The woman who cradled Gandhi
DID she think of the Pieta? He would have.
‘I hate being late’ was the last full sentence spoken in Gujarati by M.K. Gandhi to Manu and Abha as he walked to take the name of Rama and meet his assassin. Before the assassin could come face to face, have shakshtkar of his victim, he had to push aside Manu who had blocked his path. A notebook – constant companion since 1943 – a spittoon and a mala that she carried fell and scattered, and in the next instance she cradled the body of the man who aspired to be her ‘mother’ as he sank to the ground bearing three crimson marks.
Manu Gandhi (1927-1969) was the youngest of the four daughters of Gandhi’s nephew Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and his wife Kasumba. Despite the fact – or may be because of it – that she bore witness to Gandhi’s death and was a partner in his final yajna, Manu has become a recessive presence in our imagination and continues to be marginal in the imagination of those institutions that claim to be the bearers of Gandhi’s legacy. For most of us she and Abha Gandhi (nee Chatterjee, 1927-1995) were Gandhi’s two ‘walking sticks’, barely distinguishable from each other.
Few remember that it was Manu who fundamentally altered the very nature of Ramdhun by inserting Ishwar Allah tere naam, sab ko sanmati de Bhagwan to the ancient lines Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram in a moment of deep inspiration during a prayer meeting on 22 January 1947 at Paniala village in Noakhali. Manu’s absence is not puzzling nor entirely unexpected; we will return to it later.
Gandhi, despite the widely shared impression that he was an indif-ferent, if not a negligent householder, was deeply caring, albeit his notion of the family kept ever widening. The first mention of Mridula or Manu in Gandhi’s correspondence is in a letter of 20 March 1941 to her father where he is advised that Manu should both study and cook. By May 1942 Manu is living with Kasturba and Gandhi at Sevagram, brought there at the urging of her father – Manu’s mother had died in 1939.
reported this addition to his circle of care to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur; ‘I have
brought along Jaisukhlal’s little daughter’.1 She was fifteen, for the first time living
in what Mahadev Desai had
called ‘Gandhi’s menagerie’. Her education consisted of literary training – including Sanskrit and English – and training in seva, service to others, in which she was to excel. She served Kasturba and her devotion and capacity brought her the affection of ‘Motiba’. Her caregiving would take her to Kasturba’s side even in prison.
Manu also took walks with Gandhi, a mode of education and togetherness that he was partial to. Gandhi reported to Jaisukhlal that Manu was happy, good in her studies, served Ba with devotion and accompanied him on his walks and there was no cause of concern for the father.
As it very often happened with Gandhi and those around him, public/political events overtook the personal and the ashramic. In August that year Gandhi along with Kasturba, Mahadev Desai, Sarojini Naidu, Mirabehn and the siblings Pyarelal and Dr Sushila Nayar came to be held in detention at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona. Gandhi was to leave behind both Ba (death 22 February 1944) and Mahadev Desai (death 15 August 1942) in the Aga Khan Palace.
With Gandhi, Ba and the principal ashramites already in jail or preparing for it, the women at Sevagram decided to join the movement. At 15, Manu was the youngest. August 31,1942 was a day of many firsts for her. She wore a saree for the first time (to disguise her tender age), became a satyagrahi and a prisoner. She was lodged first at Wardha and later at Nagpur prison. Gandhi went on a 21-day fast as a prisoner from 10 February 1943 to 2 March 1943. Kasturba, already frail and ailing, suffered greater privations. The government decided to shift Manu from Nagpur prison to the Aga Khan Palace so she could act as a prisoner nurse to Kasturba.
From 20 March 1943 to 6 May 1944 Manu remained at Aga Khan Palace, a period devoted to the service to Kasturba, who died a prisoner on 22 February 1944. The period of service was also a period of education; she was taught the Gita by Gandhi; Pyarelal taught her English; the theatre of WWII provided invaluable lessons in political geography and Sushila Nayar taught her elementary nursing (which after her release from prison was reinforced by an internship at Dr. Dinshaw Mehta’s nature cure clinic in Poona). But the most sustained education was in the art of diary writing.
Diary keeping for Gandhi was an obligatory observance for all those engaged in the pursuit of truth and hence an imperative for ashramites and satyagrahis. A daily diary, he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification.He kept a diary himself, although with the passage of time his reliance upon the diary as a mode of self-examination lessened.
In the tradition of diary writing The Diaries of Mahadev Desai are unparalleled. It was Mahadev’s aspiration to bear witness to Gandhi’s striving for Truth. They were therefore not ‘personal’ diaries; they were a record of Gandhi’s life and mind. These diaries though not published in his lifetime, had become a model to emulate for Gandhi’s associates – many of them even tried to copy his beautifully formed handwriting – and Gandhi too spoke of it as a measure of diary writing.2
Manu began her diary on 11 April 1943. These diaries, written in Gujarati, bear marks of her early hesitation, her hand unformed, her literary ability suspect, her anxiety about the uncertainty of her place by Gandhi’s side were palpable but before long she overcame the uncertainty. These are distinct from Mahadev’s diaries in two crucial ways. One, these are ‘personal’ diaries, and unlike Mahadev, she expressed her feelings, her joys and pains, her remorse. Though Gandhi is at the centre of these diaries, it is an account of her life with Gandhi. Second, these diaries were read, commented upon and signed by Gandhi.3
After her release along with Gandhi, she spent a period away from Gandhi and his ashram, including a brief period training as a nurse and the rest with her father. In 1945 her father made a trust for her benefit with the Letter of Attorney being granted to Gandhi. Following this period of uncertainty about her future and place in Gandhi’s ashram, Manu accompanied by Jaisukhlal reached Srirampur village in Noakhali on 19 December 1946. Gandhi was in that village, experiencing what can only be described as a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.
Gandhi was staying in a charred house. Never since his arrival in India in 1915 was he ever so lonely, physically alone, preferring not even the company of his closest associates. He was rendered politically redundant at a time when the Partition seemed inevitable and the subcontinent’s faith in violence as a means of politics was at its zenith.
Manu became a partner in his yajna, a sacrifice for self-purification of the kind that would remove from him every vestige of desire, of wrath, passions which could undo the mind and the person. He hoped for such purity that even the possibility of violence ceased in his presence. This yajna – to be distinguished from an experiment – was for Gandhi a dharma, a duty that could not be forsaken. This brought Gandhi and for that reason Manu the deepest and most anguished opposition and criticism. Those associates who could not decry Gandhi turned their anger towards Manu.
It was from Noakhali that Manu became his primary and quite often the only caregiver, taking care of his increasingly sparse and frugal needs, giving a healing massage to his bleeding feet, preparing his bath and giving him a shave. Only Rajaji and Nehru had the humour to encourage her to ‘monetize’ her skills. She tended to him during his last two fasts in Calcutta and Delhi. She was not only the primary caregiver but also principal record keeper and chronicler of his life from December 1946 to January 1948. What we know of Gandhi’s ‘last phase’, his walk-through Via Dolorosa as Sarojini Naidu put it, is in large measure due to Manu’s diaries.
Manu ’s ‘personal’ diaries that bear Gandhi’s signature do not give a correct estimate of the extent of her record keeping. She was in charge of all Gandhi’s Guajarati correspondence, which included taking down letters that he dictated and later appended his signature to, or making ‘office copies’ of the letters that he wrote by hand – a practice that began in the barrister’s offices in South Africa – and writing down in ‘real’ time or during the course of the day the conversations that he had, something which Mahadev excelled at, making fair copies of Gujarati articles, writing down Gandhi’s prayer speeches – his ‘rambling wisdom’ as Ramchandra Gandhi described them – and counting and keeping an account of all the little donations that he collected.
Thus, in addition to the hitherto partially published personal diaries, we owe to Manu the bulk of records of speeches, conversations and correspondence of Gandhi’s last 18 months, perhaps the most sublime and dark period of his life.
Her record-keeping gave us seven volumes of day-to-day with Gandhi; the first volume published in 1952 and the last in 1966. These are Ba-Bapu ni shili chhaya ma (In the soothing shadow of Ba-Bapu, literally), Eklo Jane Re (translated as The Lonely Pilgrim), Calcutta no Chamtakar (translated as The Miracle of Calcutta), Bihar ni komiaagma (In the communal conflagration of Bihar, literally), Bihar Pacchi Delhi (In Delhi after Bihar, literally), and two volumes of Delhi ma Gandhiji (Gandhiji in Delhi, literally). In addition to these seven volumes she gave us four other books, which included her first book, the inimitable Bapu Mari Ma (translated as Bapu my Mother).4
Gandhi was for a long time the only one – to be followed by his biographer grandsons, Rajmohan and Gopalkrishna Gandhi – to recognize the value of Manu’s diaries and record-keeping. He paid her the highest compliment that he was capable of in this respect; that her diary reminded him of Mahadev Desai. On 27 April 1947 he told her, ‘I daily go through your diary which reminds me of Mahadev.’5 On another occasion he wrote to Jaisukhlal, ‘She takes great interest in writing notes and when I see them, Mahadev’s face appears before my eyes.’6
On 10 November 1947 Manu demanded – she clearly felt that she had acquired the capacity and the right to make such an unusual demand – that she should keep with herself the writings of Gandhi in his own hand and send copies made by her to persons concerned. Gandhi assented; ‘Only on the condition that you will not over-exert yourself.’7
Gandhi’s final epistolary gift to her was an unusual letter of 23 January 1948, which he dictated to her. He said that he had been looking at her diary and was very pleased. He spoke of her immense purity, not just her devoted service: ‘Whether in the family or outside I have not met a girl of your purity. This is why I became a mother to no one but you.’
He then made a rather enigmatic statement with reference to the bomb explosion of 20 January 1948, which had intended to kill him. He returned to that and the possibility of imminent violent death that he awaited. If she could bear witness to his death she would have won ‘total victory’. ‘Who knows’, he made her write to herself, ‘but there may be another bomb explosion and with Ramanama on my lips I may be taken away from you. If that happens you will have won a total victory, only I shall not be there to watch it.’8
How could his violent death be her ‘total victory?’
During the last several months Gandhi had begun to hope for a violent death, death at the hands of an assassin and his capacity to face death with the name of Rama on his lips, a death so violent that it would stop all forms of hate and violence in their trajectory. If such an iccha mrityu were to be granted to him it would be a sign that he had been cleansed of all violence, passion and attachments.
And Manu had been a partner in the yagna through which he had sought to attain this purity. If he failed to do so it would be Manu’s responsibility to declare him a fraud, not a devotee of truth. ‘But if I should die of lingering illness, it would be your duty to proclaim to the whole world that I was not a man of god but an imposter and a fraud.’9
Manu of course had her ‘total victory’.
During the time she was with Gandhi from 19 December 1946, few had shown any affection or appreciation of her service and even fewer of her work as a chronicler and a record keeper. Nirmal Kumar Bose, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Mridula Sarabahi were among those who were dismayed by the fact that Manu had become a subject of salacious gossip and a person disdained by close associates of Gandhi. They were aware and sensitive to the physical and psychological strain that she was under – manifest in her constant headaches and daily nosebleeds (up to seven or eight on many days).
Her personal diaries show that only four persons showed affection for her and appreciation of her work. They were Badshah Khan, Pandit Nehru, Devadas and Lakshmi Gandhi. Badshah Khan was deeply moved by her devotion. Pandit Nehru always had time for her, he even taught her how to skip rope and endured the concoctions that she gave him to drink at the urging of Gandhi. Indira Priyadarshini spent time with her, often bringing her young sons to meet Manu. Devadas Gandhi, though deeply perturbed by his father’s experiments, was unfailing in his affection for Manu.
Lakshmi Gandhi met her almost daily and even managed to steal her away from Gandhi’s side to give her a meal. She brought Manu the most cherished moments of her day, playtime with young Gopalkrishna.10 And they along with Pandit Nehru were the only ones who cared for her after Gandhi’s assassination.
She, already frail, overwrought and depressed returned to Mahuva. She was saved from deep, corrosive loneliness by her diaries, the first book that she gave was Bapu Mari Ma in 1949. Pandit Nehru gave her another purpose. He arranged for her, through the Ministry of Education, to travel across the country narrating the life and message of Gandhi to students at schools and colleges. She was the first kathakar of Gandhi’s life. Lakshmi and Devadas Gandhi’s home in Delhi and later in Madras remained open to her.
Manu died in 1969, of a disease that consumed her, ‘consumption’, tuberculosis claimed her life.
The reason to erase
Manu from the Gandhian tradition is clear. The closest associates of Gandhi,
even in his times, were deeply uneasy, somewhat embarrassed and largely
ill-informed about Gandhi’s quest for brahmacharya, not just as celibacy but as
conduct (charya) that leads one to truth (brahma). If
the yajna could not be expunged, as Gandhi himself had written about it, the partner in
the yajna could be marginalized. As
a chronicler she was eclipsed by Pyarelal, who like many other biographers to
come after him,
left his dues unpaid to two chroniclers, one of the early South
and the other of the last phase. Prabhudas Gandhi (who wrote Jivan nu Parodh ‘Life’s Dawn’) and Manu Gandhi remain under-acknowledged as providers of incontrovertible facts and their literary style is barely noticed. It was easier to remember her as one might a walking stick.
* Tridip Suhrud has edited and
The Diary of Manu Gandhi (1943-1944).
1. CWMG, Vol. 76, p. 122.
2. The 22 volumes of this diary are indispensable for any study of Gandhi; they have informed the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi but have met with intellectual neglect and apathy by those charged with its publication and translation. The diaries of the last four years (1938-1942) remain to be edited and published in Gujarati. The translation project in Hindi and English has been abandoned and the translations produced are uneven and uninspired.
3. The first of the proposed two volumes of Manu Gandhi’s personal diary has been published. The Diary of Manu Gandhi (1943-1944), edited and translated by Tridip Suhrud (National Archives of India, New Delhi and Oxford University Press, 2019); the second volume is likely to be published in 2022. They remain unpublished in Gujarati.
4. The other three are: Bapuji na jivan mathi (From Bapji’s life, literally), Ba-Bapu ni Antim Jankhi (translated as The End of an Epoch) and Virat Darshan (A glimpse into the infinite, literally).
5. CWMG, Vol. 87, p. 384.
6. CWMG, Vol. 90, p. 468.
7. CWMG, Vol. 89, p. 515.
8. CWMG, Vol. 90, pp. 481-482.
9. CWMG, Vol. 87, pp. 521-522.
10. Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s first literary offering at the age of seventeen was an English translation of Manu Gandhi’s Ba-Bapu ni Antim Jankhi (translated as The End of an Epoch, 1962).