THE EMOTION DRIVING MODERN INDIA TODAY: MAHATMA GANDHIby HUMRA QURAISHI October 2 2023, 10:17 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 23 secs
On the Mahatma’s 154th birth anniversary, Humra Quraishi brings snatches of conversations she’s had with those closely connected with Gandhi, and his grandchildren.
On this Gandhi Jayanti I stress that Mahatma Gandhi impacted each person who came in touch with him. One of them was India’s leading writer and commentator, Mulk Raj Anand. Mulk told me, once, that he decided to travel to the Sabarmati Ashram, to meet Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps also find abode there: “That was the time I had finished writing ‘The Untouchable’. And, after 19 publishers had turned it down, I suffered a breakdown. It was my second nervous breakdown. In that condition I travelled to the ashram and met him. Gandhiji allowed me to stay there, but on three conditions - never to look at a woman with desire, never to drink liquor, and to clean the toilets.”
Mulk said that although he had taken the vows, he became friendly with an American lady typist at the ashram, and when Gandhiji heard of it he asked him to leave. “I wasn’t in a relationship with the American woman,” he said. “It’s just that we were friends, and since she was a single divorced mother, I used to look after her baby whilst she was working. But the other ashram inmates couldn’t tolerate our friendship and carried tales to Gandhiji who asked me to pack my bags. I had to leave but I continued meeting him, for he is the one who saved my life from destruction. He told me that I should take train journeys across the country, to know India and my countrymen. I was a changed person after seeing the real India. How can I ever forget Gandhiji’s talisman? He told me that ‘whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much for you, try the following: recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man who you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him’”.
Aligarh based academic-parliamentarian, Professor Jamal Khwaja, and his spouse Hameeda Durreshahwar Akbar Khwaja, told me that in the 1950s, they gave their four children double names - a combination of both Hindu and Muslim names.
Hameeda said that Jamal Khwaja’s father, Abdul Majeed Khwaja, was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi’s. In 1920, Gandhi had stayed at their ancestral home in Aligarh. Both her husband and she were so influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru’s and his call for secularism that they decided to break tradition and name their children with a combination of words - the eldest, Jawahar Kabir, the second, Gita Anjum, the third, Rajan Habib, and the youngest, Nassir Navin.
Every time I met and interviewed Mahatma Gandhi’s grandchildren - Ramchandra Gandhi, Rajmohan Gandhi, Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee (children of Devdas Gandhi), I found them to be honest and authentic when they spoke.
When I visited the homes of Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee and Rajmohan Gandhi, what struck me was their simplicity. Artistic in every sense of the word. I’m compelled to place this fact here, that the late Ramchandra Gandhi never owned a home and lived in a rented annexe. He survived all his years in difficult financial conditions.
I had also once visited Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee’s South Delhi home, to interview her for a national daily. I was pleasantly surprised to see charkhas, hand-made dolls and hand-spun khadi dotting her very artistically decorated home. Not only did she wear khadi all through the year, she even spun it at home. She described the lounge as the mukt room, saying, “In this room I’m free to do as I like. I read here, take my afternoon nap, make dolls, or sit at the charkha with the takli and punee, spinning thread.”
I asked her if she had any memories of Bapu. She said, “I was 13 when he passed away. I remember I had a lot of homework to do that day. Initially, when the news was broken to me, I couldn’t believe it had happened. Slowly, of course, it became clear. I could sense that sara mulk hamare saath tha (the entire nation was with us). Leaders, various politicians, kept coming in and out of our home. For unlike today, people moved freely, without security guards or any security arrangements.”
Recounting, she said, “Although most of my childhood was spent with Ba and him, Bapu had a tight schedule so we saw little of him. In his conversations he stuck to the mulya (important) issues: value of time, to use postcards for correspondence as paper is saved, and it also ensures that no secrets are written. He also showed us how to lead a clean life aesthetically. The sense of aesthetics was so strong that someone so sophisticated as Rajkumari Amrit Kaur felt at home in our house. Even today as I close my eyes, all the images of our home at Birla Ashram come alive. I can actually hear my mother’s voice, Bapu talking. I never saw him angry or cranky. But, yes, he often looked sad. In fact, whenever he was sad and upset, he would stop talking and keep maun vrat, sometimes also roza and he stopped eating. He would sit at the charkha spinning.”
Doesn’t she or her brothers, cousins feel inclined to claim Bapu’s belongings kept in the various ashrams, which, according to news reports, are not in the best of conditions? Her response was, “They belong to the nation and if they are not being looked after, it shows the decay of our times.”
On what she had inherited from her grandfather, she said, “Everything of Bapu belonged to the nation. All I have is a little wooden box that my father (Devdas Gandhi) got as a wedding gift from Bapu.”
During my first meeting with her in 1994, I asked her why she didn’t join a political party. She answered, “I have purposely kept away from politics because I don’t believe in putting a political party above my country. Today’s political scenario is less of politics and more of cleverness. How can I even think of joining a political party when I don’t meet politicians, especially those in power. What’s left in the politics of today!”
During the course of an interview, Rajmohan Gandhi had said, “Yes, I do remember Gandhiji…even the day of his assassination. I was in school, New Delhi’s Modern School, Barakhamba Road, as I was held up at a function. I left school at 5 pm. Our home was close by, as my father was editor of The Hindustan Times. We lived in an apartment in the Bombay Life Insurance Building on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, where also was the office of the Hindustan Times. At the foot of the building I saw my father’s secretary, Kali Prasad, standing. He immediately took me to the Birla House where I came to know that Gandhiji was no more.”
Describing his relationship with Gandhiji, Rajmohan said, “From September 1947 to January 1948, Gandhiji had been living in Delhi. Although he didn’t stay with us, we met him every day. With him it was a close bond but not a leisurely relationship. As grandchildren we didn’t have any special rights to his time. He belonged to the nation. I was a child so I couldn’t understand, but later realized that the family had to pay a heavy price during the fight for India’s freedom. Looking back, I think I knew why we, his grandchildren, couldn’t spend much time with him. He was either in jail or traveling, quenching communal fires. He used to conduct multi-faith prayer meetings at 5 pm every day at the Birla House, and we children would attend them. Then we’d go home, and after dinner and homework done, spend about 30 minutes with him. It was during this time we would talk.”
Rajmohan recounted the values he had inherited from his grandfather and father, “My father, Devdas Gandhi, brought us up on similar values - that money making was not to be the purpose of life, that service was to be part of life, and here he emphasized that service ought to be totally unconnected with personal advancement. He stood strongly for the freedom of Press.”
He continued, “Gandhiji had adopted India as his family. And we, his grandchildren, accepted that he was the father of this nation therefore every citizen has the same rights and responsibilities as us as far as his legacy is concerned. We didn’t have any special rights to his time. We accepted his position happily. All royalty from Gandhiji’s publications and books don’t come to us, nor are we the heirs to our ancestral home at Porbandar. He is as much your grandfather as mine. He is not our property but your property. So it is the duty of all the citizens of this nation to take care of his ashrams and institutions.”
I also asked Rajmohan Gandhi why he doesn’t come back to active politics (once he joined the Janata Dal but disillusioned he returned to academics). He said, “Today political parties have hardened their stance on questions of caste and religion. My inability to do that prevents me from finding a strong voice in any political party. I still remember when I joined politics, I used to get special invitations for ‘bania sammelans.’ People used to come to me and say ‘aap bania hain, to hamare sammelan mein zaroor aiyega (you are a bania, so you must attend our bania sammelan)’. Believe me until then I didn’t know I was a bania!”
Gopalkrishna Gandhi was a very small child when Gandhiji passed away, but the connection with his grandparents is an emotional one. Several years ago, at the release of Professor Mushirul Hasan’s book on Gandhi, Gopalkrishna narrated touching incidents from the life and times of Ba and Bapu.
I’m leaving you with this verse of NAVNEET GREWAL from Amity Peace Poems (Hawakal Publishers):
‘The Peace Saga/a name lost from every dictionary/alphabets just do not consent/an arduous rhythm/barred bare by language/historians plead to its charm/dynasties wiped out in its pursuit/monuments stripped of glory/families wailing/a syntax error of minds/with vanity underlined to quote/the ego of a few delirious/will hammer the homes of many/it is not extinct but veiled/under human virtues/let every being whisper its cries/let peace prevail to numb the noise.’