moments of his life. He dismisses in a line what Kasthurba as wife and mother would not be able to forget in a lifetime. The line reads: “the poor mite that was born to my wife scarcely breathed for more than three or four days. Nothing else could be expected,” Not a word of her physical pain and heart ache! His return from England did not improve matters, for he says “even my stay in England had not cured me of jealousy.”Kasthurba took it all in her stride, yet no one thought it fit to speak of her, not even Gandhi himself.
”I could not devote to the children all the time I had wanted to give them”– understandable under the circumstances. Most political figures have the same thing to say. But unforgivable is the line “my inability to give them enough attention and other unavoidable causes prevented me from providing them with the literary education I had desired …” Lust prevented his wife gaining literacy, was it ego that prevented the children being educated? He tells us that his eldest son broke away and went to Ahemdabad to continue his higher education. Gandhi was obviously not too happy about it
”The husband’s earnings are the joint property of husband and wife, as he makes money by her assistance “if only as a cook …” What happened to this thought when Gandhi wrote in the autobiography “one of the gifts was a gold necklace worth fifty guineas, meant for my wife. But even that gift was given because of my public work and so it could not be separated from the rest” (p.165).Think of Kasthurba’s reply “I agree but service rendered by you is as good as service 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”Gandhi’s words follow : “but Iwas determined to return the ornaments.”(p166). And Gandhi grew into a Mahatma while Kasthurba’s scars remained noticed by none.
When leaving home and kith and kin, a woman of Kasthurba’s times would have to place her security in the hands of her husband. One wonders what her feelings were when in Durban, Gandhi decided to act the harsh master.In the autobiography, Gandhi says with some touch of pride or was it arrogance: “my wife managed the pots of others but to clean those used by one who had been a panchama seemed to her to be the limit and we fell out …but I was a cruelly kind husband. I regarded myself as her teacher, and so harassed her out of my blind love for her …. so I said raising my voice “I will not stand this nonsense in my house;”the words pierced her like an arrow and she shouted back ‘ keep your house to yourself and let me go.’ I forgot myself. The spring of compassion dried up in me. I caught her by the hand and dragged the helpless woman to the gate … and proceeded to open it with the intention of pushing her out … she cried : “Have you no sense of shame ? Must you so far forget yourself ? Where am I to go? I have no friends or parents here to harbour me. Being your wife you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks?” (p207-8). This was the punishment for the woman who dared to defy her husband. The same man who had once said “I do not advocate the surrender of God – given reasoning faculty in the face of ancient tradition.”The same man had also said on another occasion “Hindu culture has erred on the side of excessive subordination of the wife to the husband. This has resulted in the husband sometimes usurping and exercising authority that reduces him to the level of the brute.”Ironic a comment like this from a man who had no qualms about using force where his own wife was concerned. Like Ruth amid the alien corn, Kasthurba could only swallow bitter tears and accept her lot. Her “teacher” never really taught her. She was not literate, had no chance to think for herself, every decision was Gandhi’s and she was forced to accept it. The man who said that “all restraints to be beneficial must be voluntary” seems to have forgotten the truism when dealing with his own household. Gandhi admits with a rather tongue in the cheek attitude “it is likely that many of my doings do not have her approval even today. We never discuss them.” He also admits that the one great quality she has, which he obviously approves of, is that she “shares with most Hindu wives the feeling that she considered herself blessed in following my footsteps and has never stood in the way of my endeavour to lead a life of restraint. Though, therefore there is a whole lot of difference between us intellectually, I have always had the feeling that ours is a life of contentment, happiness and progress.” ( Autobiography, p208-9). Did you forget Mr. Gandhi, “blind adoration in the age of action is perfectly valueless?” Isn’t this all you wanted out of her? Absolute compliance, no questions asked, this was contentment!
Kasthurba was a woman, a monument of patience; she who swallowed all her bewilderment and pain, she who followed you through thick and thin what did you leave her Mr. Gandhi? What but memories of hidden tears, harsh words and painful actions. You who are called the apostle of peace, did you forget to bring it home to her, or did you think a forced acquiescence was harmony?
Dear Mahatma, you were aware from the early days of your wedded life that “only a Hindu wife would tolerate these hardships … a servant wrongly suspected may throw up his job, a son in the same case may leave his father’s roof and a friend may put an end to the relation. The wife, if she suspects her husband will keep quiet, but if her husband suspects her, she is ruined … where is she to go? …Law has no remedy for her “Perhaps that was why you were always victorious in the domestic battles. That was why Kasthurba never spoke out her differences to the world.
As N.Krishnaswamy had said in Talking Of Gandhi : “Gandhi is presented to the modern generation by the old Gandhians as someone who was in tune with the ancient traditions of India and things like that, almost as though he were someone to be deified, not someone to be followed.”From today’s point of view nothing could be more true. In the age that understands the need for women’s empowerment as a necessity for the progress of humanity, it is impossible to accept Kasturba’s role of forced acquiescence. It is true that Gandhi has pointed out instances of domestic discord but never once has he mentioned Kasturba’s views being accepted. It was at the end, her absolute compliance or nothing. The ideals of Gandhi we must cherish. His dreams we must pursue. But his methods and attitudes to his wife they require a rethinking.
USHA MENON. Teaches at the All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Sri Aurobindo. Interested in women support activities.