Written by Ashish Mehta
Mahatma Gandhi was large; he contained multitudes. There was much in his opinions and practices that has remained highly contentious. Disciples and most scholars prefer to look at the larger picture — his undoubted greatness, his sacrifices — and explain away what seem to be aberrations. Among all his experiments in truth, however, one remains outright controversial. Even his closest co-pilgrims balked at his test of brahmacharya. Scholars remain baffled.
Coming to terms with this experiment adequately, Bhikhu Parekh wrote, “would require access to the diaries of Manu, one of the women involved in Gandhi’s experiments.” (Others did not write a diary.) The 12 volumes of her writings, including four of the diary, remained in safe hands for decades, before landing in the National Archives of India around 2013.
The secrecy was understandable. When Gandhi had started sleeping naked with young women in 1946-47, amid innuendos and whispers, he had an uncharacteristic instruction for his grand-niece Manu, “And don’t let this diary fall into the hands of any and every person.” He was right: some of the early journalistic reports which appeared in 2013 verged on sensationalism, on the lines of “in bed with Bapu”. For those wishing to engage with the diary in its full context, the National Archives is publishing the diary in two volumes, the first of which is out in English (and soon in Gujarati), edited and translated by Tridip Suhrud.
Manu (Mridula Gandhi), granddaughter of the Mahatma’s cousin, entered the Gandhi story at a particularly tragic phase of his life. After the call of Quit India in 1942, Gandhi along with Kasturba, his personal secretary Mahadev Desai and others was detained at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona. Desai died that year with his head in Gandhi’s lap. Kasturba, unwell, would not survive long. Manu, all of 14-15 and badly in need of a maternal figure after the death of her mother, arrived in the palace to look after Kasturba, and to learn a variety of life skills from Gandhi and company.
Following a well-established tradition going back to the Stoics, Gandhi saw diary-writing as a preeminent tool of self-examination, and advised the teenager to start writing one. She began in 1943, and did not continue after Gandhi’s demise. The writing shows a progression from daily accounts in bullet points to complex descriptions. Manu reports on mundane aspects of life, hers and Gandhi’s. From being woken up early for prayers, preparing juices, cooking, giving a massage to Ba, studying the Gita, reading the Ramayana, spinning, learning science, mathematics and English from Pyarelal and Sushila — and getting the previous day’s entry checked by Bapu. Gandhi, amid personal and political crises, found time to correct her orthography, give tips on grammar and make self-writing a better spiritual practice.
The diary covers the critical and glorious final phase of Gandhi’s saga, picking up from where Mahadev Desai left off. Like him, Manu wrote the diary not as a report of her day, but of Gandhi’s. Beyond that, it would be unfair to compare a barely literate teenager to ‘Gandhi’s Boswell’. Her diaries will be primarily remembered for the complementing viewpoint she brings to Gandhi’s brahmacharya experiment, which will appear in the second volume.
The experiment, undertaken from December 1946 to February 1947, came amid the “great miracle” when Gandhi was largely successful in ending communal violence in Noakhali. It remains mired in questions: Did Gandhi, in his Seventies, need to test his celibacy? Was it moral to subject young women, for his own objectives, to what could be a highly revulsive experience? Does formal consent have any weight when it is urged by someone of Gandhi’s stature? Also, did Manu need to undergo a test of her own moral purity in the face of the insistent advances of Pyarelal?
To make sense of Manu’s diary and the celibacy experiment, Suhrud is the ideal guide. Apart from numerous translations and compilations of Gandhiana, he has prepared critical editions of Hind Swaraj and the Autobiography (Faisal Devji called him “the true successor of Desai and Pyarelal.”). In his introduction he analyses the experiment in terms of Gandhi’s lifelong “striving and pining to achieve … self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain moksha”.
Via various traditions and innovations, Gandhi forged a unique path to politically responsible salvation: Ekadash Vrata, the 11 vows or observances that he followed from his mid-thirties. They included truth, non-violence, brahmacharya, non-stealing, non-possession, fearlessness as well as adoption of swadeshi, equal respect for all religions and removal of untouchability. Just as non-violence was not merely absence of violence but, in active form, became love; brahmacharya was not mere celibacy but literally “dwelling in the brahma”.
Further, Gandhi believed the 11 vows had the power to influence the world. Conversely, an orgy of communal violence was a result of the practitioner’s failing. Whether this was spiritual arrogance or guilt-prone humility is open to interpretation, but witnessing inhuman violence, Gandhi needed to check within for remnants of lust and remove them. To achieve this, tempting oneself to the very edge would not be the obvious answer for anybody other than Gandhi. But he believed that if he could perfect his brahmacharya, his ahimsa would engulf the mobs, douse the fires and peace would shine out.
Tongues started wagging, a volunteer left. Even his longtime sparring partners from the Ashram thought this was adharma and immoral, and came down to Noakhali to talk him out of it. Finally, Thakkar Bapa persuaded Manu to quit, though Gandhi remained convinced of his views (Abhay or fearlessness remains one of his less appreciated virtues.). He wrote to Manu, “I have successfully practised the 11 vows undertaken by me. This is the culmination of my striving for the last 60 years. …In this yajna, I got a glimpse of the ideal of truth and purity for which I have been striving.”
Manu, in all her innocence, was probably the ideal partner and witness in the sacrificial ceremony, as she could see in Gandhi what he aspired for, going beyond not just lust but the very gender binaries. Manu alone saw Gandhi as mother, and exclaimed at the joy of being “that beloved child of Mother Bapu!”
Thus, it was Manu who would bear witness, not just to the culmination of Gandhi’s striving, but his final sacrifice. Gandhi wanted her “to bear witness to his death so that she could bear testimony to his striving”. He told her, “The success of my attempt depends solely on how I meet death … But if it occurs to me to utter the name Rama with my last breath it should be taken as proof of the success of my attempt.” She was by his side when he breathed his last, but not before calling out, “He Ram!”
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and scholar
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines