Gandhi with his grandniece
Manu, Delhi, 1947 (Photo: Alamy)
The relationship between Gandhi and his grandniece Manu has been a subject of endless curiosity and gossip. The first volume of The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944 puts the spotlight on the teenage caretaker of Kasturba who later became the de facto secretary to Gandhi and takes up writing diaries that are authenticated by Gandhi. The second volume would cover 1946 to 1948 when Manu was Gandhi’s constant companion. She was also Gandhi’s partner in his sexual experiments. Edited excerpts from the Introduction to the first volume by acclaimed scholar Tridip Suhrud, who has edited and translated the diaries from Gujarati:
WITH MANU’S decision not to be a partner in the yajna, the practice of sleeping in the bed stopped, but not Gandhi’s quest to attain truth. As his loneliness became deeper, Gandhi realized that the only true test of his truth, his ahimsa, his brahmacharya, his observance of the eleven Ashram vows would be the manner of his death and his own conduct at the moment. The yajna he felt had brought him nearer to God and truth. On 29 April 1947 he told Manu, ‘I am surrounded by exaggeration and untruth. In spite of my search, I do not know where truth lies.
But I do feel that I have come nearer to God and truth… I have successfully practised the eleven vows undertaken by me. This is the culmination of my striving for the last sixty years… In this yajna I got a glimpse of the ideal of truth and purity for which I have been aspiring. And you have fully contributed towards it.’
He believed that their purity—their, not only his—would allow for atonement of sins of others. ‘As against the sins of crores of men, perfect purity of even two persons will certainly have an effect. Yes, there is this, that these two persons will be severely tested.’
Manu’s ill-health, which was later diagnosed as appendicitis and intestinal tuberculosis, made Gandhi realize that he had again been found wanting in his devotion to Ramanama. If Rama were enshrined in his heart in such a way that even recitation of the name became unnecessary, Manu would be free from ailment. In a letter he shared his agony. ‘Her health would improve to the extent she and I are able to enshrine Ramanama in our hearts. This girl is my partner in this yajna. I have not a shadow of doubt that whatever her thought, word and deed, they are bound to interact on my actions and the purity or impurity of my thought, word and deed will have a bearing on her actions. Therefore, the more sincere I am in reciting the Ramanama the greater will be her improvement.’ To Dr BC Ray he wrote in similar vein: ‘After all I have made her my partner in this yajna. If Ramanama is firmly rooted in my heart, this girl should be free from ailment.’
On 15 May 1947 Manu was operated for appendicitis by Col Dr Dwarka Prasad Bhargava at Patna. Gandhi put on a surgical mask and watched the entire operation. He came home and wrote to Jaisukhlal that his ‘pride had been humbled.’
He had felt closer to god like never before, glimpsed purity that he had been striving for and yet he was found wanting in his devotion to Rama. He confessed to Jaisukhlal: ‘Thus it is that God humbles man’s pride. I do not know what new lessons He is still going to teach me.’
Manu’s operation was an infallible proof that Gandhi’s striving was incomplete and any proof of his striving would be available at the moment of his death. Manu would bear witness to that death and would either proclaim him an imposter or bear testimony to his striving
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For Gandhi, Manu’s operation was an infallible proof that his striving was incomplete and any proof of his striving would be available at the moment of his death. Manu would bear witness to that death and would either proclaim him an imposter or bear testimony to his striving. On 22 May 1947, the day she was released from hospital, he told her that she was to be the witness. ‘During the last eight days, since I sent you to the hospital, I have been thinking where I stand, what God demands of me, where He will ultimately lead me… If I should die of lingering illness, it would be your duty to proclaim to the whole world that I was not a man of God but an imposter and a fraud. If you fail in that duty, I shall feel unhappy wherever I am. But if I die taking God’s name with my last breath, it will be a sign that I was what I strove for and claimed to be.’
We have hitherto followed Gandhi’s striving, his yajna and the deep and abiding disapproval of his closest associates at his adharma through a close reading of his writing and when available, that of his associates.
Two aspects have not emerged in this introductory essay. One is Manu’s writings. The two volumes of her diary presented here are in Manu’s hand. The translation does not omit anything from the source, and at places where the source is damaged or undecipherable, it has been indicated. Th e translation is presented with editorial notes which seek to provide context, biographical details of persons whose presence has faded from our memory, and at places the notes draw attention of the reader to other sources. A similar exercise has been done with the Gujarati original, which would be published almost simultaneously with the English translation by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house established by Gandhi and which has published all of Manu Gandhi’s writings.
The other aspect is equally fundamental. This is about the nature of consent, the question of authority and power.
Gandhi consistently described Manu as a ‘partner’ in the yajna, despite the palpable and obvious hierarchy that defined their relationship. The word ‘partner’ signifies parity, equality, exercise of free will and autonomy.
We should underline that the current formulations of consent would not accept this idea of parity that the term ‘partner’ posits between Gandhi and Manu. We know that Manu consented to be a partner in this yajna and the practice stopped when she withdrew her consent. There is no indication in either her diaries or in Gandhi’s writings or the writings of NK Bose and Pyarelal that once she communicated her desire to discontinue the practice, that Gandhi sought to persuade her otherwise.
BUT, WE ARE looking at consent in an accepted but a very narrow and, limited sense. The question of consent has to be posed in a sense in which it would or better still, ought to make sense to Gandhi, however a-historical, counter-factual and hence speculative the exercise is.
We know that Gandhi did not share the traditional view of male brahmacharis that women are the cause of breach or failure of brahmacharya. Only once in his life did he succumb to this view, but soon he realized the deep falsehood of this proposition and re-affirmed that any failure of his brahmacharya or any shortcomings in his realization of perfect brahmacharya lay only within himself. This allowed him to recognize the quest of women brahmacharis.
And for this reason the question of consent from within his worldview that we need to ask is this: Would Gandhi have consented to be a partner in a yajna sought to be undertaken by a woman brahmachari? Would he have consented to become a partner where the primary striving to see God face-to-face, to attain self-realization, to achieve moksha by becoming an ideal Ashramite and a perfect brahmachari was that of a woman co-worker?
Gandhi consistently described Manu as a ‘partner’ in the yajna, despite the palpable and obvious hierarchy that defined their relationship. The word ‘partner’ signifies parity, equality, exercise of free will and autonomy
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If he were so willing, that would be true consent and partnership.
But if his answer were to be negative, he would from within his own worldview be committing adharma, not only as violation of morality, of right conduct and duty, but also in his incapacity to recognize truth from untruth, he would cease to be a satyagrahi of his own description.
Manu saw Gandhi as her Mother. She was the only one who claimed that she saw him as a woman, as a mother, while for all others he remained Bapu. She exclaimed—and it should be noted during the period of yajna—in joy of having him as her mother.
‘And, oh, joy! I am actually having that experience! It is I who am that beloved child of Mother Bapu! I am immensely happy at my rare good fortune!’
(Edited excerpts from The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944 | Edited and translated by Tridip Suhrud | Oxford University Press | 248 pages | Rs 750)