February 14, 2020
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Keepers Of His Flame

Eschewing 'dynasty', Bapu's global family spreads his word quietly

Keepers Of His Flame

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi may have founded a modern nation-state but was certainly no believer in founding a political dynasty. His political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, headed a "democratic" royal family, some of his closest followers brought their sons and daughters into politics, but Gandhi said, "I have many sons, some of whom bear the name Gandhi and some bear other names...count how many crores of sons and therefore daughters-in-law such a man is likely to have."

 So strict was he that achievement and dedication rather than birth and lineage would be the route to his heart, so convinced that it was the family of the ashram rather than that of kin which was the ethical model community, that his own blood family, rightfully India's first family, is also India's forgotten family. Their names do not make newspaper headlines, their experiments with their ancestor's truths are unknown. They were, in an act most un-Indian and most progressive, shoved determinedly off centrestage by the man whose name they carry.

Yet the family is extraordinary in its range—from young computer experts and feminists to older social reformers. The four sons, Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devadas, are dead, their children are senior citizens and their grand-children are professionals in a glob-alising world. There are lecturers on post-colonial theory at the University of Melbourne like great-grand-daughter Leela, cardiac surgeons in Kansas, US, like great-grandson Shanti Kumar, marketing executives in telecom companies in the US like another great-grandson Pradeep, philosopher-academics like grandsons Rajmohan and Ramchander, candidates for the office of President of India like grand-daughter Sumitra Kulkarni, activists for khadi like granddaughter Tara Bhattacharjee, politicians like great-grandson Tushar.And there are valiant and ageing keepers of the Gandhian flame like Nirmalabehn, widow of his third son Ramdas, who still lives in the Sevagram ashram established by her father-in-law in 1936, travels third class and cares for the sick and dying.

A degree of spiritual and social consciousness marks them all. "When we were growing up," Rajmohan recalls, "we were taught that deeper issues could not be swept under the carpet." Leela speaks of the doctrine of "non-harmfulness" as a universal ethical value, the principle that family need not be one that is tied by blood; that life need not be governed by utilitarian career choices.

Shanti Kumar says he lives with the memory of his great-grandfather at all times—is enriched by the fact that "an ordinary simple man could capture the dreams of an entire nation". Rajmohan, Devadas' eldest son, was drawn to the doctrines of "moral rearmament" when a student at Edinburgh. "Gandhi taught me not to worship him but to honour my deepest conscience." When Rajmohan contested against Rajiv Gandhi in Amethi in 1989, there could not have been a greater visual contrast between the two descendants of India's founding fathers. Rajiv roared around in a jeep, his impatient gang raising dust and scattering people, Rajmohan walked alone with a jhola, going from door to door speaking directly to villagers, tireless and low profile.

Rajmohan's elder sister, Tara Bhattacharjee, member of the khadi commission, composer of spiritual poetry and an artist, says she inherited her love of beauty and of languages from Gandhi. "Today I live by the philosophy of khadi which is self-reliance, fearlessness and cleanliness, to me Gandhi and khadi are advait (one)." And Sumitra Kulkarni, member of the Madhya Pradesh civil service, India's representative at the United Nations and a recent candidate for presidency, says that in her life, the Gandhian example of freedom from fear, service to the community and an unconventional attitude to one's family have all been important."My grandfather may not have rumpled our hair, but we constantly felt his caring."

When Kulkarni was four years old, her eyes began to fail. One day she went to visit Gandhiji during Diwali and he asked her, "What gift will you give me?" "Anything," baby-talked Kulkarni. "Well then, give me your hair," he demanded, and sat her on his lap and proceeded to shave her head with his own shears. He was convinced, Kulkarni recalls, that "my eyes were bad because my hair was falling over them and he was not wrong."

Similarly, when British Labour leader Sir Stafford Cripps came visiting with his mission of handing Dominion Status to India, adolescent Tara Bhattacharjee trotted in her grandfather's wake. "How do you do", inquired Cripps of the young girl, to which Bhattacharjee responded with a detailed account of her day. "My grandfather was angry," Bhattacharjee recounts, "he told me that when an Englishman asks 'how do you do', you are only supposed to say 'how do you do' in return." So there was love but it was stern, a grandfatherly concern dove-tailed with a greater philosophy of life.

His grandchildren were instructed never to waste paper, to wash their own dishes and to not be greedy about material acquisitions. "Once in Bhangi colony, he asked me, why do you wear so many rings and bangles? Advice which, I am afraid, I did not follow," Bhattacharjee laughs. Yet all of his grandchildren say they have tried to bring up their children not only according to the dictates of their own conscience but also according to their vision of society and politics. Bhattacharjee's cousin Usha Gokani, a swirl of khadi silk and gold, is hardly an example of Gandhian austerity. Yet she brought up her sons to excel in their professions—Anand is a top doctor and Sanjay manages the family textile business. She has pursued her work in child welfare and ashram activity all her life. "I don't want to pretend to be something I'm not," Gokani says. "I have chosen grahasta and I am true to that without exploiting anyone or engaging in a vulgar display of wealth." Leela says that although she was taught not to talk about her family, the discourse of Gandhi was more accessible to her than anyone else. "He made a culture of pure ethics available for me, a culture that life can be a search for universal moral values."

As for Tara, she claims she has tried to bring up her two children—Sukanya who lives in Delhi and Vinay who lives abroad—as her grandfather would have wanted. Gandhi was, according to her, the mother of the nation, one who was never limited by his masculinity. "Educate the male and give literacy to the female," says Bhattacharjee. "Girls are taught the right things. To be kind, to be managers, but why are men not taught to be kind, to be clean or non-violent? Boys are brutalised by their mothers, forced to be macho...." Rajmohan says Gandhi's notion that life and politics was a search for truth has left all his descendants with a "precocious conscience". Three of his four sons understood that for Gandhi to demonstrate to the British that India was a united family, he couldn't simply be the caretaker of his own. That his vision of politics required a negation of family ties. Harilal accused his father of sacrificing his sons at the altar of ambition.

Yet empathy for the four is another current that runs through the family today. When Gandhi died, Harilal came to the house of Devadas where Bhattacharjee was alone. "Harilal kaka, aren't you going to the cremation?" she asked. "It is not my place," Harilal answered. Towards the end, Harilal, was, according to conventional wisdom, the bruised alcoholic, the rejected convert to Islam.Today his three grand-daughters Neelam Parikh, Sudha Vajariya and Urmi Desai have formed a three-woman army to battle the misconceptions about Harilal in the play Gandhi virudh Gandhi. Neelambehn is well into 200 pages of the true story of Harilal.

Manilal—given nature therapy by Gandhi and to which he apparently owed his superb health—remained behind in South Africa. He ran Gandhi's newspaper Indian Opinion with his elegant wife Sushila and looked after Tolstoy farm and other South African interests. Ramdas, the self-effacing third son, spent his entire life in social work and Gandhi once remarked of him: "Ramdas is my best son". His wife Nirmalabehn has lived in Sevagram for three decades. "Bapu would scold his sons but he would never scold us," she smiles, "and Kasturba used to often pick up fights with him." Ba was child-like and open-hearted, recalls Nimubehn, a woman who has never worn silk, Ramdas' faithful partner in idealism.

And then there was the "charming and mischievous" Devadas, the youngest, who became editor of The Hindustan Times , wrote and spoke the Queen's English although the four of them had never received a formal education. Devadas waited for five years to marry his sweetheart, Lakshmi, daughter of C. Rajagopalachari.

"Rajaji was totally opposed to the marriage on grounds of caste," Kulkarni relates, "how could an Iyengar Brahmin marry a bania?" And Gandhi too felt that Devadas should not have cast an eye on the good looking and intellectual Lakshmi, daughter of his close associate and therefore almost a cousin. But with Gandhian tenacity, Devadas persisted and after they were married Kasturba would ensure that the Tamilian Lakshmi was given rice at the ashram although everyone else would be eating rotis.

Another common feature among the Gandhi clan is a constant re-interpretation of the Mahatma's message, a healthy pragmatism so famous in the merchant communities of the Gujarat coast with their "outward gaze" and no-nonsense approach to the tasks at hand. Says Pradeep who went to the US in 1977 and has not returned to India for 16 years: "We should not be too hung up on him. I am sure he too would have changed with the times." Bhattacharjee says that, like Gandhi, she never wastes time. Gandhi's prescription for India would have been, take up a broom and sweep the streets, never be clumsy about the way we eat, look neat, even have a clean home.

The maverick Tushar, great-grandson, Samajwadi Party candidate for Mumbai north-west, says he is not a clone of Gandhi. "It should not be expected of me to be a spitting image of his psychological and physical capabilities." Son of the US-based Arun who lectures extensively on the merits of non-violence, Tushar has taken the TV show Nikki-Tonite to court, undertaken a 30-hour dharna against Bal Thackeray, wrested the Mahatma's ashes from a Bhubaneshwar bank and immersed them in Allahabad. Today the bearded, jeans-clad 100 kg self-confessed "foodie" seeks his own place in the sun. "Even Bapuji found his vocation late in life," he says realistically.

Vocations have come easily in the family. Rajmohan and Ramchander have written several books between them. Rajmohan is not only his grandfather's biographer but also of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Rajaji. Ramchander's facility with Sanskrit and ancient Indian texts has led him to intervene in contemporary debates on the rise of religious fundamentalism.Then there is Nirmalabehn at Sevagram, Tara's work in khadi, Kulkarni's in government service and Arun's in non-violent studies. Yet this is a family for whom achievement lies not in celebrity, but in making the most of their talents—spiritual, social or political. Publicity was never the aim, being in touch with the conscience was much more important. As Gokani says: "Our parents never promoted themselves so we never promoted ourselves."

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