April 03, 2020
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When Gandhi Nearly Slipped

She was his ‘pearl’; he her ‘law-giver’. Gandhi’s relationship with Saraladebi Chowdhurani in 1919-1920 charged his politics, threatened his marriage and alarmed his disciples.

When Gandhi Nearly Slipped
Photo Courtesy: Private Archive
When Gandhi Nearly Slipped
“You are mine in the purest sense. You ask for a reward of your great surrender, well, it is its own reward.”

Gandhi in a letter to Saraladebi Chowdhurani

It was a life-changing year for Mahatma Gandhi. In March 1919, the British passed the draconian Rowlatt Act to crack down on political protests. In April, General Dwyer’s men opened fire on crowds protesting against the Act in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, resulting in a horrific massacre.  In October, Mahatma Gandhi fell in love. He was then fifty and the woman, Saraladebi, was forty-seven. She happened to be the niece of Rabindranath Tagore. Though Gandhi had met her earlier, it was not until he stayed in her home in Lahore while her husband, a prominent freedom fighter from Punjab, was in jail that they really became close. So close that it almost broke Gandhi’s marriage to Kasturba.

Saraladebi was a striking woman with independent views and was highly intelligent. Gifted, well-informed, dynamic and driven, she was twenty-nine when Gandhi first saw her, in 1901, conducting an orchestra as it played a piece she had composed for the Congress party convention. By his own admission, he was enamoured of Saraladebi. She was the daughter of Janakinath Ghosal and Swarnakumari, Tagore’s elder sister. Gandhi and Saraladebi met again in 1919 in Lahore, when they soon became one of the most talked-about couples because of their closeness, even in public. Neither Gandhi nor Saraladebi mention much in their respective autobiographies about their relationship, though at one place she parts with a stray revelatory anecdote: “When I was in grave political trouble, Mahatma Gandhi told me ‘your laughter is a national asset. Laugh away’.”

For a year from October 1919, the relationship really blosso­med (before ending in some embitterment by December 1920). Gandhi could not stop quoting her in his public speeches, his writings in Young India and other journals, almost on a daily basis. Gandhi published a song by Saraladebi on the front page of Navajivan, and often endorsed her poems with his appreciative comments. She travelled with him all over India and they wrote to each other frequently when they were apart. In May 1920, Gandhi wrote to her: “...you will continue to haunt me in my sleep. No wonder Panditji (her husband Pandit Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhary) calls you the greatest shakti. You may cast that spell over him. You are performing the same trick over me.” In August 1920, Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest aide, recorded that “almost seven or eight letters were received from Saraladebi during the Madras tour”. By her own admission, Saraladebi once wrote as many as twelve letters to Gandhi over a period of six days. Replying to one of her letters on August 23, 1920, Gandhi wrote: “...you are mine in the purest sense. You ask for a reward of your great surrender, well, it is its own reward.”

Saraladebi’s father Janakinath Ghosal was a contemporary of Allan Octavian Hume, the legendary Scotsman who founded the Congress. Ghosal was a magistrate when he married Swarnakumari and spent a fair amount of time in London while Saraladebi was growing up in Jorasanko, the Tagore family home in Calcutta. Swarnakumari, though overshadowed by her illustrious brother, was equally accomplished in literature and the arts. She wrote novels, plays and poetry which were printed and reprinted in India and England, leading to some measure of sibling rivalry. It was no surprise that Saraladebi grew up influenced more by her mother’s family. She deeply admired her ‘Rabimama’, the first Asian to get the Nobel Prize, and at times they composed opera and music together.  Being as talented and enterprising as anyone else in Jorasanko, she too resented to a degree the idea of being known merely as Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, just as her mother resented being identified more as his sister. As Martin Green points out in his biography of Gandhi, “There was something of a court around Rabindranath, and Saraladebi found herself in the position of competing for his favour; and, because she felt herself to be really more rival than courtier, she was a less comfortable companion for him than her competitors.” In many ways Saraladebi was a rebel, much ahead of the times than most Indian women, who were quite happy listening to music rather than composing it or performing in public. She edited Bharati, a journal which was started by her other uncle, Jyotirindranath Tagore, the elder brother of Rabindranath. No wonder Gandhi found Saraladebi more ‘endearing’ and intellectually stimulating than his wife Kasturba, who had ‘aged’ considerably (being a year older than Gandhi) and was an ‘illiterate’.

Gandhi wrote to his close friend Hermann Kallenbach in 1920 about his ‘indefinable relationship’ with his ‘spiritual wife’.

Saraladebi was certainly better educated than most of her contemporaries. She studied physics, a subject not generally chosen by women during that time, particularly a woman from the Tagore household. She also had a degree in English and expanded her linguistic accomplishments by studying Persian, French and Sanskrit. She had completed her Bachelor of Arts from the well-known Bethune College, and, in Bengal, acquired the reputation of a progressive, educated woman who did not hesitate to speak her mind publicly. Her autobiography often talked derisively about the effeminate Bengali man: “Dogs have teeth, cats have claws, even insects bite back if they are attacked; was it only Bengalis who kept quiet even in the face of vicious threats and assault? Was there such a lack of manhood?” A few years after she graduated, she decided to leave her ‘domestic cage’ and move south to Mysore to teach. Her parents refused permission and the rest of Tagore’s family was aghast at such a suggestion. Little is known why she chose Mysore or how she got permission but biographers have pointed out that the liberal, independent girl—who had earlier refused an invitation from Swami Vivekananda to travel with him to the West—wanted to break away to avoid the constant pressure to get married and to further challenge her own ambitions. Swami Vivekananda was so fond of her that he gave her a copy of all his writings, including Rajjog, each inscribed ‘Given with love’. On returning from his world tour, Swami Vivekananda introduced her to cuisine from France, America, Norway and other countries, often doing the cooking himself.

It is also gently suggested that because of her liberal lifestyle, her mother’s family did not want any potential scandals involving Saraladebi in Calcutta, and, despite opposition from a few family members, agreed that she could settle in faraway Mysore. But she was too much of a rebel to be restricted to one place. After teaching for a year in Mysore, she returned to Calcutta, partly because she fell sick and partly because the son of a rich local contractor was so attracted to her that he broke into her house, despite the presence of guards and servants. Even for Saraladebi, this was too much, and it hastened her return to Calcutta.

Unequal allies? Gandhi with Kasturba

The fact that Saraladebi was thi­rty-three and yet unmarried was a great source of worry for the family, especially her sisters, who were happily married and well-settled. Saraladebi was by then living in Vivekananda’s ashram in the Himalayas, studying the Vedas and the Bhagwad Gita. Her mother and her sister were further alarmed when they heard from the Englishwoman Mrs Sevier, who was in charge of the ashram, that Saraladebi was planning to go on a long pilgrimage with a young Maharashtrian man to Kailash Mansarovar and Tibet. This only added an urgency to their efforts to find her a suitable groom. It led to deception and emotional blackmail. She was called by her elder sister, who claimed that their mother was quite sick and may not live long: “Mother’s wish is to see you married and settled down. Come and at least meet him...don’t reject him from the beginning; this would hurt our mother deeply.” The letter forced her to quit her life in the Himalayas and she travelled to Calcutta via Baidyanath, the temple complex in Deoghar, where her mother was convalescing. En route in Lucknow, she found out from acquaintances that the man her family wanted her to marry was a good-looking, educated Punjabi. He was, however, a widower who had married twice and was an Arya Samaj activist. Rambhuj Dutt Chowdhari was a Mohyal Brahmin. (Mohyals are a breed unto themselves: Brahmin by birth but martial in character. The late actor-Congress MP Sunil Dutt, Bollywood character actor Om Prakash and lyricist Anand Bakshi, the Mohans of Mohan Meakins—makers of famed Old Monk rum—and the well-known historian Prof V.N. Datta are some of the better-known Mohyals of contemporary times.) Having obtained details of his background and his political and religious leanings, Saraladebi was prepared to meet the man but she was certainly not prepared for what awaited her at home in Calcutta. Writes Saraladebi in her autobiography: “Even before I had arrived at Baidyanath, Didi had conspired to make all arrangements for the wedding in Calcutta. She had left me with no way out. When I arrived at the station in Calcutta, I realised I was a bride. I stepped from the train into my bridal palanquin.... Didi had put up members of the bridegroom’s party at a rented house. Invitations had been sent out.... I had no room to protest. The next day was the turmeric ceremony (a pre-nuptial ceremony). The house was filled with my relatives. The music of shehnai could be heard in celebration...in the afternoon , for a brief moment, the bride laid eyes on the groom. She was dazzled....the wedding was to be held next evening. There was no escape.” Saraladebi was married to Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhary according to Arya Samaj rites. She became ‘Chowdhurani’, spelt the Bengali way.

Gandhi and Saraladebi travelled together, propagating khadi and protesting British policies not just in Punjab, but all over India.

Shortly after his arrival in Lahore, Gandhi wrote to his close follower, Anasuyabehn Sarabhai, a friend of Saraladebi: “Sar­ala’s company is very endearing. She looks after me very well”. This was Gandhi’s first trip to Lahore. He had come with Motilal Nehru, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, and C.F. Andrews soon after the British government had announced the Hunter Commission to inquire into the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Dissatisfied with the terms of the Commission and not expecting the government to conduct a free and fair inquiry, the Congress had decided to conduct its own inquiry. There was also a massive protest against the Rowlatt Act with the slogan: ‘Na Vakil, Na Appeal, Na Daleel (no lawyer, no appeal, no argument)’. Gandhi himself travelled across Punjab for many months, meeting those affected by the massacre. He also took this opportunity to propagate khadi, Khilafat, and the concept of the non-cooperation movement. He arrived in Lahore on October 24, 1919, and accepted Saraladebi’s offer to be her guest. The intimacy between Saraladebi and Gandhi reached a stage where he began to refer to her as his ‘spiritual wife’. Writes Rajmohan, Gandhi’s grandson and biographer, “Gandhi had not only overcome his caution regarding exclusive relationship but even thought of a ‘spiritual marriage’, whatever that may have meant”, with Saraladebi. They travelled together, popularising khadi and protesting against British policies, not just in Punjab, but all over India. They travelled to Benares, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Bareilly, Jhelum, Sinhgarh, Hyderabad (Sind), Jhansi, Calcutta and many more cities. In his ‘Punjab Letters’, written as a report of his Punjab tour and published in Young India and Navajivan, Gandhi provided some clues to their remarkable closeness and intimacy.

‘I had a premonition’ Saraladebi writes to her ‘Dear Law-Giver’, in October 1920, anticipating the slow waning of feelings. (Courtesy: Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust)
Barely a month into his stay at her home, Gandhi writes: “In Lahore I am a guest of Smt Saraladebi and have been bathing in her deep affection.” To Maganlal Gandhi, his close associate, he wrote: “Saraladebi has been showering her love on me in every possible way.” He was clearly infatuated. On May 3, 1920, at the height of his crusading for the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi sent Saraladebi sermons from the Bhagwad Gita which hinted at their spiritual liaison, whatever that may have meant. He wrote to her, quoting the Gita: “It is strange that even a man abiding in the supreme oneness and set on attaining Moksha should get distraught with Passion, yielding to its overmastering urge through experience of the pleasure it brings (III6)”. Then this: “It is strange that a man who knows for certain that the desire which has possessed him is an enemy of knowledge should yet long for pleasure even though extremely enfeebled and nearing death (III7)”. On July 21, 1920, Gandhi congratulated Saraladebi in Navajivan for persuading Indian royalty to take up spinning, des­cribing her as ‘Indian nobility’, a reference to her Tagore connection. According to Bombay Secret Abstracts (1920, P1143), dated July 25,  1920, Gandhi said at a speech at a citizen’s meeting in Hyderabad that he “was taking Sarala­debi all over India with him as she better understood his swadeshi principles than his wife”, though he did complain that she too did not practice the use of swadeshi cloth to his entire satisfaction. In other public speeches, Gandhi made mention of their closeness and how he thought her to be ideologically and intellectually closer to him than Kasturba.

On more than one occasion he described a dream he had in which she had come to travel with him, leaving behind her husband. Gandhi even brought her to the Sabarmati Ashram as an honoured guest. Their relationship was so close that people often considered them a couple deeply involved with each other. The relationship was also so public that those in Gandhi’s closest circle became extremely concerned. Eminent lawyer and political activist C. Rajagopalachari, the first governor-general of independent India, was so disturbed that he wrote a strong letter to Gandhi, describing the difference between Saraladebi and Kasturba “as a kerosene oil lamp and the morning sun”. Despite this, Gandhi said he missed her when they were not together, and when she came to the Sabarmati Ashram they had their meals, contrary to ashram rules, in a separate room sitting on mattress bed rather than in the main dining area. This resulted in much resentment amongst his close followers at the ashram, who openly complained about it. To his closest friend and co-founder of the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa, Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi wrote in August 1920: “I have come in closest touch with a lady (Saraladebi) who often travels with me. Our relationship is indefinable. I call her my spiritual wife. A friend has called it intellectual wedding. I want you to see her. It was under her roof that I passed several months at Lahore in Punjab.” On another occasion, years later, Gandhi admitted to having ‘fal­len’. In his famous interview with Margaret Sanger, the American birth control activist and sex educator, he admitted that he had arguments about polygamy with a “woman with whom I almost fell....” Talking further about Saraladebi tho­ugh without specifically taking her name, Gandhi said, “...it is so personal I did not put it in my autobiography. We had considered if there can be this spiritual companionship.... I came in contact with an illiterate woman (referring to his wife Kasturba). Then I met a woman with a broad, cultural education...and I nearly slipped. But I was saved...I don’t know how...by the youngsters who warned me. I saw that if I was doomed, they were also doomed.” There is also a clear reference to this relationship in Gandhi’s diary during 1947, where he writes that he would not look for the company of women purely for physical reasons “with one exception”, and from all accounts, that had to be Saraladebi Cho­wdhurani. Incidentally, Saraladebi had once asked Gandhi to arrange for her son Deepak’s marriage to Indira Gandhi, then a highly eligible lady. Gandhi even wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru sug­gesting the alliance, but the proposal was politely declined by him.

Towards the end of 1920, the relationship came under strain and they drifted apart. Saraladebi was getting too possessive.

Towards the end of 1920, the relationship came under strain and Gandhi and Saraladebi started to drift apart. She was getting more and more possessive of his time, and Gandhi was too much of a public person to let that happen. She had become demanding and jealous of those around him. On August 23, 1920, Gandhi wrote to her from Bejwada (now Vijayawada): ...your letters have your usual self. Some of them decidedly despondent and sceptical and suspicious”. Referring to close friends and followers, he says to her: “I and (if you are mine in the purest sense of the term) you must give everything to retain or deserve their love and affection.” Disagreements between the “spiritual husband and wife” became quarrelsome. In the middle of October, Saraladebi, in two successive letters of the few that survived, says: “I had a premonition there would be a relapse and harsh thoughts from you today and was uneasy the whole morning unable to attend to any work”. She goes on to talk about how her anger was foolish but accuses Gandhi of bru­tal anger inlaid with pride. She pla­inly tells Gandhi: “...tell me in Mahadevian (referring to the clear, articulate writing of Mahadev Desai) simple touching language, you are mis­sing me daily”. Again, two days later on October 16, she writes to Gan­dhi, “You are adding a new sin to my many old ones...that of jealousy...do you mean to say I am jealous of you? I can only laugh at this charge and wonder at your biased reading of me....”

By now, Gandhi’s youngest son, Devdas, his shadow secretary Maha­dev Desai, and a few of his closest companions were greatly dis­turbed by this relationship. C. Raja­gop­alachari, whose daughter Laks­hmi later married Gandhi’s son Dev­das and the person Gandhi once descr­ibed as “the keeper of my conscience”, had subtly warned Gandhi against the relationship. In a letter, he wrote to Gandhi saying: “Come back and give us life...pray disengage yourself at once completely”.

On December 4, 1920, Gandhi wrote to Saraladebi: “I shall not deliberately omit to write to you. But you must cultivate patie­nce and trust. You may not accuse me of sainthood and dignify yourself as sinner. Among lovers and friends there is neither sinner not saint.” Again on December 11, Gandhi, clearly getting irritated at her possessiveness, wrote to her while travelling  from Motihari to Bhagalpur in Bihar: “I had two letters from you, one a scrap, the other a longish letter which shows you do not understand my language or my thoughts.... You are hugging your defect even when they are pointed out by a friend.... I do not want to quarrel with you. In you I have an enigma to solve.”

In 1933, Gandhi, while talking to Father William Lash (Bishop of Bombay 1947-61) and E. Stanley Jones (winner of the Gan­dhi Peace award in 1963), said that he was saved by the youngsters Mahadev Desai, his grandnephew Mathuradas Trikumji, and his son Devdas. It was their love, he admitted, which chained him so tightly and prevented him from “rushing into hell fire”.

Saraladebi turned ascetic in her last years

Saraladebi could well see the end coming. She complained that she had made the mistake to “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”. Finally, on Dec­ember 17, 1920, Gandhi wrote a farewell letter, one that Saraladebi had been expecting. It said: “I love you more for loving me less for any hate you may see in me.... I have been analysing my love for you. I have rea­ched a definite mea­ning of spi­ritual wife. 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.... I have felt drawn to you because I have recognised in you an identity of ideals and aspirations and a complete self-surrender. You have been a wife because you have recognised in me a fuller fruition of the common ideal than in yourself...this partnership can take place whilst either party is physically married to another, but only if they are living as celibates. Spiritual partnership is possible even between husband and wife. It transcends physical relations and persists beyond the grave...are you spiritual wife to me of that description?...for me I can answer plainly that it is only an inspiration. I am unworthy to have that companionship with you.... I am too physically attached to you to be worthy of enjoying that sacred association with you. By phy­sical attachment I here mean I am too much affected by your weaknesses. I must not be a tea­cher to you, if I am your spiritual husband, if coincidence or merging is felt.... I must plead gently like a brother ever taking care to use the right word even as I do to my oldest sister. I must not be father, husband, fri­end, teacher, all rolled in one. This is the big letter I promised. With dearest love I still subscribe myself, Yours, Law-Giver.”

Saraladebi once asked Gandhi to arrange for her son Deepak’s marriage to Indira Nehru. Jawaharlal politely declined the offer.

As recently as January 2013, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, referred to the relationship in a lecture he gave at the University of Calcutta. “While at school, at age thirteen I think, I chanced upon a set of letters retrieved from their sources and kept carefully by my father in a trunk in our home. These were written by Saraladebi Chowdhurani. Wholly emotional, they were addressed to one she called ‘Law-Giver’ (Mahatma Gandhi). In the bunch there were letters written by the Law-Giver to her as well, in green ink, addressing her as ‘Pearl’.... I was consumed by a desire to learn more about Saraladebi and took the bunch of letters to my recently widowed mother, who knew about them but had not really read them. Tears flooding her eyes, she re-read them and said (in Hindi), “Jaise rishi muniyon ki pariksha hoti thi. Apsaraon ko bheja jata thaa. Us hi tarah hamare Bapuji ki bhi pariksha hui. Aur Bapuji us agni pariksha mein vijayi hue.... Saraladebi se humein koi shikayat nahin. Ve pariksha ki maatr ma­dhyam thi bas. (Just like rishis and munis were tested by apsaras being sent to them. In the same way Bapuji was put on test and Bapu stood victorious in that test by fire. We have no complaint with Saraladebi. She mer­ely became a medium of the test and trial).” Gandhi’s letters to Saraladebi could be understood better if her own lett­ers to Gandhi were available for pub­lic view. As mentioned by Gopal­krishna Gandhi, after Gandhi’s assassination they were in the cust­ody of his youngest son Devdas, who kept them as the family’s personal possession. After Devdas’s death, they were unavailable and perhaps lost forever. Their existence would have cer­tainly put an end to the speculation as to the real nature of Gandhi’s relationship with the woman who almost broke his marriage.

Post Script: Saraladebi’s husband Rambhuj Dutt Chowdhari died in 1923. She bid farewell to Lahore soon after and moved to Calcutta. In 1935, she became a recluse and a sanyasin and found her peace in the Himalayas. She died in 1945, aged 73. She was survived by her son Deepak, who got married to Maganlal Gandhi’s daughter Radha (Gandhi’s grand-­­niece), after both Gandhi and Saraladebi had passed away.

(My Experiment With Gandhi by Pramod Kapoor will be published in 2015.)




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