Mridula Gandhi

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A history: Manuben diaries
Mahatma Gandhi with Manuben (Right) and Abha

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Mahatma & Manuben

India Today


JUNE 7, 2013

"While the flames on the funeral pyre were consuming Bapu's body, I felt like sitting till well after the funeral was over...Bapu was there two days ago, yesterday at least his body was there and today I am all alone. I am totally distraught." - Manuben

Newly discovered diaries of Gandhi's personal attendant reveal how his experiments with celibacy changed her life

She is one of the most recognised faces in Indian history, always by Mahatma Gandhi's side as his "walking stick" in his last two years. Yet, she remains a mystery. Just 17 when she rejoined the Mahatma as one of his personal assistants in 1946, she was the great man's constant companion till his assassination. Yet, Mridula Gandhi, or Manuben as she is widely known, died a lonely spinster at the age of 40 in Delhi.

Manuben was portrayed by Supriya Pathak in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982). More than four decades after her death, India Today has got access to 10 of her diaries, written in Gujarati and running into 2,000 pages. Studied in detail by Gujarati academic Rizwan Kadri, the diaries, which begin from April 11, 1943, reveal the psychological impact of Gandhi's experiment with his sexuality on Manuben. They also throw light on the jealousy and anger rife at the heart of Gandhi's entourage, many of them young women. The diaries begin when Manuben, a grandniece of Gandhi, came to Aga Khan Palace in Pune to look after Gandhi's wife Kasturba during the couple's internment starting from 1942 following the Quit India movement. Manuben nursed Kasturba in her final months of illness. The diary entries end 22 days after January 30, 1948, the day Nathuram Godse pushed aside Manuben to fire three shots at Gandhi from a 9mm Beretta.

The diaries, in which Gandhi often signed on the margins, reveal a girl devoted to him. In an entry on December 28, 1946, at Srirampur, Bihar, nine days after joining the then 77-year-old Gandhi who was on a walk through of troubled villages after massacres in Noakhali in then East Bengal, she writes: "Bapu is a mother to me. He is initiating me to a higher human plane through the Brahmacharya experiments, part of his Mahayagna of character-building. Any loose talk about the experiment is most condemnable." Pyarelal, Gandhi's secretary, endorsed this view in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, "He did for her everything that a mother usually does for her daughter. He supervised her education, her food, dress, rest, and sleep. For closer supervision and guidance, he made her sleep in the same bed with him. Now a girl, if her mind is innocent, never feels embarrassment in sleeping with her mother." She, in turn, was his primary personal attendant-massaging and bathing him as well as cooking for him.

The diaries go into the details of the lives of Gandhi's women associates like Dr Sushila Nayar, his personal physician and Pyarelal's sister, and who later became Union health minister, as well as his Rajput-Muslim follower Bibi Amtussalam. They also indicate the intense jealousy over who would be part of the Mahatma's experiments with celibacy. Manuben's diary entry dated February 24, 1947, at Haimchar, Bihar, states: "Today Bapu wrote a strong letter to Amtussalamben saying that the element of regret that his celibacy experiment didn't start with her was apparent in her letter to him."

The diaries, which found their way to the National Archives in Delhi in 2010, also show Pyarelal, despite being 47 years old, making repeated overtures to Manuben with Sushila Nayar pushing the case. Manuben finally makes a telling entry on February 2, 1947, at Dashdharia, Bihar: "I see Pyarelalji as my elder brother and nothing else. The day I decide to marry my guru, my elder brother or my grandfather, I shall marry him. Don't force me on this any further."

Manuben's jottings also give an insight into the growing disquiet among Gandhi's followers over his celibacy tests. In a diary entry of January 31, 1947, when she was at Navgram, Bihar, Manuben refers to a letter to Gandhi from his close follower Kishorelal Mashruwala where he calls her "Maya" (an illusion or a temptress) and asks the Mahatma to free himself off her clutches. To this, Gandhi replies: "You do whatever you want but I am firm in my belief regarding this experiment." Even as Manuben and Gandhi walked through Noakhali in Bengal, two of his entourage- R.P. Parasuram, who had acted as his secretary, and Nirmal Kumar Bose, also his secretary and later director of Anthropological Society of India-left in anger over Gandhi's behaviour. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, in a letter to Gandhi on January 25, 1947, currently among the Patel papers housed in the National Archives, asked him to suspend the experiment which Patel called a "terrible blunder" on Gandhi's part that pained his followers "beyond measure".

The deep imprint the Mahatma left on Manuben's psyche is best reflected in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru from Morarji Desai on August 19, 1955, soon after he called on Manuben in August at the Bombay Hospital where she had been admitted for an "unknown" ailment. Desai writes: "Manu's problem is more psychological than physiological. She appears to have despaired for life and developed allergy to all kinds of medicines."

Manuben was one of two persons by the Mahatma's side when he was shot by Nathuram Godse at 5.17 p.m. on January 30, 1948, at Birla House in Delhi, the other being Abhaben Gandhi, wife of his nephew Kanu Gandhi. Manuben writes the next day: "While the flames on the funeral pyre were consuming Bapu's body, I felt like sitting till well after the funeral was over. Sardar Patel comforted me and took me to his home. It was just unimaginable for me. Bapu was there two days ago, yesterday at least his body was there and today I am all alone. I am totally distraught." The next and last entry in the diary is on February 21, 1948, when she left for Mahuva near Bhavnagar from Delhi by train. It says: "Today I left Delhi." In Last Glimpses of Bapu, one of five books Manuben wrote after Gandhi's death, she notes: "Kaka (Gandhi's youngest son Devdas) warned me not to disclose the contents of my diary to anyone and at the same time forbade me to divulge the contents of the important letters… He said, 'You are very young but you possess a lot of valuable literature. And you are also unsophisticated.'"

Even in her 68-page memoir, Bapu: My Mother, Manuben never revealed her feelings about Gandhi's experiments with his sexuality in which she was a part. In one of the 15 chapters, she writes that soon after the death of Kasturba, which happened within 10 months of her moving to Pune, she received a very moving note from Bapu as he was in maunvrat (vow of silence) and could communicate only by writing. Gandhi advised her in that note to go to Rajkot and resume her studies. "From that day Bapu became my mother," Manuben writes in the chapter. The teenaged Manuben, who had studied till Class V in Karachi where her father, Gandhi's nephew Jaisukhlal, worked in the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, also needed a mother-like anchor since she had just lost her mother when she came to Pune.

Manuben's final years were spent by herself. She lived in Mahuva near Bhavnagar in Gujarat for almost 21 years after Gandhi's assassination. She ran a children's school besides floating Bhagini Samaj, which espoused women's issues. Among those who were associated with Manuben during this last phase of her life is Bhanuben Lahiri, from a family of freedom fighters. She was one of the 22 women members of the Samaj. Lahiri recalls the profound impact Gandhi left on his grandniece. Once, she says, when Manuben took a chunari (a scarf-like piece of cloth) from her for the marriage of one of her poor followers, she said: "I see myself as Mirabai (the great medieval saint who worshipped Lord Krishna) who lived only for her Shyamlo (Krishna)."

Commenting on the diaries, psychoanalyst and scholar Sudhir Kakar writes: "So focused was the Mahatma on his own feelings during these experiments that I believe he may have 'chosen' to overlook their consequences for the women involved. Except for the flaring up of violent jealousy between the various women, we do not know the psychological effects, if any, that these experiments left on each of the women."

Now, thanks to the recovery of Manuben's diaries, one can assess the psychological impact the Mahatma had on his intimate companion.

“Let the world say whatever it wants”: Manuben

November 10, 1943, Aga Khan Palace, Pune

Today Bapu, suffering from anaemia, fainted while taking a bath with Sushilaben. Then Sushilaben held Bapu with one hand and wore her clothes with the other and brought him out.

December 21, 1946, Srirampur, Bihar

Tonight, when Bapu, Sushilaben and I were sleeping on the same cot, he embraced me and patted me. He put me to sleep with great love. He embraced me after a very long time. Then Bapu praised me for remaining innocent ( of sexual urges) despite sleeping with him. But this isn’t the case with the other girls. Veena, Kanchan and Lilavati ( other associates of Gandhi) told me that they won’t be able to sleep with him.

January 1, 1947, Kethuri, Bihar

Sushilaben is imploring me to marry her brother Pyarelal. She told me she would help me become a nurse only if I agreed to her proposal for her brother. But I ticked her off on this and spoke to Bapu about it. Bapu told me Sushila is not in her senses. He said till recently, she used to bathe before him naked and also sleep with him. But now he has to lean on me. He said I must remain clean and have patience ( with the celibacy experiment).

February 2, 1947, Dashdharia, Bihar

Bapu has told his followers during the morning prayer that he was carrying out celibacy experiments with me. Then he explained to me why he spoke about it. I felt very relieved as it will stop tongues from wagging. I told myself I don’t care now. Let the world say whatever it wants.

December 28, 1946, Srirampur, Bihar

Sushilaben asked me today why I was sleeping with Bapu and that I would have to face dire consequences on that count. She also told me to think about my marriage with her brother Pyarelal, to which I said I had no interest in him and she shouldn’t broach that topic again. I told her I had full faith in Bapuji and regarded him as my mother.

January 1, 1947, Srirampur, Bihar

Pyarelalji is madly in love with me and is imploring me to marry him. But I am totally against it as I don’t suit him in age, knowledge, education and even in looks. When I told this to Bapu, he said Pyarelal admired my qualities more than anything else. Bapu said Pyarelal even told him that I am very guni ( virtuous).

January 31, 1947, Navgram, Bihar

The controversy over the celibacy experiments is taking a serious turn. And I suspect Amtussalamben, Sushilaben and Kanubhai ( Gandhi’s nephew) are behind it ( spreading rumours). I told Bapu so and he agreed with me saying he couldn’t fathom why Sushila should be so jealous. In fact, the manner in which Sushila spoke to me about it yesterday, I felt she is trumpeting it with all her might. Bapu told me that if I come out unscathed from this experiment, it would take my character to greater heights, impart me a big lesson in life and the clouds of controversy over my head would disperse. Bapu said this is the yagna of his celibacy and I was a sacred part of it. He said he only prayed to God to keep him pure, give him strength to stand by the truth and make him fearless. Then he told me even if all desert us, we shall carry out this experiment successfully with the blessing of God and then tell the entire world about this great test.

February 2, 1947, Amishapada, Bihar

Bapu saw my diary today and asked me to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the hands of unknown people because they can misuse its contents even though we have nothing to hide ( about the celibacy experiments). He said this diary will be very helpful towards giving a true account to society in case he suddenly dies. He said for me too, this diary will prove very useful.

Then Bapu told me that if I agreed, I should show the entries ( recent ones) in the diary to Pyarelal so that he could improve upon the language and puts facts in chronological order. However, I refused because I felt if Pyarelal sees the diary, its contents would surely reach his sister, Sushilaben, and that could cause a lot of rancour.

February 7, 1947, Prasadpur, Bihar

The atmosphere is really getting hot about the celibacy experiment. Amritlal Thakkar ( a social worker who was associated with Gandhi and Gopal Krishna Gokhale) came today and brought with him mails which were very “hot” on this issue. On reading them, I was shaken.

February 24, 1947, Haimchar, Bihar

I was very distressed today but Bapu told me he wants to see me smiling. He said any other person in his place would have gone mad after reading the hard- hitting letters on the issue from Kishorelal Mashruwala, Sardar Patel and Devdas Gandhi but he was unmoved. One more thing. Today Bapu wrote a strong letter to Amtussalamben saying that the element of regret that his celibacy experiment didn’t start with her was apparent in her letter to him. He wrote that it was a shame that she should regret it. He told her that if she could explain, he would want to understand what she wanted to say. Bapu wrote to her that this was a yagna of shuddhi ( purification).

February 26, 1947, Haimchar, Bihar

Today I became very angry when Amtussalamben told me to marry Pyarelal and told her why doesn’t she marry him if she feels so much for him. I told her these ( celibacy) experiments started with her and now she was jealous of me because my photos appear in newspapers and she doesn’t like my popularity.

March 18, 1947, Masudi, Bihar

Today Bapu revealed a very important thing. I asked him whether Sushilaben also sleeps with him naked because when I asked her about it, she said she never took part in the experiments and never slept with him naked. Bapu said Sushila was not speaking the truth because she had slept with him in Bardoli ( in 1939 when she first joined him as his physician) as well as in Aga Khan Palace ( in Pune). Bapu said she also took a bath in his presence. Then he said why should I ask him all this when I already knew about it. Bapu said Sushila was very depressed and her mind had become very unstable and therefore he wouldn’t want to seek her clarification on all this.

“I requested Bapu to allow me to sleep separately”

Gandhi with Thakkar Bapa

Here's a look at excerpts from Manuben's diaries.

February 25, 1947, Haimchar, Bihar

Bapu told Bapa (Amritlal Thakkar was popularly called Thakkar Bapa) that Brahmacharya is one of the five commandments of religion and he was trying to pass that test. He said this was his yagna for atmashuddhi (self-purification) and he can't suspend it because of the public opinion against it. Then Bapa told him that his definition of Brahmacharya was quite different from that of the common man and asked what would happen if the Muslim League comes to know about it and uses it to make innuendos. Bapu replied saying he won't leave what he saw as his religion because of a certain fear and that he had told Birla (G.D. Birla, industrialist) that if his mind is impure during the experiment and he was being hypocritical, then he would die a miserable death. Bapu also told Bapa that even if Vallabhbhai (Patel) or Kishorebhai (Mashruwala) leave him, he will continue the experiment.

March 2, 1947, Haimchar, Bihar

Today Bapu received a secret letter from Bapa. He gave it to me for reading. The letter was so moving that I requested Bapu to allow me to sleep separately from today for the sake of satisfying Bapa. When I told Bapa about my decision, he said after talking to Bapu and me he was satisfied with the aim of the experiment but my decision to sleep separately and bring an end to the experiment was proper. Then Bapa wrote a letter to Kishorelal Mashruwala and Devdas Gandhi that the chapter had now ended.

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