The nation celebrates the 150th Birth Anniversary year of Mahatma Gandhi. Almost every tableau in the 2019 Republic day parade had the effigy of Mohandas Gandhi in order to pay tributes to this soul, who in his tangential form, guided the Indian independence struggle and in its subtle form continues to guide the conscience of many. But who was the one who strengthened the spirit of his, the one who made him listen to the sounds of his conscience and the one who transformed him to be the Mahatma as he was. Married at the age of 14, Mohan was full of passion while Kastur was an embodiment of gentleness and patience and the way these spirits were inculcated by her into her husband was a magic in itself. In his autobiography ‘My Experiments with truth’, Mohandas writes that when his father was lying on his death bed, a rage of sense-passion overtook him and he rushed to his wife and spent the night with her. The father passed away, leaving behind a sense of guilt in Mohan. It was Kastur who helped Mohan to face it, to overcome it and to take the vows of overcoming the sense-passions and adopt celibacy, which he continued from an early age to the end of his mortal life. Mohandas Gandhi himself used to say “She (Kasturba) helped me to keep wide awake and true to my vows. She stood by me in all my fights and never hesitated to take the plunge. In the current sense of word, she was uneducated; but to my mind she was a model of true education.”
From the very beginning, Kastur was a fiercely independent woman. While majority of married women adopted the Purdah system back then, she was hesitant not while openly interacting with any person she wishes. Whenever Mohan, in his days of youth, tried to control his young wife, he was reprimanded and was told to mind his own life-choices. Mahatma Gandhi wrote about Kasturba: “According to my earlier experience, she was very obstinate. In spite of all my pressure she would do as she wished. This led to short or long periods of estrangement between us. But as my public life expanded, my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work.”
Maybe this was the reason that made Gandhiji, in his later life, a proponent of independence in households where neither of the gender controls the other. This was also reflected when he asked his son and his newly married wife to spend atleast two years in different parts of the country, apart from each other and serve the society, understand the society, understand the dharma of a householder and then settle.
When Mohan decided to be the first person from his village to cross the seas and study Law in England, it was Kastur who stood by his side. She not only trusted her husband but also held the family together in his absence. When his career in law saw some stability in South Africa, he sent a call for his wife and sons. While Mohan was busy in organizing men, Kastur led the women’s movement. She mobilized the women community of Indian sub-continent origin, ‘coolies’ as they were called there, and lead them in the protest against the arbitrary citizenship clause and non- Christian marriage related policies of the crown. There were times when Mohan used to be thrashed, beaten-up by the adversaries, but instead of being fearful and family-centric, Kastur motivated him to continue his battle against the injustice. In his later days, the Mahatma himself said: “There were occasions when I was engaged in a grim wrestle with death… I literally came out of the death’s jaws. But she shed not a tear, never lost hope or courage but prayed to God with all her soul” When the struggle in South Africa saw its victory, Mohan turned his battle from outside to within. He thought to transform the self before transforming the society. He took to continence, fasting, and scavenging, promoting manual work and not only did it himself but expected his family to do so. While kids were ready to do, Kastur became slightly reluctant, especially when he asked her to do manual scavenging of her own part. After the initial phase of reluctance, Kastur not only adopted these activities but also led this movement in the Tolstoy Ashram. When the Gandhis decided to sail back to India, they were given farewell by the Indian community back in SA. They received a lot many gifts which included jewellery too. Gandhiji had decided that all the gifts shall go in trust. Kastur was reluctant to part away with the jewellery, she presented the argument that it’s not for her, but for future daughters-in-law. Finally after observing that Gandhi ji has already made up his mind, she gave in. And from that day, she didn’t even wear jewellery herself. The ideas and perspective of life for them were quite different from each other, yet at the core they were same. Gandhiji used to say to ‘Ba’, as he used to address her imitating the public-men who used to call Kastur by that name, that no two leaves were alike, and yet there is no antagonism between them or between the branches on which they grow, because at the core they are part of the same tree.
Kastur was the first individual who was a part of Mohan like none other. If he could convince her to give up her notions of caste and untouchability, he could convince others of the same. She was perhaps the only person who could disagree with him and point out to him his mistakes. She was his companion, his wife, his caretaker and later in life his representative too.
The journey in India was again full of challenges and on advice of Tilak, Gandhi ji decided to travel throughout India, understand the dynamics of this land, to be in unison with the common- folk of India and then pursue with his activities. Kastur accompanied him, participated in the Satyagraha, infact led many movements. She was very particular about girl child education and was an advocate of women empowerment. She accompanied the satyagrahis in Dandi March, faced the brutalities of the British, and was arrested several times in the pursuit to further Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns. The first arrest came in 1908 in South Africa. In India, she was arrested in 1932, 1933, 1939 and 1943.She remained the mainstay of the force that Mahatma Gandhi unleashed on the British colonial rulers till her death in 1944. While she was with him, never came a moment when she became the shadow of her husband. She had her independent identity and that she carried with pride while fighting for the greater cause.
In 1943, Gandhiji undertook a 21 day fast for himself and his associates. This had a devastating effect on Kasturba Gandhi. Her health started failing. In December 1943, Kasturba had two heart attacks. She was put on oxygen support in hospital. When she apprehended her end, she insisted that she should be taken to Mohan and was she placed in Aga Khan Palace where Gandhiji was undergoing house arrest. Gandhiji, who himself had become an expert in nursing and naturopathy medicine, nursed his wife, took care of her with a sense of regret of missing out on giving attention to her beloved in these past years. The society had occupied the prime place for him and his wife uttered not a sigh against this but supported the cause throughout. Kasturba sensed this internal battle within the mahatma and moments before her passing away, she said to him: “Do not sorrow after my death. It should be an occasion for rejoicing.” Kasturba Gandhi died on 22 February 1944 with her head placed in the lap of her Mohan. The mahatma stood near her burning pyre. This was the final parting of the 63 year old companionship; a journey in which they supported each other, had differences with each, fought with each other, loved each other and never parted from each other. A little later, he paid tribute to her departed beloved, he said: “If anything she stood above me. But for her unfailing co-operation I might have been in the abyss.“
Life after Kasturba’s departure was full of despair and loneliness for the Mahatma. He felt alone in Ashram, inside his party, among his men; as a lone warrior continuing the battle for truth. He had confidence that wherever Kasturba would be, his dedicated struggle shall certainly make her proud. The nation got independence but the partition couldn’t be avoided. This completely devastated the mahatma from inside, which, supplemented by the communal disharmony fuelled his journey towards his end.
On 30th Jan 1930, he undertook is final voyage. After his death, the Prime Minister of the country announced that “the light has gone from our lives…”. But this light was now merged with the light of a congruent wavelength, the light which guided him throughout his life, the light which had left him nearly 4 years ago, and the light which made him the Mahatma as he was….
(11th April 2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi)