The other Mrs Gandhi

Kasturba’s house and life were open to the nation, and her individuality lost in the face of Gandhi’s persona. And yet, she spent nearly six decades playing the good wife, the nationalist, and the suffering mother of Harilal. The casualty of Gandhi’s greatness were the people he loved most, and this is the paradox that Neelima Dalmia Adhar chooses to portray — “the sad epitome of the god who failed” — in her third book. Covering the period from Kasturba’s birth, her early marriage to Gandhi, their years in South Africa and spartan family life to the freedom struggle, Adhar’s book, although fictional, is the remarkable personal story of a very public woman. Ahead of its launch at Starmark recently, where she was in conversation with Vidya Singh, erstwhile princess of Vijayanagaram, Adhar, daughter of industrialist RK Dalmia and Hindi novelist Dineshnandini, says in her eloquent prose that the book is an attempt to humanise Gandhi and introduce Kasturba to a generation who know nothing of her.

Adhar, 66, who was educated in Lady Irwin College, New Delhi, counts poetry and the paranormal among her interests. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you choose to tell Kasturba’s story?

I was looking for a woman character from the Independence movement to write about. I read on Kamala Nehru and Fatima Jinnah, and when I came across Kasturba, I found her too insipid a person to write a whole story about. But, I realised that Gandhi didn’t walk alone. There was his shadow wife, who took life’s knocks, including the ones he gave her, uncomplainingly, and passionately drove him to the fruition of his dreams. There was such a huge gap in the story, it was virtually as if she was never there. I’ve always been drawn to quirky characters, and the more I tuned into her soul, the more I was certain I wanted to form this character as my alter ego. It was easy for me to do it because my family belonged to a similar ethos; I was able to resurrect Gandhi through her eyes. The world dealt with Gandhi the messiah, she dealt with the ordinariness.

How much did your mother influence your writing?

My mother certainly had a very dominant influence. At home, recreation meant books, and I edited her works. Literature was definitely instilled in me through her.

Kasturba wrote no personal diary. So, how did you form the story?

She didn’t write a diary, neither did I write the book as one. I wanted to give the character a voice and fill in the linear landscape. History has recorded these facts; the sexual discourse in Gandhi’s life — the need to fulfil his desire and the need to suppress it, both were manic. I have not deviated from facts. I was not apprehensive about how the book would be received, although I’ve been labelled the chronic provocateur (laughs). My task was to bring a third dimension to the storytelling.

There are quite a few references to the private life of the Gandhis. Was that deliberate?

This is Kasturba’s story, and although you can’t divorce it from Gandhi’s, I purposely stayed away from the public trajectory of his life. Millions of pages have been written about it. My endeavour was to portray Gandhi the husband and father, not Gandhi the Mahatma. For me, the torment of the wife and the child came from my own familial experiences. The most heart-wrenching part of Kasturba’s life was balancing the father and son. Neither could she stop Harilal from going to seed nor could she stop Gandhi from being the tyrannical father that he was. I’ve actually wept writing some of those mother-son interactions. But, she certainly was no doormat; she retaliated when it affected her sensibilities. I’ve kept her alive as a phantom voice till Gandhi is laid on his funeral bier.

How long did it take to write the book?

It took me seven years, with two spent on research. My sources were secondary — Gandhi’s own autobiography, Arun and Sunanda Gandhi’s The Forgotten Woman, books on Harilal, the film and the play that focussed on the father-son relationship, letters and material from Sabarmati Ashram. I spoke to no one from the family. I didn’t feel the need to.

(The Secret Diary of Kasturba (Tranquebar Press) is available online and in physical stores)

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2021 6:44:22 PM |

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