Books and literature by and on Mahatma Gandhi abound. He left behind a mountain of written evidence, unlike his wife Kasturba. And though grandson Arun Gandhi wrote a stirring life of his grandmother (Kasturba, a Life), from interviews and memories of family members, there are not many books on this woman who led an extraordinary life.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was father to the nation, and this couldn’t have been easy on his family. It was particularly hard for his wife Kasturba, who was born rich and was married off to the boy next door, Mohandas, when she was a child. For 62 years, she played the role of devoted wife while her husband led the fight for India’s freedom. They were poor and he was sworn to celibacy. Neelima Dalmia Adhar writes an imagined life of Kasturba Gandhi, putting down her thoughts in the form of a secret diary, giving us a glimpse of what it meant to be the wife of the most famous man in the country.
On April 11, 1869, a “fair and beautiful child with inherently weak lungs” is born to Vrajkunwer Kapadia and Gokuldas Makanji Kapadia, former mayor of Porbandar, in the coastal “white city” of Kathiawar. She is named Kastur, “after the seductive scent that the world knows as musk”, and her parents consider her to be a “divine gift from heaven” as two older sisters had died in childbirth. Mohandas, yet to be born, would arrive six months later, on October 2.
Kastur and Mohandas became friends and played together, but as soon as she turned 5, Kastur’s mother kept her back at home, saying “nice girls don’t”—her training as devoted wife and mother had begun in earnest. As she is “indoctrinated” with legends of glorious and heroic women from Hindu mythology from Savitri to Sita, Kastur can’t help thinking: “My heart bled for her (Sita) and her miserable life…. Had the gods nothing better to do than to descend on earth with alarming regularity to test the chastity of women?”
At the age of 13, she became a Gandhi. Kastur writes in detail about her early months of marriage, days of agony and ecstasy. But even these early years of long absences from her husband, as he pursued a law degree in England and later taking up work in Durban, would not prepare her for his admitted “streak of cruelty” towards people close to him. When she and her young sons join Gandhi at the ashram in Phoenix, South Africa, the severe austere life was a challenge.
She writes that life in Phoenix was not easy, food was basic and eating sugar was strictly prohibited. The worst hit by this self-imposed ban was her child Devdas, who wailed at every meal time. Kastur gave him a few spoons of sugar, but when Gandhi got to know about it, he castigated her in front of everyone: “Today Ba has favoured her son… and I have been shamed. I am shamed at the deliberate disobedience of my order. I am ashamed by this blatant indulgence.”
Gandhi’s relationship with his troubled son Harilal; his rigid stand on denying his sons an education— “The training you boys are getting at Phoenix…shall mould your character, not a school education”; his “carnal needs” humanise Bapu, but his conflicted mind brought untold misery to those closest to him. Even when Kastur lay dying, he asked doctors to refrain from using “evil” penicillin for her pneumonia, because that would prolong her suffering.
In 1914, the Gandhis left South Africa for India after his non-violent methods of peaceful resistance had met with some success. Once home, the Gandhis travelled to all parts of the country to find out about the struggles under British rule. With his relationship with his family in tatters, Gandhi became the revered one, the father of the nation. “My heart bled for both,” writes Kastur.
During the struggle for independence, this diary at times weighs in too much on Hiralal’s story, though it is a tragic tale that cannot be overlooked. As Kasturba didn’t leave behind her thoughts in writing, Neelima Dalmia Adhar stretches the limits of her imagination, but that’s just a minor quibble in a book that tells us about a life we must remember.