In 2014, I thought of doing an exhibition project in Pune based on the life and times of Kastur Ba Gandhi, as the organization that I was involved with then had told me that the Aga Khan Palace where Kastur Ba breathed her last would be made available to me to do a commemorative show. The exhibition which was to take place a year after however was not meant to commemorate any particular landmark in Kastur Ba’s life; the year 2015 was not her 100th or 150th birth anniversary. The rationale of the show was simple; the place where she spent her last days was there in Pune. I thought of a woman who had suffered a lot by standing devotedly with her husband’s experiments with his own life, her journeys across continents, dignified bearing of the leadership that was forced on to her shoulders at times and her natural growth as a social reformer and political activist. My project was to be an all woman exhibition. Sooner than later I came to know that the Aga Khan Palace was not ready to give its premises for its own reasons unknown to me. To sum it up, the project did not take place.
Kastur Ba Gandhi was a phenomenal example of personal evolution. Born in 1869 in Porbandar, Gujarat, in a Modh-Banya family, Kastur was not destined to become a saint or a warrior. She was brought up like any other young girl of that time, kept in disadvantage by giving no formal education which was the norm of the times, was fed by myths and folk stories that extolled the virtues of a devoted wife, and was married off to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an unsure and awkward thirteen year old boy. That boy since his childhood was an experimenter; he was sceptical about everything including his own sexual prowess and other physical abilities hence he did a series of experiments with sex and male chauvinism, of course on his legally wedded wife, thirteen year old Kastur. Sexual abuse within marriage, that too within child marriage might not have been seen as a crime or even an aberration on the contrary it was believed that the girls were supposed suffer the indignity, mistreatment and the physical abuse pertaining sex silently. Kastur did that because she thought it was a part of her wifely duties.
(Memorial sculptures of Kastur Ba and Gandhiji at Aga Khan Palace, Pune)
When someone experiments with his or her life, so many things happen to the people around them for the simple reason that none could exist in isolation. Only the degree of affection varies; those who are closer to the person suffer more and those who are away, perhaps suffer less. The word ‘suffer’, I believe is a wrong thing in the context of someone making an experiment with his/her own life, they take the agency of their own lives without really considering the people around. In fact, if someone considers the outcome of his experiments and their effects on the people around, which often would be disturbing as the experiments have a streak of non-conformism, he/she would not be able to do any kind of experimentation. All the personal experiments start with a direct addressing of one’s own personal self that involves both body and mind. Often its social effects are least considered or at times they are not even thought about. However, a person growing up with a keen sense of personal experimentation would slowly realize how his/her experiments could have social implications beyond his control. Once this realization happens, perhaps one could channelize the results of the experimentations for larger social causes; it is a sort of inevitability that anyone experiments with his/her own self, if he or she is not a recluse and does not shun the society totally cannot but channelize the experimental findings towards the society to which he is a part of. Gandhiji was doing it, initially for very selfish purpose of sexual and other bodily gratifications and later for his ‘soul’ purpose.
We have heard a lot of Gandhiji’s experiments with ‘truth’. Gandhiji’s truth was never the truth of Katur Ba. How, one may ask. The histories that have been written about Gandhiji and the writings all himself have cursorily spoken of Kastur Ba’s views on Gandhi ji’s experimentations. Even her reluctance to clean the toilets in Durban during their South African life, later her objections to various relationships maintained by Gandhiji, his faith in natural treatment that amounts to quackery, his forceful denial of beef broth and penicillin injection to Kastur Ba and so on are either recorded by Gandhiji himself or by other male chroniclers and historians. Kastur Ba did not maintain a log book or diary; you know why, yes, she was illiterate. When you are illiterate and is sucked up into the life of your husband whom you adore and follow, it is not necessary to maintain a private diary even if you are literate. Such was the faithfulness of Kastur Ba; when celibacy was imposed on Kastur Ba in her thirties, she did not revolt or transgress. Gandhiji had tried his best to teach her during the early days of their marriage. In their nuptial chamber, education had an erotic edge and each learning session ended in a violently pleasurable sexual intercourse. The young couple, the master and the disciple waited for the night to come and the class to start and the class was a pretext for all consuming sex. Kastur Ba did not learn to write. Gandhiji took up the mission to teach her when she was already in her seventies and frail in health. Harilal, the eldest son of the couple who had gone astray due to the patriarchal mishandling of his childhood by Gandhiji himself, refuse to believe that Kastur Ba wrote a public letter to him (it was dictated to Manilal) and accused Gandhiji of ‘dictating’ her for writing such a letter.
(Gandhiji and Kastur Ba at the forefront of Independence Struggle)
We did not know the truth of Kasturba till recently. Gandhiji’s prolific views on women and their social, moral, spiritual and political roles in the society have been discussed and critiqued at several points in due course of history. Kastur Ba’s silence is finally broken. ‘The Secret Diary of Kasturba’ written by Neelima Dalmia Adhar is an exquisite account of Kastur Ba’s life from her own point of view. Fictional though heavily based on history, the author has achieved the rare accomplishment of recreating an autobiography for/of Kastur Ba. The most fascinating thing about this book is its own realization that Kastur Ba cannot exist without her Mohandas (Gandhi- ji). They are entwined like word and its meaning or they are like Shiva and Parvati. It is interesting to think that could Gandhiji be possible without Kastur Ba and vice versa. Though, the dominant has made us believe that Gandhiji was single minded on social reformation and political activism therefore a wife’s presence or absence would not have made much a difference to him or his experimental life. It is also said that Gandhiji had platonic relationships with many women. Kastur Ba was seen as a casualty than an event in herself. But the book deconstructs the whole narrative of Gandhiji by being faithful Gandhiji’s life without being judgmental and as readers we come to feel that the book is more about Gandhiji than about Kastur Ba, perhaps rightfully so.
Yes, the book is mostly about Gandhiji; but seen from a different perspective which was unknown to us till the publication of the book. Kastur ba is not on an avenging path, she is not a clarion calling feminist either. The tone of the narrative voice (Kastur Ba’s voice) is dispassionate yet intense. She is emotional yet restrained. She is devoted to her husband but mince no words in criticism him. The book is a dressing down of Gandhiji who is already half clad. But in the dressing down, the benevolent woman in Kastur Ba is not vengeful. She writes like a wife who knows her husband, his fears, anxieties, weakness and hypocrisy. She does not attempt to lionize these shortcomings of a global personality. She does not discount the virtues of her husband who in the eyes of the world remains a Mahatma, devoid of all human flaws. But she cannot remain a hagiographer like other personal historian of Gandhiji. She looks at Gandhiji’s moral preaching on sexuality in later life and his platonic relationship with many women with a cold sense of irony. She does not fall into sarcasm but as a person who had been the object of his carnal experiments, Kastur Ba cannot see the transformation of the man into a saint whose sexuality has been transcended without feeling a bad taste in her mouth. She writes her secret diary through the author. In fact the author has given Kastur Ba her tongue back even posthumously.
(Ahalya Moksham, stories that need retelling from Ramayana)
You cannot keep the book down until you finish reading it. This is not an exaggeration. What touches one is Kastur Ba’s constant pining for Harilal Gandhi, the eldest of the four sons of the Gandhi couple. Harilal was the first ‘victim’ of Gandhiji’s experiments with truth. A moral tyrant, Gandhiji imposed his world views on Harilal, who had fallen in the line yet wanted his own life through formal education and entry into business. Kastur Ba constantly craved for the well being of a son who had determined to ruin himself in the attempt to redeem himself! But as a faithful wife Kastur Ba stood with Gandhiji and denounced Harilal at one point. Kastur Ba’s transformation from a docile housewife to a national leader and doting companion of Mahatma Gandhi was not an easy one. But she has the last laugh in the book; and I believe in her life too. Gandhiji thought that Kastur Ba’s involvement in the political and social work was a result of his influence on her. But at one point, Kasturba smiles at herself and thinks that how does he know it was not his influence but she herself wanted to do that. When I read this I remembered the retelling of Sita’s story by the Telegu writer Volga in her book ‘Liberation of Sita’. Ahalya who had been turned into a stone for ‘accidentally’ sleeping with Indra who had lusted after her and had slept with her in her husband, Maharshi Gautama’s guise, meets Sita later in the forest. Ram’s touch was supposed to release Ahalya from the stone. In Volga’s retelling, Ahalya is not a stone (we could understand that by turning her into a stone, her sexuality had been put into a morbid state either by herself or by mutilation which is somehow left to our own conclusion). Sita asks Ahalya when they meet, “But wasn’t it outrageous in your case? After all, you did not know that he was not your husband...” Ahalya replies: “Do you know whether I knew this or not? Does anyone know?”