A few weeks ago, I found a copy of The Diary of Manu Gandhi (1943-1944) on a pile of second hand books that were being sold for ₹100 a piece. The title caught my attention. Manu Gandhi has one of the most recognizable faces in Indian history, seen always beside Gandhi during his later years. She was by his side when Nathuram Godse stepped before them and shot Gandhi in the chest.
I have to admit that I was even more interested in the diary because I knew Manu Gandhi as being the young girl who was one of the subjects of Gandhi’s infamous Brahmacharya experiments. I first heard of his experiments with celibacy from a cocky white kid at a college party. I hadn’t believed him – “That’s not true!” I had said more shrilly than was seemly. “You should read your own history,” he had replied with a smug grin that I felt like swiping at. That night a quick search on Ask Jeeves (in a time before Wikipedia and Google) had promptly told me that he was right. Gandhi did have his young female disciples sleep in the nude with him to check if he had gone beyond sexual temptation. I looked it up at the library the next day and then proceeded to avoid the boy for the rest of the quarter.
In 1946, India was in flames – communal violence was shredding our cities and countryside. Gandhi was tired and rapidly losing perspective. He had lost his wife and several confidants; he was losing his importance in the party; and his fasts were not nearly as effective as they once were. He began to believe that the violence and chaos in the world around him were a reflection of the violence within him and so he decided to focus inwards – to clean up, so to speak. And so he returned to one of his favourite topics – purity through celibacy. He wanted to check if he could master his impulses and desire in the face of temptation. He asked Manu if she would share his bed in the nude.
Manu was in her late teens at the time. He was in his 70s. She had been a devoted server for 3 or 4 years at that point, and he, in turn, was a parental figure – he educated her, cared for her health and well being, and guided her in all matters. When he explained his experiment and his intentions, she gave her consent because she was full of faith and devotion towards him. He was Bapu, but after Kasturba’s death, he was also like a mother, she wrote. He could do no wrong in her eyes.
The people around Gandhi, however, did not share her complete faith in the Mahatma. His stenographer and translator resigned after failing to convince him that this was a bad idea. Patel and other close confidants all tried to convince Gandhi to stop but instead he turned to others whom he hoped would understand him. Eventually, Manu withdrew consent, yielding to the advice of others. She spoke to Gandhi, explaining that she fully understood his motivations and was one with him, but their short yagna had been a success and that they did not need to continue further. With her consent withdrawn, Gandhi stopped.
I was in my early twenties, just a little older than Manu Gandhi had been at the time, as I was finding out about this. I could not understand her one bit. How could she accept Gandhi’s belief that the violence in India was caused by his personal imperfections -was he the centre of the universe? Was her devotion admirable or foolish? Was her consent real or manipulated? Was she capable of thinking for herself or had she completely surrendered her identity?
Close to two decades later, I was walking home with Manu’s diary in my cloth bag. I was hoping to get some answers.
Diary Writing for Homework
Her diary begins in 1943. She makes no mention of World War II that was raging across the European and Pacific theatres. On August 9, 1942, Gandhi and his inner circle had been arrested at dawn and were sent to Aga Khan Palace, Pune. Gandhi and other leaders of the Congress had launched the Quit India movement on the day before, rejecting dominion status as offered through the Scripps Commission. Hundreds of other freedom fighters were also sent off to prison during this time.
Manu Gandhi, Gandhi’s grand niece, had been called to serve and nurse Kasturba after the latter had suffered of a severe heart attack in 1943. She joined Sushila Nayyar, Pyarelal Nayyar, Mira ben and Gandhi in the drafty palatial bungalow. She was young (only 14 or 15), earnest and eager to be of service.
Having studied only till Class 5, Manu Gandhi began getting homeschooled whenever she was free from her chores. The diary had began as homework. Tridip Suhrud, the translator, noted that “the Gujarati diary is written in a hand that is yet to be formed… The diary itself is a part of her education with M.K. Gandhi”.
Reading it, you absolutely get the sense that this is being written by an adolescent who doesn’t really want to do her assignment. She is just listing off time tables and how she spent each block of time.
However, Manu’s writing evolved quickly. She abandoned listing of her various activities and began to write fuller paragraphs giving us a window into Gandhi’s private life. Unlike another more famous teenage diarist, Anne Frank, Manu’s diary entries are more basic. She writes matter of factly about ashram routines and chores she performs, the petty fights and misunderstandings she has with others in the entourage, their various visitors, and Kasturba’s deteriorating health.
Manu’s diary also revealed the private Gandhi to me and her own feelings towards him. I had read of Gandhi as a public figure but through the diary, Gandhi slowly moved from a vague outline of a figure to one more filled in with colour.
Impressions of Gandhi through the Diary
In her diary, Manu writes of Gandhi and Kasturba through a thick veil of devotion and a form of territorial love. Manu’s entire sense of wellbeing seemed dependent on Gandhi and Kasturba’s approval. When Kasturba or Gandhi were even mildly disapproving, she was distraught, breaking down crying or brooding all day and needing to be reassured by multiple people, including Gandhi himself.
Gandhi was to Manu like Jungkook (from BTS) is to a teenage ARMY girl . Gandhi and Jungkook might not have much in common yet Manu and an obsessed ARMY member might have the same extreme emotional responses to anything their idols said to them. What is notable is that Gandhi (and I suppose members of the BTS) was not only aware of this kind of obsessive devotion, he accepted it very naturally. He was happy with it and responded with a generous form of attention – attending to her studies, guiding her on health, listening to her worries and offering feedback. He might have been a very busy man, but Manu’s diary gave the impression that he made time for her.
Manu, of course, was not the only one so devoted to Gandhi. He was surrounded by others who all competed for his attention and approval. Through Manu’s writings, it dawned on me that Gandhi also seemed to view himself as a Mahatma – a great soul. There are several subtle moments throughout her diary when Gandhi seemed to think such kind of devotion not just natural but also justified. One significant one is an is an entry about Mahadev Desai’s sudden passing in August 1942.
On August 15, 1942, shortly after their arrival at Aga Khan Palace, Mahadev Desai simply collapsed. Sushila Nayyar who could not find Desai’s pulse, called to Gandhi – “Bapu, Mahadevbhai is dying, come soon!” Gandhi replied, “Mahadev cannot die. He has to write my biography.”
Bapu later told Manu “Mahadev desired to die in my arms and he also wanted to write my biography. God heard his first prayer.”
What impact does being on the receiving end of such an extreme form of love and devotion have on a person? Was his manner of accepting such devotion a form of hubris or just a matter of fact acceptance of fate?
I do not know the answer to this, but I think some of the petulance that we see later in Gandhi (my favorite example being his irritation that his Charkha was being replaced by the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag) might have been a result of this constant adulation he was surrounded by. He was so used to being obeyed as the Mahatma by those in his inner circle that it must have been frustrating to face opposition from those in the wider world. By the time of independence, although he was still being called the Mahatma and was credited with being the Father of the Nation, no one was asking for his blessings or permissions as much. Nehru and Patel were moving on to the real hard work of building a nation while Gandhi took to travelling, hosting prayer meetings, fasting and struggling to make sense of the chaos. He had to cope with all of this without Kasturba’s balancing influence.
Impressions of Kasturba
While Gandhi was always more human than Mahatma to me, Kasturba had quietly become a tragic Sita-like figure in my imagination – a woman who was drawn into all kinds of problems by her husband. When Kasturba married the scrawny 13 year old Gandhi, there had been know way for her to know that he was going to grow into a Mahatma to millions. Unlinke Ram, he wasn’t breaking Shiva’s indestructible bow at a Swayamvara – teenage Gandhi was way less cool and heroic.
In the beginning, I had thought that Gandhi and Kasturba shared a rather distant relationship – that as his political career rose, she fell into the background. This wasn’t true and it is clear in both Manu’s diary and other readings that Kasturba and Gandhi shared a unique bond.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, while in Sevagram in the early 1940s, was surprised by how strongly Kasturba made her presence felt in the ashram. She also quickly realised that the husband and wife were not nearly as extraordinary as she had imagined.. She wrote that “It was a pleasant sight to see them busy together, an intimacy that is woven like a web, intricate yet simple, delicate but strong… the nights were truly romantic. Though they were out of my sight, they were within easy hearing… their words came in distinctly though I had no desire to eavesdrop. I knew she was gently rubbing his feet. I was not sure whether she did it for her own comfort or his… she was recounting to him some of the events of the day to which he made some replies. The nights were their own, they were simple husband and wife like any other couple in the world.”
Manu Gandhi’s diary entries reflect a similar observation of shared intimacy between husband and wife. She was devoted to him, yes, but not in the blind manner of Manu. She was vocal about her own thoughts and lost her temper with him like any ordinary wife would. She knew the man before the Mahatma and while she might have come to share his political vision, she maintained her own independent sense of self. As Chattopadhyay notes, “Basically she believed in his objectives, though she could not accept all of his convolutions… they had had sharp differences.”
I was most moved by Manu’s simple telling of Kasturba’s last days. Kasturba was suffering of a heart condition and breathing difficulties that made it very painful and uncomfortable. Manu had moved into Aga Khan Palace voluntarily in 1943, to nurse Kasturba after she had suffered a severe heart attack.
On the morning of her death, Kasturba was praying for the end to come sooner. “Hey Ram!” she cried, “Take me away. During this life time, I have toiled away for everyone. I cooked and fed all. But I have nothing for you. I was engrossed in Bapuji. Hey Rama! Cleanse my sins. I will commit no more sins,”
Unlike Mahadev or others who equated Gandhi with Ram himself, Kasturba seemed to feel sorry that she hadn’t given more of herself to God. It sounded almost like regret – “I had toiled away for every one… but I have nothing for you.” How many women around the world have suffered the same thoughts at the end of their lives?
Manu described Kasturba’s final moments as follows:
“Bapu was about to set out for a walk. Ba was in Bhai’s lap; she had trouble breathing. Suddenly she spoke up, “Bapu!” Bapu was called in, he took Ba in his lap and asked, “What is happening to you?” Ba replied, “I do not know, something is happening.” Her words were tragic and sad. Her eyes seem to roll up. Everyone began to chant the ‘Rama dhun’.. Bapu closed his eyes and placed his forehead on hers as if he were blessing her. They had spent their lives together, now he was seeking final forgiveness and bidding her farewell. The scene was heart-wrenching and tragic. Her pulse stopped and she breathed her last. All the unbearable pain ceased.”
Like Kamaladevi observed earlier, Kasturba and Gandhi were just an ordinary couple. Her final call to Bapu was not one of a devotee calling to her lord. She was frightened and she called her husband to give her comfort, which he tried to do by bending down over her and pressing his forehead to hers.
Is Kasturba a tragic figure as Manu sees her? Kasturba haunted my thoughts for days after I finished the book. Should a life be judged by the quality of its ending? During her life Kasturba had been strong and resilient. She had been a real partner. In the end, she had withered away, like a plant that has had its day in the sun.
Women and Gandhi
Kasturba and Manu both managed to get under my skin, as I read this book. I turned into a thin skinned super feminist after the Diary. It is funny how these women around Gandhi seem to form perfect case studies for a Gender Studies class in a university somewhere.
History says Kasturba had the option to not join Gandhi on all his endeavours. He did not force her to join him and gave her the option to opt out. But is this true? Did she really have a choice? She had 4 sons and her jewels were sold by her husband to finance his ideas. Where could she have gone ? What would happen to the woman who abandoned Gandhi (because that is how she would have been remembered if she really had forged ahead without him)?
And what of Manu, Abha and Sushila – Gandhi’s young female entourage who had agreed to be part of his experiments with celibacy? Who is to judge whether their consent is real or influenced by the utter imbalance in their relationship with Gandhi? If I had accosted Manu in 1946 and explained to her that perhaps she didn’t really know that her consent was manipulated by Gandhi’s immense power over her, she might have flown at me in a rage of denial. No one likes to be told that they don’t know what they mean.
Regardless, Manu is unlikely to have joined the #metoo movement. She remained devoted the Gandhi till the very end, when she died at just 40. Morarji Desai, who visited her at the hospital, wrote to Nehru, saying “Manu’s problem is more psychological than physiological. She appears to have despaired for life and developed an allergy to all kinds of medicines.” Her diaries predict such an end because the Gandhis had been her entire world. Without them, it is easy to imagine that she knew nothing else.
In the end, when I finished with the Diary, I was left with more questions than answers about consent.
Consent is more complicated than “You said yes”, but even more complicated is our judgment of it. I personally do not think Manu gave her real consent when Gandhi asked her to participate in his experiments but I bet you Manu did. She wanted Gandhi’s favour and attention because he was the centre of her universe. And no matter what her motivation, shouldn’t her consent be accepted and respected? In that case, if she gave her consent, were his experiments acceptable? That doesn’t sit well with me.
Similarly, Kasturba might have consented to living the life of a political activist and consort to a saint, but was it real consent or just resignation? Is resignation consent?
I think we should really think about this as parents, spouses, members of society and citizens of a democracy. How often do we really give people in our lives and communities the option to say no. And does that matter? I think it does.
- The Diary of Manu Gandhi, translated by Tridip Suhrud
- Inner Voices, Outer Spaces by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
- Sirur, S. (2019) Kasturba Gandhi, the feisty woman whose patience inspired Gandhi’s call for Satyagraha, ThePrint. Available at: https://theprint.in/theprint-profile/kasturba-gandhi-the-feisty-woman-whose-patience-inspired-gandhis-call-for-satyagraha/218949/ (Accessed: December 11, 2022)