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Kasturba Gandhi’s story deserves to be told, says author BM Bhalla

The new book by BM Bhalla explores her life beyond that of the Mahatma’s wife

The world dealt with Gandhi the messiah, she dealt with the ordinariness. Married to an awkward teenager who grew up to be a successful barrister and a dhoti-clad demigod for the Indian masses yearning to breathe free, Kasturba, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, spent most of her life in his shadow. While Gandhi has been the subject of numerous books and films and an inspiration to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela — Barack Obama even had the Mahatma’s portrait in his office when he first became Senator — not much emerges of Kasturba’s life. Yet Gandhi had said that but for her unfailing cooperation he might have been in the abyss.

For nearly six decades, Kasturba played the good wife, the patriot and the suffering mother of her sons, whose own individuality was lost in the face of Gandhi’s persona. It is this Kasturba that BM Bhalla’s book (published by Roli Books) throws light on.

The 85-year-old Delhi-based author says he has always been interested in Gandhi. “The more I read about him, the more I felt Kasturba’s story deserved to be told,” he says in a telephone interview.

Kasturba Gandhi’s story deserves to be told, says author BM Bhalla

Bhalla brings to the book six years of research that includes ploughing through papers and an extensive bibliography. “It has been difficult to find material on Kasturba. I had even travelled to Ahmedabad, but there is little information on her,” he says. As a result, the 300-page book draws from multiple sources on Gandhi and is an amalgam of fact and fiction, the latter especially used when portraying Kasturba’s thoughts and emotions.

“I recreated the past as a combination of imagination and the understanding of the historical forces that operated at that time. There were plenty of characters in the life of the Gandhis, but except for the stellar ones, not much is known of how the others contributed,” says Bhalla, who has had a distinguished career teaching at Delhi University, after education across India and America, with a focus on DH Lawrence, European drama and Indian literature.

Life of struggle

“Kasturba’s life should be read in terms of women’s struggle for emancipation, dignity and independence. Although not an independent woman herself as she was uneducated, confined to the ashram and with little opportunity to explore the world on her own, she reacted and took her own decisions when it came to the things that mattered, especially Gandhi’s close friendships with women like Millie Polak. Kasturba’s relationship with Gandhi was stormy from the beginning, but she took life’s knocks uncomplainingly, including the extreme sexual discourse in his life. She passionately drove him to the fruition of his dreams for India.”

The book traverses the linearity of Kasturba’s life, beginning with her birth into a Modh Bania family of means in Porbandar; marriage to Gandhi in 1883 that resulted in four sons; her schooling in the ways of the world by her mother-in-law Putli Bai; the death of her first born, a tragedy from which she never recovered; Gandhi’s change from a man of passion to one who manically suppressed all desires, a decision she accepted with grace; her private life in India and the one in South Africa and India in public gaze; her angst as the mother of the wayward Harilal; and concludes with her death at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune in 1944. Her youngest son Devdas described her ashes as “a literal handful of tiny motherly bones”.

The language is lucid, as is expected from a translator of four languages — Bhalla is familiar with Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Hindi; his translation of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Luna won him the Sahitya Akademi Award, the story compelling despite long passages of thought that deviate from the plotline. Where the book scores is in its innate ability to tell the very private story of a very public woman who was, as Hermann Kallenbach, German architect and Gandhi’s friend, wrote in 1914, ‘...has both the devil and the divine in her in a most concentrated form’.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2020 5:41:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/book-on-kasturba-explores-her-life-as-leader-of-womens-emancipation/article31257134.ece

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