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Of passion and penance

Mahatma Gandhi was more than the Father of the Nation. His brutal self-honesty required even more courage than his creed of non-violence, finds ZIYA US SALAM in a chat with Sudhir Kakar who has penned "Mira and the Mahatma".

Driven by passion_author Sudhir Kakar in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium.

Mahatma Gandhi once put up a Harijan boy in his ashram. The boy had an upset stomach. He was put on a food diet. Gandhiji wanted to see if it was working. He took Mirabehn Behn to examine his refuse. She did it dutifully. She would do anything he ever asked for.

An ascetic Gandhiji knew once stitched up his lips. He did not speak for a year and was fed orally through a pipe. Gandhiji requested him to open his lips and speak to him. The greater ascetic prevailed.

THE DEVOTEES have let the deity down. And those who swore abiding allegiance have found new idols for worship. There is the Lord of Materialism. There is the Deity of Hedonism. The youngsters no longer know what the Mahatma stood for. He is just the Father of the Nation, no less, no more. Time then for them to know what Mahatma Gandhi stood for? Time for Sudhir Kakar to come up with "Mira and the Mahatma", a Penguin publication dealing with the extraordinary association "between two individuals driven by distinct passions". Time to have a peep into the world of Madeline Slade, daughter of an admiral in the Royal Fleet; the woman who left behind the comforts of life in the First World to join the Mahatma in his Sabarmati Ashram.

"Madeline Slade was a fascinating person who came from the British social elite. She came to live with the archenemy of the British Empire. She lived on the margins of the society even there. She never took to dancing, and instead confined herself to an isolated existence. She was a spiritual seeker who saw that spirit in Beethoven's music, and the same perfection in Gandhi's life. She did not want to be near Gandhiji in the sense of a man-woman relationship. I don't think she was aware of any such thoughts or that they were there even at the sub-conscious level. Gandhiji, however, probably realised such tension and would have been disturbed to see any desire."

Mirabehn though never quite allowed herself to forget Gandhiji, and always regarded the memories as a personal treasure trove. "She refused to talk of Gandhiji when I went to meet her in Austria. Even Richard Attenborough visited her but she won't talk of Gandhiji at all. Her relationship with him was a spiritual journey."

A fine balance

And keeping a fine balance between this "spiritual journey" and "fantasy" has been the high-risk part of putting together this book for the seasoned psychoanalyst.

"I have had to keep the tension between reality and image, between historical truth and fantasy."

Isn't he taking liberties with the Father of the Nation in the book released at The Ashok hotel in New Delhi this week? "I admire Gandhiji but that does not prevent me from imagining. Many of the incidents of the ashram quoted (and reproduced above) are true. Some might appear to be improbable but the most improbable things are often the truest.

Mahatma Gandhi was greater than the eccentricities any incident brings out. For me the most admirable part of him was not self-denial or self-control but awareness, the self-honesty. He put in public eye what he could have just kept to himself. Like all the talk of erection, discharge. That was his way of washing away the sin."

Indeed absolution lies not in prayer but confession

The book is a fine balance between history and fantasy.

SAY IT ALL According to distinguished psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, "It is essential to express your love. Everyone is so uncertain of his status. The feeling needs to be confirmed, reconfirmed periodically. If you don't express your love, it leaves the other person with a void, with the need for assurance. Expressing love is reassuring for those we love."

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