The Other Mrs Gandhi

A grandson attempts to bring Ba out from the shadows
Kasturba: A Life
By Arun Gandhi
Penguin India Rs 295, Pgs: 315
Mahatma Gandhi's assertion that he was cured of his "stupidity" and learnt the lesson of non-violence from his wife's determined resistance and quiet submission notwithstanding, historians and biographers have tended to treat Kasturba, Gandhi's wife for 60 years, as an addendum to the text of the Mahatma's life. She is the eternal camp follower, a footnote in history.

In the story of Gandhi as told by himself and the literature of Gandhiana, Kasturba rarely occupies centrestage. Yet, Arun Gandhi, telling the story of his grandmother, argues that the making of the Mahatma could not have been possible without Ba. She was a foil to Gandhi - the turf where he practiced what he went on to preach.

This immensely readable tale is told from the vantage point of Kasturba. Born into a wealthy orthodox Vaishnava family in Rajkot in 1869, married at the age of 13, Kasturba's story is one of constant cultural dislocation. From Porbundar to Pretoria, to a mud hut in the Natal, to ashrams in Sabarmati and Wardha, seeing her family jailed, accompanying them and finally dying in jail, Kasturba moved far from her roots. The story of her life and the stages of her changing interaction with Gandhi, moving through "bewilderment, opposition, acceptance, conversion and championship" are well documented. As Arun Gandhi writes, while Mohandas experimented with the truth, Kasturba lived it.

Analyses of the relationship between Gandhi and Ba have often been overshadowed by Gandhi's vow of sexual abstinence. The author traces the fabric of a relationship that went beyond sexual intimacy, held together by trust, affection and their children. Kasturba emerges as the universal mother, even as her partnership with Mohandas distances her from her own children. Central to the book is the unfolding story of Kasturba, Gandhi and Harilal. Unlike those who portray the relationship as one of mother and son versus a tyrannical father, Arun Gandhi delineates the pain of all the actors.

But the author is never able to completely reconstruct Kasturba. Her life was lived in the realms of the personal, Bapu's in the political. The two merge occasionally, but largely remain separate. Gandhi is too powerful a figure to remain outside the text; Kasturba cannot have a story without Bapu. Arun Gandhi does not have much new to add: he claims that interviews have provided a new perspective into Ba's life, but the greatest failing of the book is that it does not appear to refer to any of these sources. Good biography needs to be impersonal. Arun Gandhi's Kasturba swings between being an independent actor and "Grandmother", even though he provides a grandson's empathy and adds a dynamic to the relationships within the Gandhi family.

A self-proclaimed labour of love, the book stands not because it is excellent biography, but because the chronology of Bapu's and Kasturba's life interwoven as it was with India's freedom struggle makes for an extraordinary tale.

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