How India forgot its most famous woman on her 150th birth anniversary

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 11, 2019 12:06 hrs
Kasturba

Today, 150 years ago, a little girl let out her first cries as her parents held her up. These were parents who would not know in their lifetime that their child would become the most famous Indian woman, someone who’d change the destiny of India in her own way without realising it and yet whose contributions would neither be recorded, nor cherished either in her lifetime, or later.

So much so that even on the 150th birth anniversary of this woman, there’d be no functions held to commemorate her.

Her life and her story would thus become the epitome of the rampant patriarchy and misogyny that continues to persist in India despite a lot having changed.

Let me also indulge in patriarchy for a moment and begin by what her husband – by far India’s most famous Indian globally – wrote of her: “I learnt the lesson of non-violence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will, on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering my stupidity involved, on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her and, in the end, she became my teacher in non-violence. And what I did in South Africa was but an extension of the rule of Satyagraha which she unwillingly practiced in her own person.

As you no doubt have guessed, the woman is Kastur Kapadia i.e. Kastur Gandhi or as you might know her – Kasturba Gandhi, married to Mohandas aka Mahatma Gandhi.

Today is the age of fame, spectacle and celebration for things that at times don’t deserve them. We seem eager to commemorate dates and events with a gusto as if it were humanity’s last day on the planet.

No one does spectacle better than political parties. Yet, look at the two biggest political parties in the nation today.

In essence, because of her husband who was practically the greatest Congressi of all time, Kasturba ended up working for the congress party all her life. It is also a party that has not only given India its first and as yet only Prime Minister, but for most of this millennium has been led by one. Yet, in the thousands of branches of the Congress party across the country, not one is commemorating Kasturba’s birthday.

The ruling party – BJP – seems to have gone a step ahead in ensuring that even a few who’d have remembered the day, couldn’t celebrate it with half the nation going into elections today. This isn’t a least bit surprising considering that BJP is the sister organization of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha – two groups that had called giving equal rights to women in the 1950s under the Hindu Code Bill, an act that would destroy Hinduism.

Let’s get into the public domain. You’d think such a famous woman would at least tickle the interest of publishers to have books on her. The truth is quite the reverse. In the 1960s when Kasturba’s grandson Arun Manilal Gandhi along with his wife Sunanda - researched for 30 years and completed a biography of Kasturba – the couple couldn’t find a single publisher in India willing to publish it. Why don’t you instead write a book on your grandfather instead and we’ll publish it, Arun Gandhi was told. After years of struggle, he found a small publisher in a remote corner of USA who did publish the book.

Thanks to that publisher Ozark Mountain Publishing - the book ‘Forgotten Woman: The Untold Story of Kastur Gandhi’ came out and remains the only authoritative and good biography about her. The rest that are available are either eulogies or like the book The Secret Diary of Kasturba by Neelima Adhar Dalmia - an interpretation of her life.

All this begs us to ask the question – what was Kasturba’s contribution to India really? Wasn’t she just her husband’s shadow and wasn’t her contributions inspired by him?

If you read Mahatma Gandhi’s biography (which cover only the first fifty odd years of his life), you’ll discover what a difficult man he was – which he had the honesty to openly admit when he wrote, “Ba will feel the shock the most. But she is born to endure shocks. All those who form or keep connections with me must pay a heavy price. It can be said that Ba has to pay the heaviest.

Even today we find it difficult to adjust to changes around. But the number of changes that Mohandas brought into his household - travelling from one continent to another; experimenting with ways of living, eating, work, lifestyle – would be unprecedented even by todays’ standards. Everyone close to him, from his wife, to his sons, to his closest comrades, had to suffer because of this.

Ironically, those changes were brought about because when Mohandas needed money to go to England to study, it was Kastur who gave him her jewels against his own will. This ensured Mohandas would go and study in England to become a barrister. What he would see, hear, think and do there, would change the course of not just his, but the nation’s life forever.

Kasturba had to tag along with him for most of the first half of her life and in South Africa as he got involved with one movement after another, lead such a stressful, uncertain life that she often didn’t know where her husband or her kids were most of the time – in jail alive, or killed by a mob or cops.

Not just that, she became the first woman Satyagrahi to be put in South African prison that had despicable conditions, and almost die from complications endured during the incarcerations.

However, it was back in India and well past her 50s in the 1920s, that Kasturba found her own. Yes, she did move along with her husband and helped him in his work, but she did it with a gusto and foresight few could have seen.

While Bapu planned the battles with the British, Ba planned and arranged the logistics for the same – be it his, or those of the thousands of his closest followers many of whom lived with them in different ashrams all their lives. If Bapu was the general, Ba was his commander in chief, albeit one who never courted the limelight – unlike her illustrious husband.

There were many things she’d do – along with the Mahatma and often on her own. And I suggest you read Arun Gandhi’s excellent book for the same. However, having researched her life for a web-series a few years ago (that also never got made despite the immense interest by producers and makers alike) I realised that her greatest achievement is something that isn’t written down in the few books or articles written about her.

The world 150 or 100 years ago, was extremely different to the world that is today. Indeed it was the very opposite in many ways. When doing research on women back then, I found very few Indian women’s photographs from those times. Most of the women whose photos I did find from 150 to 100 years ago, were those of circus girls, gypsies and prostitutes.

The reason for this was that beyond its many division of religion and caste – the one thing that India was united about, was keeping its women under lock and key.

It is in this context that we must understand what I believe is the greatest contribution of the Gandhi couple – getting women of India into the public domain.

Mahatma Gandhi, in his visits to England when he was still in South Africa in the first decade of the 20th century, was hugely inspired by the suffragette movement. And to his great credit, keeping aside the diktats in many of the religious books he admired and was inspired by – realised that if India was to be free of British rule, women had to come out in public.

He wrote, “I have put all my hopes in women. I strongly feel that the ultimate victory of non-violence depends wholly on women. I believe the strength which women possess is given them by God. Hence they are bound to succeed in whatever they undertake.

However, bringing women out into the open was easier said than done. He could cry hoarse from rooftops about it, but deeply patriarchal and Brahminical India would never allow that. Indeed, by most accounts, it didn’t work at first – neither in South Africa nor, later, in India. Gradually, however, when the men saw Kasturba not only working shoulder to shoulder with the Mahatma, but also providing a space where all the women can gather, the men opened up.

Kasturba’s hut and heart became the place where Indian women first gathered together on their own in such large numbers, after thousands of years of an unsaid, unspoken bondage. I still get goosebumps just thinking of that time and I wish I could be there, just observing these what are undoubtedly some of the most landmark moments in the history of the world.

Yes, the focus of these women then was towards the freedom of India. But the same women, once India was free – would go ahead and demand their rights, and many of these women would lead the first feminist battles post-independence. These were the women from across the nation who would lend support to B R Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru when they fought off traditionalists and patriarchal minded Hindus who said giving women equal rights would destroy Hinduism.

And you know who were the men who stood by these women who were defying thousands of years old tradition – the same men who had seen Kasturba Gandhi at work – the Gandhians and Nehruvians.

I have a personal memory of the contribution of the Gandhi couple to this nation, the significance of which I would understand only recently, 30 years later.

In the late 1980s, in the chawl that I lived in, a frail woman in her 80s, would come to pick discarded plastic. She looked no different than the thousands of such rag-picking women you’ll still find across India.

Taking pity on her, my mother once offered her money. She refused to take it. Over the next few years that we saw her, mom wouldn’t throw away the used plastic in the house, but keep it for her. And she would have me give it to her. I started chatting with her and she told me that though she had been thrown out of her house by her sons and their wives, she and her husband had fought for the nation during independence. She says she had participated in the 1930 salt satyagraha as well.

When I asked what has it got to do with her not taking a few pennies from us, she said the Gandhi couple had taught her the dignity of labour. She might be frail and on the last legs of her life, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t live her life with whatever dignity she could afford – so what if she picked rags and slept on the railway platform.

One day the woman just stopped coming and we figured she might have died. What did not die with her, is the idea of dignity of labour and to this day whenever I find myself in tears due to my misfortunes, I remember the fortitude of that woman whose name I don’t even know, and I pull myself out of depression.

There were hundreds of women whose lives Kasturba touched personally. Let me give you one example of Dr. Sushila Nayyar, one of the few female doctors of her time. As a teen, Sushila wanted to dedicated he life to the satyagraha movement but it was Kasturba who convinced her that a bright young girl like her could do much more for the country by becoming something else.

When she decided to become a doctor, her mother objected and it was only on the insistence of Kasturba that she finally relented. This Dr. Sushila Nayyar was present on the day, when Sardar Patel would suffer a heart attack. Her presence there and quick actions would save the life of the Ironman of India and the Sardar would live to take many actions to unify India post that including the Army action against the Hyderabad monarchy.

Talking of Sardar, there was his motherless daughter Manibehn, who found a mother in Kasturba who would inspire her to dedicated her life to the service of the nation, first through her father, then on her own.

My research on her life had thrown many such events and incidents from Kasturba Gandhi’s life. I don’t want to tell them all. Indeed I have barely told you any. What, however, I wanted to do is pique your interest enough for you to go ahead, buy-beg-borrow-steal the book on her life by Arun Gandhi and find out for yourself.

There may not be even one event commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi today (thankfully there are enough to celebrate another great Indian’s birthday – Jyotiba Phule), but there is hope that her legacy wouldn’t be forgotten. Thanks to the interest and efforts of Arun Gandhi - who even at 85 continues to be passionate about the grandmother who secretly fed him his favourite sweetmeats despite ashram rules against it – and his son Tushar Gandhi, the various organisations involved in preserving Gandhi’s legacy, have been focussing on Kasturba Gandhi as well in the last few years.

On February 22, 1944, Kastur Kapadia Gandhi breathed her last in prison. 150 years since her birth and 75 since her death, it seems her memory continues to live behind the bars of our apathy, patriarchy and misogyny.

Yet, I hope, perhaps the future would do justice to the legacy of this - one of the greatest daughters of India - than the past ever has.

(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a screenwriter, researcher, journalist based in Mumbai. He writes mostly on cinema and politics. He is currently writing a spec script on R&AWs 1971 exploits.)

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