receding from our public commemoration, Independence Day remains an occasion to
recall the contributions and sacrifices of the many Indians who wrought for
freedom. Central to the story of our struggle for freedom is the role of Gandhi
and the working of a unique, non-violent revolution that changed the face of the
world. Behind this success of Gandhi, lies an entire ecosystem of men and women
of all hues and colours, of varying political predilections, and from diverse
religious, class, caste and national groups. This 'Gandhian ecosystem', to
coin a phrase, consisted of two broad 'kingdoms'. The first, and the
well-studied part consists of Gandhi's political colleagues. The story of
Gandhi's relationship with this diverse group consisting of persons like
Nehru, Patel, Rajaji and several other politically prominent leaders is well
documented. In contrast, the 'non-political' section of the Gandhian
ecosystem has not received the attention that it deserves. Many of these
individuals were described under the broad rubric of 'constructive workers'.
The work of these individuals was not limited merely to end British rule in
India. Rather, they were inspired to aim for the lofty ideal of Purna Swaraj
that encapsulated Gandhi's civilisational mission of according autonomy and
dignity to every individual.
one may explain this neglect of the non-political part of the Gandhian ecosystem
as a consequence of the modern intellectual preference of the political over the
moral and social dimensions of life, it nevertheless results in a limited
understanding of what Gandhi represented. Although the Mahatma was undoubtedly
their leader, these colleagues and compatriots were ineffable to Gandhi's own
personal evolution. Perhaps we can gauge the significance of such non-political
figures in the Gandhian ecosystem by considering the fact that Gandhi broke his
customary weekly silence on only two occasions in his eventful life. The first
was when his nephew and creator of the khadi programme, Maganlal Gandhi, died in
1928. Years later when a compatriot had returned to Sevagram after a
heart-attack, a distraught Gandhi broke his vow again. "How are you, Mahadev?
" he enquired.
familiar with the name often know of Mahadev Desai as Gandhi's secretary. Some
will in addition recognise him as the translator of the Mahatma's
autobiography into English. However, as he was much more than a secretary to
Gandhi, Mahadev Desai has on various occasions been described as Gandhi's
Boswell, a Plato to Gandhi's Socrates, as well as an Ananda to Gandhi's
Buddha. This profusion of analogies point to the fact that Mahadev Desai's
relationship with Gandhi is a taxonomic puzzle. Undoubtedly he belonged to the
non-political kingdom of the Gandhian ecosystem and was primus inter pares
amongst the close circle from which Gandhi drew his material, psychological and
moral sustenance. Nevertheless, these analogies are inadequate caricatures. To
persist with our biological metaphor, while he was the tallest Gandhian, his
originality, insightfulness, and creativity makes Mahadev Desai a species unto
Haribhai Desai was born on 1st January 1892 in Saras, a small village in the
Surat district of Gujarat. An early fondness and flair for literature marked him
out for a career in letters. By the time he earned his degrees in philosophy and
law in 1913, Mahadev had read widely in both English and Gujarati and was
preparing for a prosaic job. It was during this period that he met that great
'fisher of men', Mahatma Gandhi. By the end of 1917, after four years of
tentative explorations, Mahadev Desai made a dramatic choice and threw in his
lot with Gandhi. For someone on the verge of extricating his family from genteel
poverty, this was a bold decision. Life with Gandhi, not yet the Mahatma, was
going to be uncertain. But the sacrifice is made doubly magnificent by
Mahadev's decision to sublimate his own life to serve the needs of Gandhi. It
was his way of serving the cause of his people.
with Gandhi was maddeningly busy for Mahadev. In addition to attending to
Gandhi's voluminous correspondence, carefully and faithfully reporting on
Gandhi's work, Mahadev also regularly contributed to Gandhi's various
journals. The man with a passion for literature now deployed his pen in the
service of his leader's many causes. However, true to his integrity, Mahadev
never allowed his work as Gandhi's secretary to come in the way of a daily
regimen of hard physical labour that was the norm at Gandhi's ashrams. And, as
if this was not enough, Mahadev played a decisive role in many a nationalist
campaign, Bardoli being the most memorable. Carrying out all these tasks was no
trifling matter and Mahadev pushed himself to the bodily and psychological
limits of human endurance. However, the effort and strain seldom showed. Perhaps
Mahadev was aided in handling the burden of his work by his singular traits of
equanimity, refined sensibility and a great capacity of love that tempered his
steely conviction. If being in the midst of major political campaigns and crises
was demanding, Mahadev would also have needed to draw on his inner reserves in
the normal course of things. Being the secretary to the most sought after person
in India was no ordinary job and it also meant countless hours spent managing
Gandhi's time by attending to his various visitors. Mahadev excelled in all
such quotidian tasks. It would be no exaggeration to say that as significant as
his contribution to the great events of the day was the simple fact that, as
observed by a friend, Mahadev had "saved ten years of Gandhi's time by
diverting from him unwanted visitors"!
contribution of Mahadev Desai in the form of reports and articles on Gandhi's
work is significant for they were a vital link between Gandhi and his people.
Mahadev's linguistic felicity meant that he wrote regularly in the English,
Gujarati, and Hindi versions of Gandhi's journals. It is through these
writings that thousands learnt of the enduring meaning and value of the
struggles and victories that animated Gandhi's public and private life. But on
occasion we are afforded a glimpse of the literary promise and independence of
mind that Mahadev held in taut abeyance. In 1936, he translated Jawaharlal
Nehru's Autobiography into Gujarati for which Mahadev was assailed by
criticism. On the one hand, he was castigated for helping promote a book in
which Gandhi had been severely criticised and was also advocating a contrarian
economic and social programme. On the other hand, the Socialists within the
Congress, who considered Nehru to be their intellectual leading light, were
suspicious that Mahadev would distort their leaders' message!
Mahadev refused to be bogged down by such doctrinaire criticism and wrote
a lengthy preface to accompany his translation. In it, he pointed to the
philosophical differences between Gandhi and Nehru and laid out an objective
assessment of the literary and substantive content of Nehru's work. While
appreciative of the ideals that animated Nehru's life and his unshakeable
resolve, Mahadev chided Nehru for his failure to understand the philosophical
basis of the Indian ethos.
Nehru lacked a serious appreciation of Indian philosophy, Mahadev's most
enduring literary contribution lay in this philosophical tradition. In the
manner of the seers of the past, he wrote a major commentary on the Bhagvad Gita.
Intended as a short preface to his English translation of Gandhi's
interpretation of the Gita, Anasaktiyoga, this exegesis eventually ran
into 125 pages! In this major work
of synthesis, Mahadev explores the relationship between the Gita and other
foundational texts in various Indic traditions. While dwelling at length on such
fundamental concepts in Indian philosophy as prakriti, purushartha,
karma, buddhi, and jnana, Mahadev also demonstrated a
serious comprehension of Western philosophy. The commentary itself borrows from
a long series of letters exchanged with Gandhi during the year that Mahadev
spent away from the Mahatma in Bardoli. Today, one wonders how it was possible
for both to find time for such a sustained philosophical conversation while
engaged in a major Satyagraha campaign that made a major dent in the colonial
edifice in India. Above all, Mahadev's philosophical musings on the Gita
remind us in our troubled times of the possibility of a non-doctrinaire and
non-partisan study of ancient philosophical texts.
the weeks preceding the Quit India Resolution, Mahadev, as usual had worn
himself down and underwent a thorough medical examination. Preserved in an
archival record, a medical report gives us the results of this physical and
internal examination conducted on July 3, 1942 in Bombay. His haemogram was
nearly perfect. He passed the glucose tolerance test without a problem, and his
gastric system was functioning normally. In short, the physician and the
pathologist could see no obvious problem with Mahadev's physical health. But
this physical well-being belied the intense mental anguish that had gripped him.
the furies of the 1942 campaign lay ahead, Gandhi had announced that he would
undertake an indefinite fast in the event of his being arrested by the
government. Soon, after the 'Quit India' Resolution was adopted, Gandhi and
Mahadev were arrested and taken to Poona to be lodged at the palace of the Aga
Khan. While the debate about Gandhi's fast raged inside and outside the Aga
Khan Palace, Gandhi and his compatriots settled down into a daily routine in the
jail expecting to be there for a really long time. By now, Mahadev was fully
consumed by thoughts about the consequences of Gandhi's indefinite fast.
Gandhi and Mahadev argued incessantly about the fast. Mahadev did not want the
Mahatma to give up his life through a fast. Unlike previous occasions, both
Mahadev and Gandhi understood that the government was not going to relent and an
indefinite fast meant a certain death. But none could have foretold the cruel
turn of events. On August 15, 1942, hours after he had served Gandhi and
cheerfully groomed himself in front of one of the numerous mirrors in the
building, Mahadev Desai died of a massive heart-attack.
twenty-five years of public life, Mahadev had compressed the work of a lifetime.
As Gandhi remarked, he was a living example of "the wise, who live and work as
if they were born to immortality and everlasting youth". In faithfully
following the dictum of 'Do or Die', Mahadev Desai had paid the ultimate
price in winning India its freedom.
1951, in a Foreword to D. G. Tendulkar's landmark eight-volume eponymous
biography of the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked that "No man can
write a real life of Gandhi, unless he is as big as Gandhi". In the normal
course of events, it would have fallen to Mahadev Desai to execute this task. In
recent times, as if in carrying out the unfulfilled duties of his father,
Mahadev's son, Narayan Desai has written a four-volume biography of the
Mahatma. While the release of its English translation is eagerly awaited, one is
reminded of the suggestion of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, that "it would
be a very proper token of love for [Mahadev's] memory if everything he has
written could be collected and republished". The Collected Works of Mahadev
Desai will not only represent a nation's gratitude to one its finest sons,
it will also be an invaluable historical record of the events of a quarter
century that has defined modern India.
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