Ma­hatma & Manuben

Newly dis­cov­ered di­aries of Gandhi’s per­sonal at­ten­dant re­veal how his ex­per­i­ments with celibacy changed her life

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Uday Mahurkar

She is one of the most recog­nised faces in In­dian his­tory, al­ways by Ma­hatma Gandhi’s side as his “walk­ing stick” in his last two years. Yet, she re­mains a mys­tery. Just 17 when she re­joined the Ma­hatma as one of his per­sonal as­sis­tants in 1946, she was the great man’s con­stant com­pan­ion till his as­sas­si­na­tion. Yet, Mridula Gandhi, or Manuben as she is widely known, died a lonely spin­ster at the age of 40 in Delhi.

Manuben was por­trayed by Supriya Pathak in Richard At­ten­bor­ough’s Gandhi ( 1982). More than four decades af­ter her death, IN­DIA TO­DAY has got ac­cess to 10 of her di­aries, writ­ten in Gu­jarati and run­ning into 2,000 pages. Stud­ied in de­tail by Gu­jarati aca­demic Rizwan Kadri, the di­aries, which be­gin from April 11, 1943, re­veal the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of Gandhi’s ex­per­i­ment with his sex­u­al­ity on Manuben. They also throw light on the jeal­ousy and anger rife at the heart of Gandhi’s en­tourage, many of them young women. The di­aries be­gin when Manuben, a grand­niece of Gandhi, came to Aga Khan Palace in Pune to look af­ter Gandhi’s wife Kas­turba dur­ing the cou­ple’s in­tern­ment start­ing from 1942 fol­low­ing the Quit In­dia move­ment. Manuben nursed Kas­turba in her fi­nal months of ill­ness. The diary en­tries end 22 days af­ter Jan­uary 30, 1948, the day Nathu­ram Godse pushed aside Manuben to fire three shots at Gandhi from a 9mm Beretta.

The di­aries, in which Gandhi of­ten signed on the mar­gins, re­veal a girl de­voted to him. In an en­try on De­cem­ber 28, 1946, at Sri­ram­pur, Bi­har, nine days af­ter join­ing the then 77- year- old Gandhi who was on a walk­through of trou­bled vil­lages af­ter mas­sacres in Noakhali in then East Ben­gal, she writes: “Bapu is a mother to me. He is ini­ti­at­ing me to a higher hu­man plane through the Brah­macharya ex­per­i­ments, part of his Ma­hayagna of char­ac­ter- build­ing. Any loose talk about the ex­per­i­ment is most con­demnable.” Pyare­lal, Gandhi’s sec­re­tary, en­dorsed this view in Ma­hatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, “He did for her ev­ery­thing that a mother usu­ally does for her daugh­ter. He su­per­vised her ed­u­ca­tion, her food, dress, rest, and sleep. For closer su­per­vi­sion and guid­ance, he made her sleep in the same bed with him. Now a girl, if her mind is in­no­cent, never feels em­bar­rass­ment in sleep­ing with her mother.” She, in turn, was his pri­mary per­sonal at­ten­dant— mas­sag­ing and bathing him as well as cook­ing for him.

The di­aries go into the de­tails of the lives of Gandhi’s women as­so­ciates like Dr Sushila Na­yar, his per­sonal physi­cian and Pyare­lal’s sis­ter, and who later be­came Union

health min­is­ter, as well as his Ra­jput- Mus­lim fol­lower Bibi Am­tus­salam. They also in­di­cate the in­tense jeal­ousy over who would be part of the Ma­hatma’s ex­per­i­ments with celibacy. Manuben’s diary en­try dated Fe­bru­ary 24, 1947, at Haim­char, Bi­har, states: “To­day Bapu wrote a strong let­ter to Am­tus­salam­ben say­ing that the el­e­ment of re­gret that his celibacy ex­per­i­ment didn’t start with her was ap­par­ent in her let­ter to him.”

The di­aries, which found their way to the National Ar­chives in Delhi in 2010, also show Pyare­lal, de­spite be­ing 47 years old, mak­ing re­peated over­tures to Manuben with Sushila Na­yar push­ing the case. Manuben fi­nally makes a telling en­try on Fe­bru­ary 2, 1947, at Dashd­haria, Bi­har: “I see Pyare­lalji as my el­der brother and noth­ing else. The day I de­cide to marry my guru, my el­der brother or my grand­fa­ther, I shall marry him. Don’t force me on this any fur­ther.”

Manuben’s jot­tings also give an in­sight into the grow­ing dis­quiet among Gandhi’s fol­low­ers over his celibacy tests. In a diary en­try of Jan­uary 31, 1947, when she was at Nav­gram, Bi­har, Manuben refers to a let­ter to Gandhi from his close fol­lower Kishore­lal Mashruwala where he calls her “Maya” ( an il­lu­sion or a temptress) and asks the Ma­hatma to free him­self off her clutches. To this, Gandhi replies: “You do what­ever you want but I am firm in my be­lief re­gard­ing this ex­per­i­ment.” Even as Manuben and Gandhi walked through Noakhali in Ben­gal, two of his en­tourage— R. P. Para­suram, who had acted as his sec­re­tary, and Nir­mal Kumar Bose, also his sec­re­tary and later di­rec­tor of An­thro­po­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of In­dia— left in anger over Gandhi’s be­hav­iour. Sar­dar Val­lab­hb­hai Pa­tel, in a let­ter to Gandhi on Jan­uary 25, 1947, cur­rently among the Pa­tel pa­pers housed in the National Ar­chives, asked him to sus­pend the ex­per­i­ment which Pa­tel called a “ter­ri­ble blun­der” on Gandhi’s part that pained his fol­low­ers “be­yond mea­sure”.

The deep imprint the Ma­hatma left on Manuben’s psy­che is best re­flected in a let­ter to Jawa­har­lal Nehru from Mo­rarji De­sai on Au­gust 19, 1955, soon af­ter he called on Manuben in Au­gust at the Bom­bay Hos­pi­tal where she had been ad­mit­ted for an “un­known” ail­ment. De­sai writes: “Manu’s prob­lem is more psy­cho­log­i­cal than phys­i­o­log­i­cal. She ap­pears to have de­spaired for life and de­vel­oped al­lergy to all kinds of medicines.”

Manuben was one of two per­sons by the Ma­hatma’s side when he was shot by Nathu­ram Godse at 5.17 p. m. on Jan­uary 30, 1948, at Birla House in Delhi, the other be­ing Ab­haben Gandhi, wife of his nephew Kanu Gandhi. Manuben writes the next day: “While the flames on the fu­neral pyre were con­sum­ing Bapu’s body, I felt like sit­ting till well af­ter the fu­neral was over. Sar­dar Pa­tel com­forted me and took me to his home. It was just unimag­in­able for me. Bapu was there two days ago, yes­ter­day at least his body was there and to­day I am all alone. I am to­tally dis­traught.” The next and last en­try in the diary is on Fe­bru­ary 21, 1948, when she left for Mahuva near Bhav­na­gar from Delhi by train. It says: “To­day I left Delhi.” In Last Glimpses of Bapu, one of five books Manuben wrote af­ter Gandhi’s death, she notes: “Kaka ( Gandhi’s youngest son Dev­das) warned me not to dis­close the contents of my diary to any­one and at the same time for­bade me to di­vulge the contents of the im­por­tant let­ters… He said, ‘ You are very young but you pos­sess a lot of valu­able lit­er­a­ture. And you are also un­so­phis­ti­cated.’”

Even in her 68- page mem­oir, Bapu: My Mother, Manuben never re­vealed her feel­ings about Gandhi’s ex­per­i­ments with his sex­u­al­ity in which she was a part. In one of the 15 chap­ters, she writes that soon af­ter the death of Kas­turba, which hap­pened within 10 months of her mov­ing to Pune, she re­ceived a very mov­ing note from Bapu as he was in maun­vrat ( vow of si­lence) and could com­mu­ni­cate only by writ­ing. Gandhi ad­vised her in that note to go to Ra­jkot and re­sume her stud­ies. “From that day Bapu be­came my mother,” Manuben writes in the chap­ter. The teenaged Manuben, who had stud­ied till Class V in Karachi where her fa­ther, Gandhi’s nephew Jaisukhlal, worked in the Scin­dia Steam Nav­i­ga­tion Com­pany, also needed a mother- like an­chor since she had just lost her mother when she came to Pune.

Manuben’s fi­nal years were spent by her­self. She lived in Mahuva near Bhav­na­gar in Gu­jarat for al­most 21 years af­ter Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion. She ran a chil­dren’s school be­sides float­ing Bhagini Sa­maj, which es­poused women’s is­sues. Among those who were as­so­ci­ated with Manuben dur­ing this last phase of her life is Bhanuben Lahiri, from a fam­ily of freedom fight­ers. She was one of the 22 women mem­bers of the Sa­maj. Lahiri re­calls the pro­found im­pact Gandhi left on his grand­niece. Once, she says, when Manuben took a chu­nari ( a scarf- like piece of cloth) from her for the mar­riage of one of her poor fol­low­ers, she said: “I see my­self as Mirabai ( the great me­dieval saint who wor­shipped Lord Kr­ishna) who lived only for her Shyamlo ( Kr­ishna).”

Com­ment­ing on the di­aries, psy­cho­an­a­lyst and scholar Sud­hir Kakar writes: “So fo­cused was the Ma­hatma on his own feel­ings dur­ing th­ese ex­per­i­ments that I be­lieve he may have ‘ cho­sen’ to over­look their con­se­quences for the women in­volved. Ex­cept for the flar­ing up of vi­o­lent jeal­ousy be­tween the var­i­ous women, we do not know the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects, if any, that th­ese ex­per­i­ments left on each of the women.”

Now, thanks to the re­cov­ery of Manuben’s di­aries, we can as­sess the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact the Ma­hatma had on his in­ti­mate com­pan­ion.

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