Gandhi exposing himself to public and claiming that his life is a open book has made people from every field to analyse him from multiple angles. His strong propositions on brahmacharya, upavas, satyagrah, life of hardship, simple living, food system, eradication of untouchability, trusteeship, education and several other views have been subject to critical analysis. He is discussed on his perspectives on religion, women, modern science, oppressed class far more than anybody, by multi-disciplinary team that lessons of a simple life by an innocent man is missed.
Here is an effort to sketch the elusive Mohan as perceived by his wife Kastur. As we go down the memory lane, we need to make conscious effort not to situate the incidents in the present ecosystem. There are vignettes followed by their analysis and interpretation. I have struggled to keep me out of analysis – as woman / wife and a Gandhi admirer. I acknowledge the resources I used from different websites and two authors Dr Aparna Basu of Kasturba Gandhi and Dr H S Anupama author of I am Kastur.
Vignette 1 Two children got engaged and got married as teenagers. Kastur was given enough lessons in her maternal home as to how to behave after marriage. Mohan was no less in imposing restrictions on his wife. He made several rules in an effort to keep her in his control, one of which is “you can’t go anywhere without my permission’. Listen to me, keep quiet, you don’t know, frequented to the utter irritation of Kastur. But Kastur had her way and did what she wanted to do leading to fights. Once when Kastur went to temple with Puthlibai, Mohan scolded Kastur for not taking permission from him. Kastur asserted “who is elder, you or your mother? Why should there be permission from you to go with the elder of the family? Since then he stopped restricting her.
In a social milieu rooted in inequalities and gender stereotype, a husband was questioned by a wife!!! But this did not mobilize Mohan to harness on the gender based stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities against Kastur to manipulate the reality, rather it made him reflect on the episode to begin accepting individualism. Mohan could see neither a wife nor a woman in Kastur, but an individual.
Vignette 2. While in South Africa every one in the house had to take turns to do the work. A friend of Mohan was staying with them and Kastur could not accept to clean the toilet of the guest and expressed her reluctance to do so. Mohan got so angry that he pulled Kastur out of the house saying choose to stay or go away, I will not tolerate this differentiation towards others. Kastur though cried initially, gained courage to ask Mohan are you not ashamed of putting me out of the house in a foreign land? The angry man suddenly stopped his screaming. Both realised their mistakes and apologised with each other. That was the last time Mohan showed his anger on his wife. Mohan realised that his behaviour was very cheap to punish an individual when they are vulnerable.
This instance revealed to Mohan how abusers mobilize structural vulnerabilities related to race, nationality, and sexuality; and institutional inequalities against victims to erode their realities. These are cruel tactics to rely on the association of vulnerability with irrationality. Kastur mirrored Mohan of his action being opposite to the cause he is fighting in South Africa.
Gandhi understands that pain is not just in jail tortures and physical insults, pain is also in humiliation and subjugation of the vulnerable. It is for that pain that Gandhi speaks again and again. His biography is towards his strive to become Bapu: the caring perosn for all. A figure that truly wants to embrace humanity, not “being human in the shadows worldly pleasures and inborn weaknesses”.
Vignette 3. In the Satyagraha Ashram Kastur was a commanding lady with, sharp and firm voice. She had heavy job on her hands to cook for and feed, besides her family some more people in the Ashram. She was a most demanding leader and would keep the helpers in kitchen on your toes. There would often be a crowd of unexpected guests at the Ashram, then the ‘political capital’ of India. Kastur would sometimes clash with Mohan while he used to bring guests untimely and without informing in the Kitchen. So Mohan used to be nervous on these occasions. Mohan on such occasions would be very humble and tactful. He was then a little afraid of Kastur. One day just after Kastur and her young assistant had washed up after lunch and closed the kitchen, Mohan quickly approached the kitchen and reckoned to the kitchen assistant who was about to leave. He spoke in a whisper so as not to disturb Kastur taking rest in the adjoining room. A number of guests, he announced, were to arrive in an hour, very distinguished guests, among whom was the late Pandit Motilal Nehru, for whom lunch had to be prepared.
He put a finger to his lips as he glanced at Kastur’s room. ‘Do not disturb her, Summon some one, light the fire, chop the vegetables and knead the flour for the chapaties. Send for Kastur only when she is needed. He had the look of some innocent conspirator. The young assistant and helper opened the kitchen noiselessly. Suddenly a brass plate crashed to the floor to wake Kastur and she rushed to the kitchen. She was surprised to see the kitchen in full action at the odd hour. She demanded to know what it was all about. ‘Why did you not send for me?’ she demanded, ‘You think I cannot manage this extra work?’ It was all smooth sailing thereafter. She knew Mohan had arranged the whole thing. At night, after prayers, when all the guests had left, she faced him unexpectedly. She stood before him and a mischievous light in her eyes.
‘Why did you ask them to do the work without me? You think I am lazy?
Mohan replied with all innocence Don’t you know, I am afraid of you on such occasions?”
The anecdote speaks of a deep bond in Mohan – Kastur relationship that is built on friendship, care and mutual respect. Gandhi as a person not only respects women, feels their struggle at home and in the society, be it at the time of menstruation or bearing and rearing of a child, or putting together household chores to take time and weave in the charkha.
Vignette 4. The forth anecdote that I would like to narrate is that of Mahadev Desai’s wife and Kastur visiting the Jagannath temple when they visited Odisha on a mission on Swaraj, one goal being educating the mass against untouchability. Mohan comes to know of the visit is deeply saddened. It is his wee years, now he does not scold Kastur anymore like he used to in their early married years. Kastur later reflects on her husband’s feelings and action and feels them vibrating inside her that “she need not visit a temple that practices untouchability”.
Thus after a time, the beliefs, the causes, and soul of Mohan and Kastur became the very belief system, cause and soul of both, they became one. They learned from each other, they grew old together, lived their dream of a free India together and they continue to live in this free India together in the hearts of every Indian. Wish they continue to live in every human being by starting a new tradition of respect, care and concern in every intimate relationship, learning from each other in the path of attaining self-actualisation.
As a sociological phenomenon macro-level social inequalities get transformed into micro-level strategies. But Mohan could transcend to Mahatma by applying the micro level strategies to fight the social inequalities and the lessons learnt on individualism helped to build collectivism. Sociologically placing this phenomenon in its cultural, structural, and institutional contexts would give a new perspective to human relationships and development. This is the lesson we can learn from the simple life of Mohan and Kastur while analysing the Perspective of Mahatma on women.
(Mahatma from Kastur’s perspectives, views expressed in the one – day webinar on Gandhi and Women conducted by centre for women’s studies Pondicherry University on 18th August 2020).