Octogenarian Afza Begum, the first Muslim girl to enter Mahatma Gandhi's Sevagram Ashram at Vardha, is not happy with questions often raised over the Father of the Nation’s commitment towards his family or to the issue of untouchability.
Afza, 87, who suffers from hearing impairment, lights up when asked about her days spent at the Ashram and mentions several instances which made Gandhi the man he was.
“Bapu put his foot down when some detractors tried to keep me out of the community kitchen at the Ashram because of my religion. He protested that I was not allowed in the kitchen, saying he too would not eat if I was not allowed in the kitchen.” Eventually she was given the task of chopping vegetables.
She was merely 12 when she was sent to the Ashram to study by her Zamindar family based in Moradabad at the insistence of staunch Gandhian, Mahavir Poddar, who was also an associate of her father. She went on to complete her ‘Vidya Vinodini’ degree from Sevagram.
“Before allowing anyone to take up residence at the Ashram, he used to personally ‘test’ the person, as all those present used to live together”, Afza, currently in the city, said.
Recalling various facets of Bapu’s personality, Afza said he often used to ask her to conduct the ‘Prarthna Sabha' early in the morning at around 4.00 whenever he was not present at the Ashram. She recalls Bapu saying: “since Afza would get up early for her Namaz, she would also lead the Prarthna Sabha”.
"Very committed to his family"
The committed Gandhian also contests the various views regarding Bapu’s commitment towards his family, saying though he was extremely busy, he used to help his wife (fondly called ‘Ba’) in the kitchen who in turn used to often pester him to take care of the education of their children.
“Contrary to some claims, he was very committed to his family and ‘Ba’ was an independent woman and had a mind of her own”, she said, adding although Bapu had pressing commitments towards the freedom struggle, they were a normal couple.
Bapu also used to lead by example, Afza said, recalling how during the morning walks, he used to pick up leaves and other things lying on the way, thereby educating those accompanying him the importance of keeping the surroundings clean.
Afza, who is also the vice president of the ‘Bazme Khawatin’, a women organisation working for the uplift and awareness of Hindu-Muslim women since 1934, continued to stay at the Ashram even after Gandhi’s death and contributed towards Vinoba Bhave’s Bhudan Yagva later.
“Bhaveji read the Quran with me and has mentioned it in one of his books though without naming me”, she added.
Afza presently works for the education of women and children in Moradabad and looks after the works of ’Bazme Khawateen’ there.