In a moment of self-deception, I convinced myself that the question was posed to me, personally. It was vainly satisfying to think that the editor wanted me to recount in the first person singular my personal, intellectual, and institutional engagement with the life and thought of MK Gandhi. I should have known better; neither is my engagement with Gandhi unique nor creative to merit recounting. And a person who could not survive the memorial of his Ashram at Sabarmati with equanimity sans Gandhi would have hardly survived, even counterfactually, the ashramic existence with Gandhi in attendance as a preceptor and his nephew Maganlal Khushalchand Gandhi (1883-1928) as the disciplinarian-in-chief.
There were many who aspired to live with Gandhi and many who did, not permanently but for significant periods to leave a mark on Gandhi. This is a story of some of them who shared their lodgings with Gandhi before he came back to India in 1915 to lead a largely public life, so well-documented that it barely merits recounting here.
There is Josiah Oldfield (1863-1953), Oxford theologian, barrister and physician, a fellow member of the Vegetarian Society with whom Gandhi lived as a friend and an equal during his student days in London, perhaps the only Englishman to do so in those early years. Oldfield spent several years in India, almost forgotten by present-day historians, as a personal physician to the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, an appointment one imagines done at the recommendation of Gandhi. It was with Oldfield that Gandhi as a student, and by now an advocate of Henry Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism, organised ‘banquets’, a vegetarian supper in West London consisting of a sumptuous fare of lentil soup followed by boiled rice and large raisins. Oldfield recalled, “These were happy days of consciousness that we were helping to make the world better, and they formed a fine training ground in which Gandhi learnt that by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men’s minds than by any oratory and loud trumpeting.”
One of the most curious cases of those who shared lodging with Gandhi is Sheikh Mehtab, a classmate of his elder brother in Rajkot who gave Gandhi and his brother a taste of meat as a requirement for anti-colonial politics to challenge the “mighty Englishmen who stood five-cubits tall” and even paid a bill for a brothel where Mehtab hoped Gandhi would be initiated in other ‘manly’ pursuits. These experiences notwithstanding, Mehtab, who had also made his way to South Africa, came to share Gandhi’s lodgings in Natal. This house, the Beach Groove Villa, was the first proper house that Gandhi had set up befitting his status as a barrister and a spokesperson for the Indian community in Natal. This house would also be the first that he and Kastur (not yet Ba) shared without the presence of the joint family in Rajkot and before his need for community living made householding untenable for them. It has been vividly described: “a semi-detached, ginger-brown house, with a dull red corrugated roof and fancy wood-worked balcony and verandah, facing on the lane, between Mrs. Favill’s tea room and Pope’s carriage works on Smith Street, which ran down to the water’s edge and which the corporation thoughtfully had retained with a wall and then paved for Harry Escombe. Across the lane from Gandhi’s thin iron gate was the Attorney General’s manse, Bay View. In the back was a yard of gray soil with a combination of swing and chinning bar.” In this very posh neighbourhood lived Gandhi with Sheik Mehtab as a companion and help. Mehtab, dependent upon Gandhi’s generosity and friendship, abused the trust by inviting prostitutes to the house while Gandhi was busy at his chambers; when discovered, he was aggressively unrepentant and got thrown out. Mehtab and his wife Fatima later took part in the Satyagraha in South Africa, his poems were routinely published in the Indian Opinion but it appears he was not invited back into the Gandhi household.
When Gandhi moved to Johannesburg and took up chambers on Rissik Street, his family was in India. He occupied a set of rooms behind the chambers. His first biographer, Rev Joseph Doke, records the indifferent working and living spaces that were intended for work and not for show: “It was meagrely furnished and dusty. A few pictures were scattered along the walls. They were chiefly photographs of no great merit… photographs of Mrs (Annie) Besant, Sir William Wilson Hunter, Justice (Madhav Govind) Ranade—several separate Indian portraits—and a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ.” Gandhi, always an indifferent cook, preferred to eat at one of the two vegetarian establishments in Johannesburg, both of which he patronised and supported by investing money (in one instance, £1,000) in them. Albert West, a printer, who along with his wife and sister was to join the Phoenix Settlement, recalled the scene at the establishment of Adolf Ziegler, a German health enthusiast who practised Kuhne’s hydropathic treatment which Gandhi was to make his own: “I first met Gandhi in a vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg in 1903. Around a large table sat a mixed company of men comprising a stock broker from the United States who operated an exchange in gold and diamond shares, an accountant from Natal, a machinery agent, a young Jewish member of the Theosophical Society, a working tailor from Russia, Gandhi the lawyer, and me a printer. Everybody in Johannesburg talked about the share market, but these men were food reformers interested in vegetarian diet, Kuhne baths, earth poultices, fasting, etc.”
Henry Solomon Leon Polak (1882-1959) born to a Jewish family in Dover, England, went over to South Africa in 1903 for a health cure and after working as a journalist at The Transvaal Critic in Johannesburg, joined Gandhi, becoming a close colleague in the cause of Indians’ rights in South Africa and one of the leaders of the Indian Passive Resistance Movement. He holds an abiding place in Gandhi’s career as the person who introduced Gandhi to Ruskin’s Unto This Last, a book which as Gandhi himself has said, altered the course of his life. Polak and Gandhi shared a house from 1904 to 1906 at 11, Albermarle Street in Johannesburg. Millie Graham Polak (1881-1962), of Scottish Christian descent, joined her then fiancée in December 1905 and they were married with Gandhi acting as a witness. She describes this household and more memorably her first impression of Gandhi with whose life the lives of the Polaks were to remain intertwined and whose early biographer she was to become. “My first impression of Mr. Gandhi was of a medium sized man, rather slenderly built, skin not very dark, mouth rather heavily lipped, a small dark moustache and the kindest eyes in the world, that seemed to light up from within when he spoke. His eyes were his most remarkable feature and were in reality the lamps of his soul; one could read so much from them,” she wrote. Gandhi and Kasturba shared this house with their three sons, Manilal (aged twelve), Ramdas (aged nine) and Devadas (aged six) with the Polaks as well as an Englishman, described by Millie Graham as “engaged in telegraphic service” and a young Indian ward of Gandhi’s (most likely his sister Raliyat’s son Gokuldas). She describes the modern villa-type house: “The house was situated in a fairly good middle-class neighbourhood, on the outskirts of town. It was a double-storied, detached eight-roomed building of the modern villa type, surrounded by a garden, and having, in front, the open spaces of the kopjes. The upstairs verandah was roomy enough to sleep on it, if one wished to do so, and indeed, in warm weather, it was often so used.” Everyone except Kastur wore European-style clothes, the entire household would come together for dinner each day. Millie has described the after-dinner family life: “After dinner, if no strangers were present, we used to sit together whilst Mr. Gandhi or one of his wards intoned a couple of slokas or verse from the Bhagvad Gita, whilst my husband would read the English equivalent from Arnold’s beautiful Song Celestial.
Mr. Gandhi explained the difficult passages to us and general discussion followed.” It is tempting to trace the origins of Gandhi’s congregational evening prayer to this family ritual.
In August 1906 the Gandhis and the Polaks moved to a humble four-roomed house in the Bellevue East suburb of Johannesburg. All the rooms were so small that none could accommodate two single beds: “The little house to which I was taken was devoid of any pretence of beauty or of the things that I had been accustomed to look upon as necessities. There were no carpets or rugs to cover the bare deal boards of the floor, no curtains to the windows, only some ugly yellow blinds to keep some suggestion of privacy. Of course, there was not a picture on the yellow-washed walls, and only the furniture of the simplest was installed in the house.” Millie did however convince Gandhi to invest in carpets and curtains.
Even rooms with beds were to become a luxury soon as Gandhi and Polak, along with Gandhi’s nephews who had come to South Africa to earn a livelihood, became ‘settlers’ at the Phoenix Settlement outside of Durban. It was here that Kasturba and Gandhi raised the roof of their home and widened the walls to create a first “ashram like” community and increasingly obliterate the difference between personal and public. The life at Phoenix has been best described by Prabhudas Chhaganlal Gandhi (1901-95), an outstanding writer in Gujarati, whose Jivan nu Parodh (Life’s Dawn) remains the only detailed account of the life-story of the Gandhi family. He was almost the same age as Gandhi’s youngest son Devadas, still a young boy, when the move to Phoenix happened and the excitement of living in wilderness to transform it through their own bodily labour is evident in his recollections. But clearly, neither Ba nor Millie shared the enthusiasm of the young boys or of Gandhi, Polak and Gandhi’s nephews Chhaganlal and Maganlal who were the other pioneers. Millie and Ba spent the first night together, a night when Gandhi and other men were trying to get the recalcitrant printing press to work: “She and I shared a little room the first night we arrived, and lay there awake talking and grumbling for hours.”
The relationship with Kallenbach had a deep impact on Gandhi. It was Kallenbach who taught Gandhi to think with his hands. Gandhi’s exceptional engagement with the material world had its roots in his friendship with Kallenbach
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As the community at Phoenix transformed itself from a settler group to a community of satyagrahis, Gandhi moved into the house of Hermann Kallenbach (1871-1945), and they remained housemates for five years (1908-13). Born in Neustadt, East Prussia, to a Jewish family, Kallenbach trained and apprenticed as a mason, carpenter, building technician and an architect; a keen sportsman, he shared with Gandhi his premises in different venues as in The Kraal and under canvas at The Tents outside Johannesburg and, most famously in 1910, on his own 1,100-acre property later named Tolstoy Farm, also near Johannesburg, on which they set up a colony for families of satyagrahis and others to cultivate self-reliance through carpentry, gardening, sandal-making and austerity. Of the many friendships that Gandhi had, the relationship with Kallenbach left a deep, indelible impact on Gandhi. It was Kallenbach who taught Gandhi to think with his hands. The exceptional engagement with the material world that Gandhi developed—working with wood, carpentry, leather, agricultural labour and later with spinning, weaving and dyeing—had its roots in the friendship with Kallenbach. It was to Kallenbach that Gandhi hurriedly dictated the English paraphrase of Hind Swaraj. He accompanied Gandhi and Kasturba on their return voyage to India via England in 1914 with an intention of living with them in India but was detained in England as an “enemy alien” (1915-17) due to World War I. Gandhi missed his architectural vision while creating the Satyagrahashram at Sabarmati. He would often say, “If Kallenbach were here, he would be in charge of the plans of the Ashram and he would build it after his own heart.” Kallenbach’s carpentry and architectural sensibility is evident in the assembly of beams that Gandhi made for his house ‘Hriday Kunj’, on the banks of Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. The trusses used at ‘Hriday Kunj’ are technically referred to as King Post Trusses, a closed triangle with a central post and two diagonal splayed struts. Reflecting on their relationship, Mahadev Desai wrote with a tinge of envy: “Those years of their chummery in Johannesburg must have been divinely happy.”
The person who stayed with him the longest and gave him divine happiness was Kastur, both when she was Vahali Kastur (Beloved Kastur) and Ba. The story of their conjugality, their comradery and their householding has proved elusive to most biographers of Gandhi and the few who have attempted Ba’s story.