Memoir Reviews

‘The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944’ review: Light on a turbulent self

Mridula “Manu” Gandhi (1927-69), M.K. Gandhi’s grand-niece, could be thought of as a mirror held at close quarters and facing the Mahatma in his last years, from 1942 to 1948. In this mirror, Gandhi saw himself, but which aspects of his complex self they were that Manu’s presence and proximity allowed him to see, we shall never really know.

To all others, including us, their intimacy remains an opaque surface; the images, reflections and truths that passed between them seemed at that time and are, even today, indecipherable. Manu’s diaries, written in the years when she was inseparable from Gandhi, almost like a shadow, could conceivably provide clues to the meaning of their unnameable bond. But perhaps they only deepen the mystery rather than helping to solve it.

Budding relationship

The first set of diaries, dated between April 1943 and December 1944, are written by a 15-16-year-old girl who is learning to write, learning to keep a journal, and learning to use her diary as a space within which both her own nascent selfhood and her budding relationship with Gandhi can emerge into language. These fragments of text are deceptively straightforward and yet astonishingly hard to decode, like symbols in an early script that might have survived from a very ancient stage of human civilisation.

The authorial self, the language she uses and the meanings she seeks to convey are all tentative and in a sense, adolescent. It is a testament to Manu’s inner strength of character, yet to be fully expressed, that even her simple unadorned words do not break under the strain of what she is struggling to record and convey: both the ordinary bodily life, as well as the extraordinary spiritual struggle of none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself.

Manu comes to live with Gandhiji and Kasturba in May 1942, at their ashram in Sevagram. But the events of the Quit India movement, later that summer, land them all in prison in just a few months. As a satyagrahi, Manu is at first incarcerated in Nagpur Central Jail for nine months, but eventually she joins the Mahatma at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona, where she begins writing her diary. Manu had already lost her own mother and Ba too dies in February 1944, even as Manu personally tends to her. To fill the vacuum, Gandhi metamorphoses into her mother. Make of that what you will. In the period covered by the first set of diaries, here collected, edited and translated by Tridip Suhrud, Manu’s position vis-à-vis the old couple is a strange mix of grandchild, daughter, student, personal caretaker and nurse. It is clear that they both love her tenderly, and she does them. But there are ambiguities in this mutual devotion, as Suhrud is at pains to elaborate in his lengthy introduction of 50 pages.

Reading Gandhi’s experiments

To help us understand what is going on, both in terms of defining the role that Manu is expected to play in Gandhi’s personal life, as well as setting up the function that the genre of the diary is supposed to perform for her in Gandhi’s pedagogical scheme, Suhrud brings to bear a formidable set of conceptual categories from the Gandhian repertoire. He has assembled these over the years, especially whilst doing the careful exegetical work of preparing, together with the late Suresh Sharma, an annotated critical edition of Gandhi’s 1909 manifesto Hind Swaraj, as well as more recently, the first critical edition of the Mahatma’s Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written in the 1920s.

These categories come from Christianity: love, service, suffering, bearing witness, conscience, confession, covenant, chastity and poverty. Equally they come from Hinduism and Jainism: yajna (sacrifice), vrata (vow), brahmacharya (celibacy) and ahimsa (non-violence); while still others Gandhi has himself coined or developed: notably, swaraj (self-rule) and satyagrah (soul-force).

If religious and philosophical systems both Indian and Western provide one set of lenses for reading Gandhi’s experiments with Manu, another set comes from the historical record — the responses and reactions of Gandhi’s ashram community and his political associates in the freedom movement.

Here we find universal incomprehension and condemnation — no one around Gandhi empathises, agrees with or approves of the manner in which he treats Manu. Suhrud anticipates some of the later diaries and the events of the tumultuous period from 1946 to 1948, spanning Partition, Independence and Gandhi’s assassination, when he draws Manu ever closer to himself and alienates everyone else in the process.

As the rest of the diaries come to light, we will need psychoanalytic readings such as those by Erik Erikson, Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Chandra, or the details of the South African years, as offered by Joseph Lelyveld, to come to grips with the notoriously difficult complexities of gender, sexuality and identity in Gandhi’s personality, that manifested most acutely in the chapter of his life represented by Manu. Until then we only have the words of a young girl, a thin beam of light to guide us through the long dark passion of Gandhi’s struggle to master and liberate a turbulent, unruly self.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-44; Tridip Suhrud, Oxford University Press, ₹750.

A Fellow at CSDS, the writer is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Cambridge University.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 12:44:57 PM |

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