Monday, January 08, 2007

MOHANDAS: A TRUE STORY OF A MAN, HIS PEOPLE AND AN EMPIRE by Rajmohan Gandhi

For those who can never picture Gandhiji or Bapu as anything other than a super thin, super frail man sitting at the charkha, and taking on the British Empire (all the while singing Vaishnava Jan), here is a book that does a better job of bringing out the man in flesh and blood than any of his earlier biographies did. Written by grandson Rajmohan Gandhi (son of Devdas Gandhi and Lakshmi Rajagopalachari [for Gandhi family tree click here] a scholar and professor of South Asian politics, the highlight of this new book is the long concealed romance between Gandhi and Tagore's niece, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. A firebrand feminist and nationalist, Saraladevi played a very important role in furthering the cause of women's education in Bengal. Besides, she wrote extensively, edited several journals of the day and in 1910 founded Bharat Stree Mahamandal, the first women's organization in India.

Some excerpts about Saraladevi from Outlook

In 1905, in Bengal a year of tension over its partition, she married Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri of the Punjab, already twice a widower, and an Arya Samajist.This she did at the instance of her parents, who may have felt that in Lahore their daughter would be safe from the arm of Calcutta's police. At 33, Saraladevi was older than most brides of her time, and her husband apparently called her "the greatest shakti in India".
How much of her career between 1901 and 1919 was known to Gandhi is unclear. When visiting Lahore in 1909, (Henry) Polak [1] stayed in the home of Saraladevi and her husband (where many a visitor to Lahore was put up), but we do not know that Gandhi suggested this arrangement.
On October 27, 1919, within days of his arrival in Lahore, Gandhi would write to Anasuyaben in Ahmedabad: "Saraladevi's company is very endearing.
She looks after me very well." The following months saw a special relationship that Gandhi called "indefinable" after its character changed in June 1920. In between he had not only overcome his caution regarding exclusive relationships but even thought of a "spiritual marriage", whatever that may have meant, with Saraladevi.


It was by no means a mere physical tryst.

....at 47 her frame held no lure, to Gandhi she conveyed an aesthetic and political appeal around which Eros too might have lurked. Cultured in both Indian and Western terms, she wrote and spoke well and had, in Gandhi's view, a "melodious" singing voice. Politically, she could be imagined as embodying not only the prestige of a Tagore connection but also the spirit of the presidency of Bengal, and, in addition, the strand of violence in India's freedom effort. A merger with her might bring him closer to winning all of India to satyagraha. Whether or not he consciously toyed with such considerations, they probably influenced him.

Why then was Gandhi so enamoured of or taken by her?

Another element may also have been at work: perhaps this "endearing" woman and aesthete who "looked after" him "very well" gave Gandhi an emotional support that he, a man who in his world was always on the give, seldom received but always needed, whether or not he or others in his circle of followers and associates recognised the need. The supremely self-assured founder and general of satyagraha carried more aches in his bosom than he or those around him realised, and if India and truth spoke to him, so did his very human, if also greatly subjugated, self.

But why lay the facts bare now? Why expose the secret affair decades later? What does this do to Bapu's image. Says Rajmohan,

After the detailed account presented in Mohandas, I expect many to recognise that the episode actually enhances Gandhi. Not only will people feel closer to him in his humanity, they will admire him the more, for it is nobler to fight great battles when temptations tug at you.

Of the hurt and pain in portraying Gandhi

Thrills and hurts marked the journey. Often I cried in pain, shedding actual tears, for example when facing Gandhi’s seeming sternness with Kasturba and their sons. At other times I literally shot my fist into the air with excitement. These moments of wonderment outnumbered the moments of pain. As when I found in a 23-year-old Mohandas in South Africa a mastery of tactics on top of a firmness of resolve. Or when, at 27, he faced with cool courage a white mob that wanted to lynch him in Durban. And when at 40, while on a ship from England to South Africa, he penned a winning strategy for India’s liberty, and again when, five years later, he sailed for India with a perfect confidence that he would implement that strategy.

Hmmm, great men and their feet of clay!!!

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