Life Sketch Kasturba Gandhi

Life Sketch of Kasturba

Kasturba was born in Porbandar in April 1869, a few months before Gandhiji and in the same town. Her father, Gokuldas Makanji, was a merchant and a friend of Gandhiji's father, Karamchand or 'Kaba' Gandhi. Both the parents decided to knit their families closer together by marrying their two children. At that time early marriage was a common custom in Saurashtra, as in many other parts of India. So, the betrothal of the two children, Mohandas and Kasturbai, took place in their seventh year. The actual wedding, however, was celebrated in 1882, when the two began to live together as husband and wife at the early age of thirteen. Referring to his marriage Gandhiji later observed in his Autobiography as follows-

"I do not think it meant to me anything more than the prospect of good clothes to wear, drum-beating, marriage processions, rich dinners and a strange girl to play with....Little did I dream that one day I should severely criticize my father for having married me as a child. Everything on that day seemed to me right and proper and pleasing. There was also my own eagerness to get married ".

The Girl-wife and the Boy-husband

Their married life in their parental home was a normal one, of mutual faithfulness and marital love. In fact, as little children without any sense of self-restraint family responsibility, both played at the amusing game husband and wife. The fond husband wanted the child wife to be always near him, more so as meeting during the day was against the family custom. The child Kasturba was no less fond of Mohandas. The restraints imposed on the girl-wife by the boy-husband led to sweet little bickering now and then which, however, always ended in greater love and more fondness of the two for each other.

The only thing which was somewhat unusual was the attempt by the husband to play the teacher of his little wife, during the short hours of the night. Kasturba was illiterate, and Mohandas confidently undertook to be her tutor as well as lover, and generally failed as a tutor if he ever quite succeeded as a lover. Nothing is however more pathetic than the long, interrupted but persistent efforts of the husband to become the teacher of his wife up to the last. In early years the husband superseded the teacher, and later public work left him little time for teaching. Kasturba now and then felt repentant for not being able to enjoy reading and writing like many others. She was always in the forefront of political movements and had occasionally to play 'Bapu' by facing pressmen and in issuing statements. During the Bardoli Satyagraha while attempting to exercise the privilege of a leader dictating press statements, she confessed, "I was illiterate when I joined Bapu as his life's partner at the age of thirteen". He was very anxious that I should learn to read, but my progress was very slow. I took several months to learn the script. But Bapu was very patient with me though sometimes he felt desperate at my slow progress. I wish I had attended school. If only I knew newspapermen would sometimes harass me for 'statements'. But I don't like newspapermen. They are not truthful in their work...."Though she learnt only a little she persevered to the end. She was studying a Gujarati primer at sixty two. In jail at the Aga Khan Palace, at the age of 75, Bapu again resumed the onerous duty of being her teacher. The result was always the same. He sat with her daily and gave her lessons in Gujarati grammar, poetry, history and geography and Sanskrit. But it was now too late. Kasturba's health began to fail rapidly and her worries added to her mental depression. A life-long effort at teaching his partner yielded little result.

She Became the Mother of All

Kasturba had four sons - Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devadas. All the mother's tenderness was lavished on the youngest and all her compassion was poured on the eldest. Perhaps she gave them what they needed most. Nothing is more touching than the vigilant solicitude with which her mother's love pursued the chequered and sorry life of Harilal. Her letter to him on his conversion to Islam and his evil ways of life is full of deep pathos and a mother's undying devotion. The care and anxious love with which Devadas waited on her during her last moments in the Aga Khan Palace was nothing but a part repayment by a devoted son for the inexhaustible love of a mother. Whatever differences or dissatisfactions the sons had with their father, they had nothing but tender love for their mother. They always loved and lived for each other in perfect peace and harmony, as a happy family. Kasturba had no daughter, and once out of self-pity she expostulated with a mother who was sorrowing about an only son who was away and a daughter who was married and had gone to her husband's. "You are lucky you have at least a daughter of your own. It must be nice to be loved by a daughter. I have no daughter of my own. We took one by adoption. She is Laxmi whom we got from a Harijan family. But even she is denied to me. Bapu is away, my sons are away, Laxmi is away-all working for Hindustan. The only consolation is that it is all for the sake of the country." In fact, during her long life the fond mother was for long periods separated from Harilal and Manilal and met the other two only occasionally. It was a case of a family without a home and almost always on the move. But then Kasturba soon learnt to feel as mother for all those who lived with her, and since Bapu's family after 1896 was always joint and growing one, the mother's care thereafter went out to this larger family.

Ba* began her role as Mother in the Phoenix Ashram in South Africa and continued it in the Sabarmati and Sevagram Ashrams in India. From thence her loving care spread like a great blossoming and flowering tree to innumerable sons and daughters, of which Mahadev Desai(Gandhiji's secretary) and Laxmi were but good instances. In the Ashrams, as in all her subsequent life, she lived for others and knew neither so-called domestic happiness nor a home's secluded peace. She became the mother of all. She never behaved like Mrs. Gandhi, and never sought the privileges nor the power of being Gandhiji's wife. Rather she perfected herself as The Mother-even of Gandhiji-never failing in anything that needed doing for her teeming family. It was Ba who made the Ashrams a home for those who sojourned there.

Ba's Place in Bapu's Life

In 1906 Gandhiji started a new way of life in his first Ashram at Phoenix in South Africa. His observance of Brahmacharya (Continence) completely transformed his relations with his wife. Both recovered their freedom by this voluntary renunciation of 'conjugal rights', in order to dedicate their lives for the good of all. Henceforth his work was a rival to the love he had given her, and she was to be for him only second to his cause. And from then Ba's place in Bapu's life became more and more of a vigilant nurse, a careful housewife and a devoted comrade of his long and arduous life. The first was easy and came to Ba, as to most women, quite naturally. Though Bapu knew the laws of health as few doctors know and protected himself against illness, yet his life was not only exceptionally arduous but full of novel experiments. So his body suffered several lapses from health, and it was Ba who took upon herself the task of nursing him back to health. By her ingenuity Ba helped Bapu to arrive at the correct view of his vow not to take milk and made him take goat's milk, and thus survive death. And it was again Ba who during Bapu's 21 days' fast in the Aga Khan Palace in 1943 helped him to outlive the fiery ordeal both by motherly service and heartfelt prayers. Bapu had several opportunities of paying back this heavy debt and serving Ba as nurse, doctor and even midwife, as need arose.

Ba's valued service was as a thrifty and trained house-keeper of Bapu's miscellaneous, fluctuating but everfull guest house. She maintained a clean, orderly kitchen at all times of the day and was always prepared to rise to the situation when unexpected or even unwanted guests arrived. The host was unique and so was the hostess-only more so and quite willing to do the hardest work in a hard-worked home. There are quite a number of amusing stories of unexpected guests arriving at unusual hours, when Bapu would attempt to play the house-keeper on the sly, without disturbing Ba, but would be found out by his watchful help-mate and sent away from the kitchen with a timely and wifely rebuke. Each was afraid of giving trouble to the other and could not help serving the other out of over-flowing love. For service was the inseparable companion of both all through their long lives.

Ba, the Real Comrade of Bapu

To what extent was Ba the real comrade of Bapu in his mission and to what extent was she guided by the principles which moved his life? This is a difficult question to answer. It was not a light task to be the wife and companion of a man like Gandhiji, who had Truth for his goal and self-suffering as his means, and who was always blazing some new trail. Light broke on Ba slowly, and more and more she learnt to appreciate Bapu's various causes". It was difficult for an uneducated and unsophisticated person like her to understand all the implications of what Bapu did, but she identified herself with the general trend of his thoughts. All her bringing up and sentiments were of the traditional type and she found it hard to enter into the spirit of movements like the abolition of untouchability. She admitted a Harijan family into her kitchen and a Harijan child into her home only by an effort of faith in her husband who had become her hero. By Bapu's persuasion and pleading she even learnt to become a regular and good spinner. She resented from the depth of her heart owing to Hindu tradition, the cleaning of pots and chamber-pots used by non-Hindus. But she willingly accepted Muslims and Christians in her large family and was even attached to some of them. Because of Bapu's instructions and self-denying vows she learnt the habit of taking simple food without condiments or sweets or oil. She was allowed to enjoy a little latitude about drinking coffee and Bapu himself would now and then indulge in preparing a hot cup of coffee for her. For the rest she stood solidly behind her great partner-silent, watchful and submissive. She came to believe both by instinct and observation that Bapu was generally right.

Ba, the Symbol of Self-sacrifice

She learnt the art of 'self-effacement' to perfection, which was all the more noteworthy as by nature she was endowed with a strong will of her own and would not brook any outside restraints. She was noble enough to say, "Bapu is a great man. He admits his mistakes and he has never done me any injustice. In disputes with him I have always been in the wrong."Ba was the symbol of self-sacrifice. Her willing renunciation of 'conjugal rights' and 'domestic happiness' and 'a rich comfortable living' for the spiritual growth of her consort was not the less noble because she wanted to live in the shadow of the Mahatma. Ba seldom had Bapu to herself and freely shared him with the world. Seldom was Bapu seen alone with Ba or were they even seen talking to each other, though they were constantly aware of each other. In A week with Gandhiji, Louis Fischer writes in 1942, "Kasturba with sunken face, straight mouth and square Jaw, seemed to listen attentively, but I did not hear or see her say a single word to her husband during the entire week, nor he to her. At meals and prayers she sat slightly behind his left shoulder fanning him solicitously. She always looked at him; he rarely looked at her yet he wanted her nearest to him and there appeared to be perfect understanding between them." And for this willing self-surrender to a person in whom an idea had become flesh, Kasturba reached her height of a perfect comrade. Seldom have wives of great men earned such high gratitude of a nation in life or after death. In fact it may be truly said that no one owed more to her that gratitude than Gandhiji himself. After her death a fitting eulogy was inscribed by him in a letter to Lord Wavell, "We were a couple outside the ordinary... Our continence, after the age of thirty seven, knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. The result was she became truly my Better Half..."

Sturdy Strength and Courage

Ba had courage in plenty. In her girlhood this courage expressed itself in her resistance to the domination of her husband. There was something of sturdy strength in her free, confident and unafraid ways in her early age. This courage manifested itself in her adult days, in an unexpected manner, in Durban (South Africa). In 1906, Gandhiji was mobbed by the Whites on landing and he and his family was surrounded by an infuriated crowd in Parsi Rustomji's bungalow, which the mob wished to burn down. Kasturba then quietly permitted Gandhiji to leave the house by the back door and she herself remained behind with her two sons to face the worst in a foreign land and among hostile people. She proved her mettle in that emergency, when a little timidity would have resulted in a disaster to the whole family. Gandhiji himself has testified that Ba was naturally not afraid of ghosts or of serpents as he was. In his autobiography he mentions in his inimitable simplicity how Ba braved death twice in South Africa and once in India and narrowly escaped it. Once she was suffering from severe haemorrhage and was advised a surgical operation. She was extremely emaciated and the doctor had to perform the operation without Chloroform. "It was successful, but she had to suffer much pain. She, however, went through it with wonderful bravery." But within a few days there was a serious relapse and she was too weak to sit up in bed. The doctor this time insisted on giving her beef-tea for helping her to recoup quickly. Not only Gandhiji but Kasturba herself firmly resisted this. She gave a resolute refusal. "I will not take beef-tea. It is a rare thing in this world to be born as a human being and I would far rather die in your arms than pollute my body with such an abomination."For the -third time at a later date, after another operation she again began getting haemorrhage. When all remedies failed Gandhiji advised her to give up eating salt and pulses. She would not agree and twitted him about his own fondness for them. There and then Gandhiji took the vow himself 'of giving up salt and pulses for one year, whether you do so or not.' This last delightful appeal of devoted love went to her heart and she also gave up salt and pulses and soon recovered from her illness.

Her Jail Life

Ba's courage led her to follow her husband without hesitation in his political movements though it meant suffering and imprisonment. Her first political baptism was during the South African struggle when she was imprisoned for three months and came out of it almost wrecked in body. The next in order was the Borsad Satyagraha in Gujarat, when she received a frantic call from the women of Borsad in 1922. Gandhiji was then in Jail. "We want Ba with us. We want her here to inspire confidence in the town,"was the cry of the women of Borsad. Ba immediately prepared for a dash to Borsad by the next train. Smt. Mithuben Petit, her hostess at Maroli (Surat) pleaded, "You are suffering from anaemia, Ba. The doctor wants you to rest. Let me attend to Borsad instead." Quick came the retort, "I must see those women who have so bravely faced the Lathi charge of the police. I must be with them to give them support. Bapu would have been with them today. But he is not free" She was no more the meek housewife looking after the Ashram. At Nadiad the doctors examined her and prescribed immediate rest. "But I feel fit,"she argued. "After all I do nothing in my life, except follow Bapu, from Place to place, observing the Ashram rules, and taking rest. These moments when I have to work like Bapu are so rare. I cannot think of rest now". The call came again on January 15th, 1932 when she was convicted to six weeks' simple imprisonment. On March 15 she was again arrested and was convicted by the Magistrate of Bardoli to six months' rigorous imprisonment. Again on the 1st of August, 1933, she was taken under custody from Sabarmati Ashram and convicted to six months' imprisonment. In 1939 she volunteered to join the Rajkot struggle as she felt a kind of personal call to return to her home-town on active service. She was seventy then, very weak in health, and was kept in solitary confinement in a village near Rajkot, when she very nearly collapsed. When she was thus in jail, Bapu undertook his fast which almost led to his physical breakdown. Her imprisonment in 1942 in the Aga Khan Palace, where she died, was only the last coping stone of a career of political resistance to foreign rule, in which she never faltered or lagged behind the bravest in the struggle.

Pillar of Confidence

In fact it was her example that not only roused the women of the land to fight for their political emancipation, but also gave confidence to Gandhiji about the success of non-violence as a sure weapon when wielded by women. That political liberation of women has been followed by their social emancipation and the high position which women enjoy in free India is due to the lead given by Kasturba, more than to any other woman. It was also from her that Bapu learnt practical lessons in the art of non-violence, which comes so naturally to a courageous woman. That the Indian National Congress has strong roots in the country at large is not a little due to the support it has always received from the women of India. That they are behind it is mainly due to Kasturba being always in the forefront of the movements launched by it. That Gandhiji touched and penetrated the lives of women inside thousands of homes was due largely to the strength which Ba's presence lent to his voice.

In her last imprisonment in the Aga Khan Palace in 1942, Kasturba did not keep well. She was seventy-four. But more than her age it was the mental worries that told on her very heavily. The death of Mahadev Desai on the 15th of August, 1942 was to her like the loss of her own son, and the blow was too heavy even for Bapu to bear. She felt that this time life in jail would be long, for the Government was determined not to come to early terms. The big walls of the Palace guarded by Santries behind barbed wires and the separation from near and dear ones became more and more unbearable for her. Nearness to Bapu was the only consolation. But even this tried her to the breaking point when he undertook his 21 days fast. "Never before had she looked so worn out and aged as she did now. Her eyes were full of mute anguish and despair. Daily she fervently prayed, bending on her knees before a Tulsi plant, pouring out her heartfelt tears." The fast terminated on the 3rd of March, 1943, but after that Ba never recovered completely. The Bombay Government issued on March 19th, 1943 a communique that she had had two heart attacks during the course of the week. Thereafter she had some more heart attacks, and at her request the Government agreed to allow her relations to see her. Kanu Gandhi was brought to nurse her and an Ayurvedic physician was generally in attendance. On February 1st, 1944 she had a severe heart attack and from then her condition rapidly deteriorated. She expired on 22nd of February.

The Majestic End

Gandhiji kept vigil during the whole night. When the day broke on February 23, about 150 relatives and friends were allowed inside the Palace to attend the funeral rites. Gandhiji kept seated near Kasturba's body in deep meditation. Dressed in a white sari, woven out of yarn spun by Gandhiji and covered by a jail sheet, with Kumkum annointed on her forehead, her body covered with flowers, she was carried in a bier to the cremation place where Mahadev's last rites were performed. For about six hours Gandhiji stayed near the pyre. Under the blazing Sun, he stood leaning on a staff. "At this moment", he said, "how can I separate myself from my old and faithful companion...? I cannot even imagine life without Ba. She was a part and parcel of myself. Her death will leave a permanent void in my life which will never be filled."Referring to the last moments of Kasturba, he observed, "Ba's calling me thus at her last moment and her passing away while lying on my lap is really a wonderful thing. Such a kind of relationship between husband and wife does not exist generally among us."Following her death Hartals were observed all over India. A stream of condolences poured into the Palace including one from the then Viceroy. Tributes were showered on Ba by the foreign and Indian Press. No one's death in recent times had evoked such universal sorrow. “Wealth she knew not. Pomp she never displayed. Power she tasted not. And authority she never exercised. Yet hers was a full and rich life."

*Bapu literally means father; a term of endearment and respect used for Gandhiji.

*Ba means mother and was used to refer to Kasturba as Bapu (father) was used for Gandhiji.

[Source: By N. R. Malkani, Kasturba Memorial]