July 04, 2020
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Bapu's Human Tryst

The Mahatma's attachment to a beautiful Bengali woman threatened his marriage, reveals his grandson.

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Bapu's Human Tryst
Bapu's Human Tryst
Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire
By Rajmohan Gandhi
Penguin/ Viking Rs 650; Pages: 760

For nearly 90 years, Gandhi's large family—which included, besides his wife, four sons, their wives and children, national leaders, fellow ashramites and freedom fighters and even his biographers—nursed one of the few secrets in his open-book life: a passionate love relationship the Mahatma had with a fiery beauty from Bengal called Saraladevi. She was a dazzling woman, by all accounts—belonging to the cream of Bengal's aristocratic intellectuals, a niece of Tagore's, a writer and musician who was hailed in her time as Bengal's Joan of Arc and goddess Durga come down to earth, and who drew around her a captivated circle of young men willing to fight and die at her instance. That Gandhi was clearly bewitched by her brilliance and beauty was no secret among his own circle of intimates, including C. Rajagopalachari, his sons, especially Devadas, and secretary Mahadev Desai, all of whom were worried enough to bring pressure upon him to end the affair for their sake and his. Even his wife Kasturba, one of the most unpossessive women in history, who took without a batting of an eyelid the series of infatuated women who passed in and out of her husband's crowded life, was badly shaken by Gandhi's evident intoxication with the spirited Saraladevi. Strangely—or perhaps predictably— it was the one relationship in his life that even a compulsive confessor like Gandhi barely spoke about, keeping her deliberately out of his otherwise candid autobiography. Now his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, breaks the silence and reconstructs in his forthcoming biography, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, the moving story of the Mahatma's greatest temptation and how he struggled to overcome it. An extract:



But something now happened to Gandhi that he had not bargained for. He felt powerfully drawn to Saraladevi, the 47-year-old Bengali wife of Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri, his Lahore host who was in jail at this time.

A niece of Tagore (her mother, Swarnakumari, was one of the poet's two sisters), Saraladevi was the editor in her husband's absence of his journal, Hindustan.

Gandhi would have seen her first 18 years earlier in December 1901, when Saraladevi conducted the orchestra for the opening song at the Calcutta Congress session that Gandhi attended. She had composed the song, and 58 singers joined in presenting it. We have no record of any comment about her at that time by Gandhi, but a book that Saraladevi wrote in the 1940s suggests that they may have met during the 1901 session. She thought of Gandhi at the time, she would say, "as a possible South African contributor" to a journal she was editing, Bharati.

She was 29 then. While there is no evidence of anything passing between them at that time, we know from Gandhi's autobiography (written between 1925 and 1929) that in 1901 he spent some hours with her father, Janakinath Ghosal, one of the Congress secretaries. Evidently Gandhi answered correspondence for which Ghosal had no time, and the secretary "insisted on (Gandhi) having lunch with him". Gandhi found Ghosal "talkative" and also (after discovering Gandhi's history) embarrassed that he had given Gandhi "clerical work".

Gandhi's 1901 meeting with Saraladevi may have been cursory, but it is likely that he remembered her. A photograph of her at graduation suggests an impressive appearance. An unusually talented singer and writer, Saraladevi went on to train Bengali youth in militant patriotism, thereby attracting the police's attention. Earlier she was a Vivekananda disciple, and the Swami is said to have wanted her to accompany him to the West.

In 1905, in Bengal a year of tension over its partition, she married Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri of the Punjab, already twice a widower, and an Arya Samajist.This she did at the instance of her parents, who may have felt that in Lahore their daughter would be safe from the arm of Calcutta's police. At 33, Saraladevi was older than most brides of her time, and her husband apparently called her "the greatest shakti in India".

How much of her career between 1901 and 1919 was known to Gandhi is unclear. When visiting Lahore in 1909, (Henry) Polak [1] stayed in the home of Saraladevi and her husband (where many a visitor to Lahore was put up), but we do not know that Gandhi suggested this arrangement.

On October 27, 1919, within days of his arrival in Lahore, Gandhi would write to Anasuyaben in Ahmedabad: "Saraladevi's company is very endearing. She looks after me very well." The following months saw a special relationship that Gandhi called "indefinable" after its character changed in June 1920. In between he had not only overcome his caution regarding exclusive relationships but even thought of a "spiritual marriage", whatever that may have meant, with Saraladevi.

Though at 47 her frame held no lure, to Gandhi she conveyed an aesthetic and political appeal around which Eros too might have lurked. Cultured in both Indian and Western terms, she wrote and spoke well and had, in Gandhi's view, a "melodious" singing voice. Politically, she could be imagined as embodying not only the prestige of a Tagore connection but also the spirit of the presidency of Bengal, and, in addition, the strand of violence in India's freedom effort. A merger with her might bring him closer to winning all of India to satyagraha.

Whether or not he consciously toyed with such considerations, they probably influenced him. In 1933 he would also say (to Father William Lash and E. Stanley Jones [2]) that he had been prevented from "rushing into hellfire" by the thought of Kasturba and because of interventions by his son Devadas, Mahadev Desai and another young relative, Mathuradas Trikamji, grandson of his half-sister, Muliben.

In 1935 he would say to Margaret Sanger [3], after referring to Kasturba's illiteracy, that he had "nearly slipped" after meeting "a woman with a broad, cultural education" but had fortunately been freed from a "trance". He was speaking of the 1919-20 pull. The remark in the last page of the autobiography about his experiences (after "returning to India") of "the dormant passions lying hidden within me" seems also to recall the 1919-20 period.

Another element may also have been at work: perhaps this "endearing" woman and aesthete who "looked after" him "very well" gave Gandhi an emotional support that he, a man who in his world was always on the give, seldom received but always needed, whether or not he or others in his circle of followers and associates recognised the need. The supremely self-assured founder and general of satyagraha carried more aches in his bosom than he or those around him realised, and if India and truth spoke to him, so did his very human, if also greatly subjugated, self.

Martin Green, who more than others has researched this relationship and the career of Saraladevi, speaks of Gandhi "closing the door that had opened before him" and adds: "He and she together would certainly have made an extraordinary political combination."

Yet Green also notes the unstable nature of the relationship, and of Saraladevi's personality, which apparently included a "sense of being unappreciated" and contradictory elements of strength and indecisiveness, drive and inertia, feminism and male appeasement. While in some ways a "headstrong feminist", she also supported polygamy if the first wife was infertile. Gandhi seems to have opposed her; he "argued" with Saraladevi on this question, he would tell Sanger.

Between the end of October 1919 and the middle of February 1920, Gandhi spent some weeks in Delhi but the bulk of the time in the Punjab, travelling to conduct his inquiry (and promote khadi) or working on his report in the Lahore home of the Chaudhuris. Saraladevi often accompanied Gandhi on his travels in the Punjab, spoke or sang at his meetings, wore and championed khadi, and asked the Punjab to absorb the meaning of satyagraha. Both she and Gandhi spoke of their disappointment that many in the province had taken repression lying down.

By the end of December Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri was released. Gandhi would say, in a report for Navajivan written on January 23: "Where earlier I had seen a woman, separated from her husband and living all alone, the image of a lioness, I saw today a happy couple.... I saw a new glow on Smt Saraladevi's face. The face which had been lined with care was today bright with joy."

By this time the couple's teenage son Dipak had been sent to Sabarmati, where ashramites questioned the relaxations that Gandhi seemed to propose for the boy. And when, in March 1920, Saraladevi was herself at the ashram, there was criticism of the time Gandhi spent talking with her.

Devadas Gandhi with wife Lakshmi, CR’s daughter

For four to five months—between January and May 1920—Gandhi was clearly dazzled by her personality and seemed to fantasise that Providence desired them together to shape India to a new design. He wrote to her that he often dreamt of her, and that she was a great shakti. In February 1920 Young India carried a song by Saraladevi on the front page, and Navajivan another poem by her, along with Gandhi's comment that it was "perfect".

But his son Devadas and others (Desai, Mathuradas and C.R. [Rajagopalachari] were among them) questioned Gandhi and asked him to think of the consequences for Kasturba, people like them and Gandhi himself if he continued the special relationship with Saraladevi. "It was their love which chained me so tightly and strongly" and saved him, Gandhi would say to Father Lash.

An autobiography that Saraladevi later wrote makes no reference to the relationship. Nor does Gandhi's, though a few letters and recorded conversations reveal his thoughts on it. "It was so personal I did not put it into my autobiography," he said to Sanger. Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri had died in 1923, but Saraladevi and her son Dipak were very much alive when the autobiography was written and Gandhi could not have referred to the episode without hurting her again.

Saraladevi was heart-broken when Gandhi informed her that their relationship could not continue as once thought. The change seems to have occurred in the middle of June 1920, for on June 12, after receiving a telegram from Gandhi, Rajagopalachari wrote to him: "Had your telegram. Words fail me altogether. I hope you have pardoned me." We can infer that Gandhi's telegram (its text is not known) signified a change in the relationship to one who had voiced his concern.

Determined to nail down the change, Rajagopalachari wrote Gandhi a strong letter on June 16. Addressed to "My dearest Master", the letter said that between Saraladevi and Kasturba the contrast was similar to that between "a kerosene oil Ditmar lamp" and "the morning sun". Asserting that Gandhi had nursed a "most dreadful delusion", CR added: "The encasement of the divinest soul is yet flesh.... It is not the Christ but the shell that I presume to warn and criticise. Come back and give us life.... Pray disengage yourself at once completely."

The break was made. Devadas has written that when he was leaving for a course of study in Benares (probably in the summer of 1920), his father "suddenly stepped forward and with great love kissed me on the forehead". Gandhi was showing gratitude, and not just love, to his 20-year-old son.He would say in August in a letter to Kallenbach [4], "Devadas is with me, ever growing in every way and every direction."

And to Saraladevi he wrote on August 23 that Mathuradas and other allies were right to be "jealous of his character, which was their ideal". To deserve their love, which was "so pure and unselfish", he would, he told her, "surrender all the world".

A shattered Saraladevi complained she had "put in one pan all the joys and pleasures of the world, and in the other Bapu and his laws, and committed the folly of choosing the latter". She demanded an explanation, which Gandhi finally tried to offer in a letter he sent in December 1920:

"I have been analysing my love for you. I have reached a definition of spiritual (marriage). It is a partnership between two persons of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is therefore possible between brother and sister, father and daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in thought, word and deed....

"Have we that exquisite purity, that perfect coincidence, that perfect merging, that identity of ideals, the self-forgetfulness, that fixity of purpose, that trustfulness? For me I can answer plainly that it is only an aspiration. I am unworthy of that companionship with you.... This is the big letter I promised. With dearest love I still subscribe myself, Your L.G."

The initials stood for Law Giver, the title with which she had rebuked Gandhi. A brave effort, the letter could not assuage Saraladevi's feelings. In the years that followed she would criticise Gandhi, at times accusing him of allowing non-violence to break out in hatred, and at other times saying that he possessed a Christo-Buddhist rather than a Hindu frame of mind.

Communication did not cease, however. In the 1940s, at her instance, Gandhi suggested Dipak's name to Jawaharlal as a possible match for his daughter Indira. That idea did not work out but after Saraladevi and Gandhi were both no more, Dipak married Radha, the daughter of Maganlal Gandhi. Saraladevi and Gandhi had known of this romance. After giving some of her time to the education of girls, Saraladevi turned to spirituality and in 1935 adopted a guru. She died in 1945.

What if anything Gandhi told Kasturba about the episode is not known, but we must assume that she noticed both the attachment and its severance. Others too would have told her, including Devadas, who was devoted to his mother. We must assume also that the relationship shocked and wounded Kasturba while it lasted, and that its ending enhanced her prestige in circles around him. Writing about her in the letter he wrote to Kallenbach after a two-year gap, Gandhi said in August 1920: "Mrs Gandhi is at (the) Ashram. She has aged considerably but she is as brave as ever."

Twelve years later Gandhi would write to Ramdas that he did not want any of his sons "to behave towards his wife as I did towards Ba.... (S)he could not be angry with me, whereas I could with her. I did not give her the same freedom of action which I enjoyed.... My behaviour towards Ba at Sabarmati progressively (changed)...and the result was that...(h)er old fear of me has disappeared mostly, if not completely".

Though Gandhi didn't mention it, the Saraladevi episode which occurred a year after Kasturba's life-saving intervention over milk may have contributed to the improvement in his attitude.

1. Gandhi's English friend from Johannesburg, sub-editor in English newspaper Critic. Gandhi was best man at his wedding with Millie.
2. A 20th century Methodist Christian missionary whose sympathy for the cause of Indian self-determination brought him close to Gandhi and Nehru.
3.Well-known American proponent of birth-control who met Gandhi when she came to India in 1935
4.Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi's Jewish friend from South Africa who was an architect until he became his ardent follower

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