The other Mrs. Gandhi

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We all know who Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is the “Father of [our] nation”. We know that he preached non-violence and fought for the freedom of our country. Though, how much we believe in is another topic. What only a few know or are interested in knowing is about the person behind, rather a partner, in the making of Mahatma Gandhi. This person would be, Mrs. Gandhi. The other Mrs. Gandhi, Kasturba Gandhi.

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Kasturba Mohandas Gandhi was born on 11th April 1869 in Porbander to a wealthy merchant, Gokuldas Makanji. She and Mohandas Gandhi were married off when at an early age of thirteen. Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that he never forgave his father for this early marriage. He wrote, “I do not think it meant to me anything more than the prospect of good clothes to wear, drum-beating, marriage processions, rich dinners and a strange girl to Play with…Little did I dream that one day I should severely criticize my father for having married me as a child. Everything on that day seemed to me right and proper and pleasing. There was also my own eagerness to get married.”

Kasturba was fondly referred to as “Ba” (mother). She gave birth to four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devadas. She led a life, far from ordinary. History knows the sacrifices this woman went through to enable Gandhi focus on his worldly affairs and experiments. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Kasturba writes in his book “Kasturba: A life”, “The story of my grandmother’s life is simply this: while Mohandas experimented with truth, Kasturba experienced it.”

Where Gandhi went to London (in 1888) to continue his studies, Kasturba never went to school and stayed in India, taking care of the house and their first child- Harilal. Manilal was born in 1892, Ramdas in 1897 and Devadas in 1900. By the 1906, Mahatma Gandhi had decided to observe brahmacharya (vow chastity) for life. Gandhi wrote that Kasturba readily agreed to his decision but we are unaware of what she actually thought about Gandhi’s decisions. Many feminists believe that Gandhi was overbearing and forced his decisions on his wife.

Kasturba, though not highly educated like her husband, was definitely a very energetic woman. She developed into a highly respectable woman who sadly did not receive the recognition she deserved. She was a high spirited and a stern woman who did not blindly agree to her husband. Kasturba resisted any domination of her husband and did what she felt was correct. She was confident and courageous as is evident from one incident in Durban, South Africa: In 1906, Gandhi was surrounded by whites and him and his family was stranded in Parsi Rustomji’s bungalow which the mob wanted to burn down. Kasturba determinedly told him to quietly leave the house from the back door as she and her two sons remained to face the challenge in a foreign land with hostile faces outside their house.

Kasturba worked at the Ashram while Gandhi was involved in different political movements. She took care of the cleaning, food and complete management of the ashram which took a huge toll on her health. A testimony suggests that Kasturba was a bit short tempered and once during a late night political gathering, Gandhi feared asking Kasturba to prepare a meal for the guests because she had already gone to sleep.

Kasturba was firm in her decisions and not even Gandhi could do anything about it. One such incident is: Kasturba did not mind taking care of the ashram but drew the line at cleaning the toilets. Gandhi preached that just because she is his wife does not give her any advantages and Kasturba too agreed to his principles but she flatly denied at having to clean the toilets.

She was a deeply religious woman which is evident from the incident after her hemorrhage operation. The doctor suggested her to drink beef tea but she firmly resisted this saying, “I will not take beef-tea. It is a rare thing in this world to be born as a human being and I would far rather die in your arms than pollute my body with such an abomination.”

She too entered the public life after 1897 in South Africa. She was the soul of the ‘Phoenix Settlement’. It was then that she became “Ba” (mother) from Kasturba to the inmates. She continued this motherly role at Kochnab, Sevagram and Sabarmati ashrams. Her care and dedication might also be seen as displaced motherly affection which she could not splurge on her sons. Harilal left the house much earlier, changed his religion, and took to drinking and visited prostitutes- to rebel against his father’s extreme principles. She could hardly meet her sons because of her husband; she was always on the move. When Harilal returned to her on her death bed, she burst into tears on seeing her beloved son.

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We all know that Gandhi was arrested many times but “Ba’ went through the same in the struggle for the country. Her first arrest was in South Africa, for three months, which almost wrecked her body. The next was in the Borsad Satyagraha in Gujarat (1922), Gandhi was in jail and a few women called her saying that they desperately needed Ba to inspire confidence in the town. Ba was diagnosed with amnesia and the doctors had prescribed her complete bed rest but she said, “”I must see those women who have so bravely faced the Lathi charge of the police. I must be with them to give them support. Bapu would have been with them today. But he is not free…But I feel fit…After all I do nothing in my life, except follow Bapu, from Place to place, observing the Ashram rules, and taking rest. These moments when I have to work like Bapu are so rare. I cannot think of rest now.” The next arrests were: 15th January’1932 for six weeks; 15th March’ 1932 for six months rigorous imprisonment by the Bardoli Magistrate; 1st August’ 1933 for six months imprisonment; then in 1939 when she was seventy years old and had volunteered to join the Rajkot struggle, she was kept in solitary captivity when she nearly collapsed. Her final imprisonment was in 1942 in the Aga Khan Palace, where she breathed her last. She was suffering from severe bronchitis and the doctors insisted on administering penicillin for her treatment but Gandhi bluntly refused. An ayurvedic doctor was asked to see her and there were signs of improvement in her health but not for long. Devadas kept insisting his father to allow using penicillin but on knowing that the medicine was to be injected every four to six hours, Gandhi was finally able to persuade his son.

Finally, she breathed her last in the arms of her husband and after seeing all her sons together.
She was a fighter, a mother and a wife who deserves to be acknowledged by the free India, by us.

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