The red post box was the most mysterious thing the little girl had seen. It swallowed everything it was fed and held deep secrets. So, one day, Tara, all of eight years, wrote a letter to her grandfather, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and dropped it in the box. The reply came soon enough. “Tara,” her grandfather wrote from Aga Khan Palace in Pune, where he was jailed. “I got your letter. I must say it’s a bad letter. Please improve your handwriting. And write again.”
“I was horrified. I didn’t want anyone to see it. I tore it and threw it away. I am glad I did that because otherwise someone would have found it and auctioned it off,” says Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, Mahatma Gandhi’s eldest granddaughter from his fourth and youngest son Devdas Gandhi.
With a niggling vertigo confining her to her bed, Bhattacharjee, now 85, leans back against her bed at her home in Delhi’s Panchsheel Park to tell stories of the time she spent with her grandfather, both in the national capital, where her father edited The Hindustan Times, and during vacations spent at Wardha’s Sevagram Ashram and elsewhere — the notepad Gandhi got her to make from old envelopes; the resentment she felt about having to share Bapuji with others; and the coarse khadi she hated as a child but grew to love by the time she joined Delhi University’s Miranda House for her Bachelor’s degree in English.
In the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth, as Mahatma the icon gets pressed into service once again, the burden of legacy sits lightly on Bhattacharjee’s frail shoulders. To her, he is simply Bapu. “When I was in college, nobody made a big deal of my Gandhi connection. Later, when I wondered why, I realised I was only a product of those times. The entire country was involved in the freedom movement and all those girls came from one political flow or the other. It’s not as if I was something special,” says Bhattacharjee, who later married Jyoti Prasad Bhattacharjee, whom she met during her years in Santiniketan.
In a country where political legacy is a low-hanging fruit, many of Gandhi’s descendants are notoriously reticent. The surname now mostly associated with Nehru’s descendants, only a few of Gandhi’s direct descendants have dabbled in politics, and the ones who did, failed or left disillusioned.
“Ninety-nine per cent of us are kitchen-table PMs,” laughs Dr Anand Gokani, a practising physician in Mumbai. His mother Usha Gokani is the youngest of Gandhi’s granddaughters from his third son Ramdas. “While there are times when I think I need to do something instead of waiting for someone else to change things for us, I have never gone beyond fighting elections for the housing society where I live,” says Gokani.
“Each one of us has an identity that is separate from Mahatma Gandhi’s,” says Sukanya Bharat Ram, Bhattacharjee’s daughter and trustee of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust. “Of course, the right values were ingrained in us — the idea of humans in harmony with nature, principles of sarvodaya, etc. But a majority of people of that generation were brought up with identical values. So, it wasn’t just us…we were not freaks.”
If there’s one feature that binds this bloodline, now streaking across continents, it’s this sense of abashedness every time they are singled out for their Gandhi connection. Not every Gandhi, though. Some of the descendants of Manilal, the Mahatma’s second son who stayed on in South Africa as Gandhi moved to India, have long embraced the legacy, despite accusations of having cashed in on the name. Manilal Gandhi’s son Arun and his son Tushar have for long been associated with various Gandhian forums, with the latter having courted a fair bit of controversy, including one in 2009 over the launch of a Mont Blanc luxury pen featuring the Mahatma.
Tushar shrugs off the charges, saying he is only doing “the duty of the descendant”. “Some of them (descendants) go to lengths to hide their Gandhi connection, bothered by the responsibility that accrues from that.”
At 85, his father Arun Gandhi, a former journalist who grew up in South Africa and who now lives in Upstate New York, criss-crosses geographies — Beirut one day, Toronto the other — talking of the Mahatma. “I see no reason why we should be ashamed of this legacy. People are thirsty to know what Gandhi would have said about these times. It’s our duty to interpret and share his message with people,” says Arun Gandhi.
His granddaughter and Tushar’s daughter Kasturi, however, has had her share of struggles with her identity as a Gandhi. “As a child, I just thought Gandhi was this very accessible grandfather figure associated with art competitions on October 2. As I grew up, I didn’t like the attention at all…I didn’t deserve it. It’s like walking into a room and getting the best seat. Also, there are expectations of you as a certain person, not as a person with flaws,” says Kasturi, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in public policy at St Xavier’s, Mumbai. “But now, I see (the family connection) as an asset… it helps me be a better person.” But her “policy” is “to never tell. “You can see people’s behaviour change the minute they get to know.”
The jaw-drop at seeing a Gandhi is often followed by the realisation that they don’t look or seem “Gandhi enough”. Says Bhattacharjee, “Someone once asked me, how come you wear all these colourful clothes? After all, Gandhi always wore white. I told him, you fail to see the colours in Gandhiji’s white.”
Gokani says, “There are preconceived notions about how a ‘Gandhi’ should eat, sleep, dress and so on.” He says that when he visits the Institute of Gandhian Studies, Wardha, where he is called to speak on Gandhian views on health and hygiene, there are usually about “two to three people” in an audience of about a hundred who ask him why he, Gandhi’s “great grandson”, was dressed in jeans. “I then have to explain that khadi or the dhoti he wore was then imperative to signify Indianness and the context was different.”
While many in the family have found their own way to stay in touch with the Gandhi within, almost none is in active politics — just as the Mahatma would have liked it, perhaps — though some of them they have had their brush with it and come out scathed. While Ramdas Gandhi’s eldest daughter Sumitra Kulkarni was a Rajya Sabha member during Indira Gandhi’s reign, she quit the Congress during Emergency and later joined the BJP, and has long retired from politics.
“But when Sumitra and I met, we used to talk about recipes, not politics,” says Bhattacharjee with a laugh. Her younger sibling Rajmohan, professor, historian and Rajya Sabha member in the early 1990s, had a brief fling with the Aam Aadmi Party, contesting and losing the Lok Sabha election in 2014. Tushar, too, fought the 1997-98 elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket against Madhukar Sarpotdar of the Shiv Sena from Bombay North West Lok Sabha constituency. “The closer I got to politics, it scared me. Not because I am virtuous, but there was this fear of succumbing to temptations,” he says.
While Gandhi was always seen with his family by his side, his descendants have largely stayed away from the Congress in its post-Independence avatar. Many point to how this is in contrast to Nehru’s descendants, who have struggled to distinguish themselves from the party and its legacy. Bhattacharjee, for one, is definitely not fighting for any piece of the legacy cake — she knows she has it all. “As a child, I used to be extremely jealous that he was everybody’s Bapu…that I wasn’t the only one calling him that. Not any longer. I know my Bapu, my grandfather. I don’t even keep his books or read anything on him, except maybe when my brothers (Rajmohan and Gopal) write something. I once asked this French author who wrote a book on the Mahatma, why did you choose to write on someone who has been written about so extensively…psychoanalysed, praised etc. Don’t people get bored with so much Gandhi? I hope it’s not thhak gaye Gandhi se,” she says.
As she prepares for a visit to Reunion Islands for a function on October 2, she won’t let the legacy burden her either. “I am only as responsible for this country as you are. Nothing more, nothing less.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘What’s in a name?’