Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra
Title: The Secret Diary of Kasturba
Author: Neelima Dalmia Adhar
Publisher: Tranquebar, Westland Books
The Secret Diary of Kasturba by Neelima Dalmia Adhar was an interesting experience as it traverses known ground, albeit from a feminine perspective. The book lays no claim to authenticity or historical veracity since Kasturba was barely literate, obdurate in the face of her husband’s efforts to educate her. Adhar’s retelling of the personal life of the Gandhis is obviously inseparable from Mohandas Karamchand’s huge public persona which acquired almost mythic status during his own lifetime, as he became the “father of the nation”. That the public role came at a certain cost is what this fictionalized memoir/ autobiography makes clear. The fight against imperialism also took its toll and some aspects of this fictionalized biographical account might be seen as a sort of collateral damage.
Married off at a young age when both were thirteen, she describes the sexual passion between the two which cemented their conjugality. At the same time, his early experience of lust and unbridled passion fills Gandhi with guilt and remorse and his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, comes out strongly against the practice of child marriage, as he feels that it stunts the growth and potential of children trapped in the practice.
The other reason for his guilt is the fact that his ailing father was on his deathbed when Mohandas was overtaken by desire. That sense of guilt plagues him later, since he leaves his father’s room knowing well that the father’s chances of survival were slim. Soon after, he receives the news of his father’s death. Later in life, he took a vow of celibacy, but his decision of celibacy was taken unilaterally without consulting Kasturba, who felt resentful about being excluded from something that concerned them both. While Gandhi’s behaviour towards his wife, his tendency to dominate and control, were within the expected parameters of conjugality in late 19th century, they would stand out as oppressive by today’s standards.
Two episodes stand out in this context, both providing ample anecdotal evidence of Gandhi’s high-handedness and tendency to dictate terms to his wife. One is his injunction to clean out the chamber-pots of guests in the house in South Africa. When she refuses to do so, he is ready to throw her out of the house. On another occasion, when they are about to leave South Africa, Kasturba is given gifts of jewelry as a goodwill gesture. Gandhi forbids her to keep any of it and she is forced to relinquish all of it against her will. Her resentment is not because she is greedy but is based on the instincts of a middle-class homemaker who has, in the past, been a mute witness to her own jewelry being sold off, to fund Mohandas’s journey to England to study law. At every step, Kasturba, who comes from a relatively affluent background, has had her desires thwarted. Strong-willed and decisive in many things, with definite opinions of her own, Kasturba is curbed and controlled, her will broken by her overbearing husband.
A similar pattern follows as far as his children’s lives and education are concerned. The book also shows Gandhi’s attempt to control and shape the lives of his children and his growing rift with his eldest son, which ensues as a result. His ideas of self-sacrifice and austerity do not always sit well with his sons, who view his refusal of a formal education to them as a disprivilege and a denial of opportunity. Ironically, he helps his nephews and other associates, but his immediate family is always put through impossible tests. Not only is the bar raised for them, but they are also made to forego all legitimate desires and aspirations, for example their desire for proper schooling. While there could be an element of exaggeration in Adhar’s book, some of these facts are on record. Adhar quotes a letter from Gandhi to his friend:
“I don’t know what evil resides in me,” he wrote to a friend, “I have a streak of cruelty in me that compels people to attempt the impossible in order to please me.”
The eminent historian K.M. Pannikker once wrote that the Indian national movement was India’s version or an equivalent of the suffragette movement in the West, since it served to grant women equal rights to citizenship of the country. My caveat is that these rights were only in the domain of the political, that too construed in a limited way. While Gandhi called women to join the national movement that he was in the forefront (and practically the face) of, right from 1918 to 1948, he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He was definitely not seeking to challenge the entrenched structures of Hindu society, but seeking to marshal women’s energies to bring about a sea-change in the minds and hearts of men and political system. His attitude to the Dalit-Bahujans was similarly status quoist. His nomenclature for them-“Harijans” or children of God was refused by them; instead they chose to foreground their own oppression by calling themselves Dalits.
There is no denying that Gandhi strode into the national movement like a messiah. He also gave the world a moral substitute for war. Yet his subsuming of all other aspects of his wife’s and children’s identities and aspirations to serve the cause of the nation seems excessive and impossibly demanding. As the blurb phrases it: “He is the Mahatma, a man the world venerates as a prophet of peace. But for Kastur, the child bride who married the boy next door, Mohandas was a sexually-driven, self-righteous, and overbearing husband. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was sworn to poverty, celibacy and the cause for India’s freedom; Kastur spent sixty-two years of her life, juggling the roles of a devoted wife, a satyagrahi and sacrificing mother, who was eclipsed because of a man who almost became God for India’s multitude.”
Ready to sacrifice his family at the altar of the nation’s freedom, Gandhi’s demands as a husband along with his intolerance and harshness as a father, threaten at times to exceed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Such are the paradoxes that constitute history or is glossed over in its official versions. For the longest time, feminist historiography has sought to redress the imbalanced and skewed nature of official history. This book could be seen as an attempt to fill the blanks and gaps in a narrative which tells us about one of the most revered and reviled figures in South Asia.
Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s book is interesting and engaging. Some embellishments and degree of artistic freedom are permissible and in line with historical fiction and fictionalized history. On the whole, the book conforms to well known facts of Gandhi’s life, basing itself on already existing documentation of it.
The Secret Diary performs an important function as biographical/historical fiction. Experiences like the time in South African are detailed in Gandhi’s autobiography but this fictionalized account fleshes it out, adding effect, conflict and detailing tensions of a kind we perhaps know well, both in his public life and between an authoritarian and self-righteous husband/father and his wife and growing children. It captures the everyday, in a layered and nuanced way, helping us to unravel and capture a sense of the various strands that are woven together to weave the fabric of the daily life of Mohandas Gandhi (before he became the Mahatma) and his family. The ‘truth’ that autobiographies, biographical and historical fiction express in never one-sided or singular or a monolith but is often many-sided, plural and multi-faceted. Such a work lends a chiaroscuro effect, where we see the life of the great man sometimes in light, sometimes in shadow, adding up to a complex whole.
For a colossus of a man, who was committed to righteousness and treading the path of truth, he did not seem to have acknowledged or come to terms with the fact that his truth might have clashed against the truth of other life-journeys. The search for truth is a fraught task, a journey up a slippery slope, provisional and contingent and comes perhaps at a cost.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.
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