January 24, 1929, Muzaffarpur: Beloved Bapu — And now today I have your long Monday letter! How spoiled I am!!
October 27, 1928, Sevashram, Benares: But after all, my beloved Bapu knows everything that is in my head — he knows even better then I know myself!
April 7, 1933, Sabarmati Central Prison, Ahmedabad: “I hear you have got a telescope now-a-days! I once looked at the stars and planets through a very small one of my uncle’s & even that was a wonderful sight. Every night as I look at the starts I think how you, too, must be looking at them from Yervada — and I feel, in my mind’s fancy as if I saw you in the reflection of their light.”
These are excerpts from ‘Beloved Bapu: The Gandhi-Mirabehn Correspondence’, a book by Tridip Suhrud and Thomas Weber that claims to bring out for the first time letters between Gandhi and Madeline Slade or Mira, the daughter of a British admiral who became the Mahatma’s disciple.
The book, on this companionship of 23 years, says on the flap, “Mira and Gandhi shared a connection that was as close and loving as it was troubled. She was a woman of tremendous industry and drive, a quality that Gandhi grasped and admired greatly. However, he was also deeply ambivalent about the obsessive nature of her love — indeed, her infatuation — chastising her sharply for her “idolatry” on the one hand, and apologising for his harshness and keeping her close on the other.”
Suhrud is director, Sabarmati Memorial Trust and a Sahitya Akademi winner who is known as a new age “authority” on Gandhian studies. Weber is an Australia-based author who teaches political science and has written several books on Gandhi.
The letters from Gandhi published in the book are already in public domain while those from Mira are being revealed for the first time; they are under the custody of Sabarmati Ashram.
Most of the letters are a mundane detailing of their daily life — from their trips to a number of places and even the problems that this causes to their diet, some inducing constipation — and yet the book reveals some intimate moments, especially the “unfulfilled” wish of Mira who had longed for a “life in the Himalaya with her dearest Bapu”.
In one letter, Gandhi tells Mira that he prefers to write “love letters” on Mondays, which Mira awaits impatiently.
There are even some Hindi lessons for Mira. “The negative participle should always go with the verb, when the verb is to be negative and when the subject has to be qualified by a long phrase, the qualifying phrase should precede the subject,” Gandhi writes from Bangalore on July 17, 1927.
In a chapter in the book titled, “A Catch-22 relationship” the editors note: “Some may argue that there could have been some element of latent or repressed sexuality involved. Certainly some of his letters to Mira do sound like love letters as hers to him undoubtedly were.”
The letters of Mira are more revealing than those of Gandhi.
In some, Mira has explicitly revealed how she felt that there were “moral lapses” at Sabarmati Ashram. The letters also show that she was critical of ashram and its residents.
She writes that the idea of “Brahmcharya (celibacy)” at the ashram needed reform. She writes, “If you want men and women to mix with one another as they do in the ashram, and yet be safe, you must have only real Brahmacharis — men and women who, from inner conviction, want to live all the principles of the ashram to the utmost extent that is humanly possible.”
Mira suggests that Gandhi reduce the size of the ashram to keep the vows of Brahmcharya intact. In a reply, dated April 7, 1933, Sabarmati Central Prison, she writes, “You have said in your letter that human beings have always lived in pairs & will go on doing so to the end of time. Yes — that is the perfect plan, and Brahmcharya should not mean any need to destroy it. That aversion in some of us to sexuality doesn’t mean an aversion to men…”
Gandhi seems to have used his words more cautiously. On April 11, 1933, he replies, “Your argument appeals to me. Women themselves have resisted the argument that you have advanced. I have believed it always that man is the aggressor. He is more sensual than woman. I have therefore no difficulty in following your argument. But the corollary that you draw defies experience…”
Slade arrived at Sabarmati Ashram in 1925, at the age of 33, and was named “Mirabehn” by Gandhi after the 16th century poet. In the letters, she initially addresses Gandhi as “Master”, then it changes into “Beloved Bapu” and “Your ever devoted daughter” while Gandhi reciprocates with “Chi. Mira,” “with love”.