| Courage above all
Between 1944 and the next year when she died, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani’s memoirs of her early life were serialized in the weekly Desh magazine. Thirty years later, they were put together as Jibaner Jhara Pata (Life’s Fallen Leaves). No doubt the sales of this book by a spirited woman of the Tagore family have skyrocketed with the publication of Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire. A voyeuristic media and reading public have latched on to the author’s revelation that his grandfather was “powerfully drawn to Saraladevi”. Different in focus from his earlier The Good Boatman (1995) — where there is a mere hint — this time Rajmohan has said it all. Though only a few pages in the voluminous book deal with the relationship, it is enough to know that the Mahatma was human too, and that when he decided to withdraw, he wrote that it was because his analysis of “my love for you” revealed the impossibility of what he called a “spiritual marriage”.
This was in the first half of 1920, when Gandhi was in the Punjab, having made the home of Sarala Debi and her husband, the Gandhian, Rambhuj Chaudhuri, his base. Subsequently, a deeply distressed Sarala Debi became somewhat critical of the Mahatma, “at times accusing him of allowing non-violence to break out in hatred”.
Though the closeness was split asunder, the two remained in touch, and after their death, the Chaudhuris’ only son, Dipak, married Maganlal Gandhi’s daughter. Maganlal was Gandhi’s nephew and close associate. Neither Gandhi nor Sarala Debi wrote of this attachment in their respective autobiographies. Each was alive when the other’s book was published. In fact, Rajmohan Gandhi mentions that family members as well as ashramites disapproved strongly of the relationship. In her recent biography (2002) of Sarala Debi and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Early Feminists of Colonial India), historian Bharati Ray wrote of the “close relationship” that Sarala had with the Mahatma, and that though there were many letters between them, “they remain with the family”. The reason for this is, of course, now quite clear.
The photographs that accompanied recent write-ups of Sarala Debi show her either at her graduation, or as a charming young woman with flowing hair and the popular pearl and enamel sita haar around her long neck. She is in a light-hued Parsi border sari, which she also wears in the photograph here, spinning at the rather elaborate charkha. Sarala Debi is obviously posing for the photograph in a studio, looking into the middle distance. She looks every inch an upper-class Bengali bhadramahila, with one ear exposed and wearing an elaborate brooch, much in the style of the times. She does not smile, rather her brow has the hint of a furrow and she seems far away, not really connecting with what she is supposed to be doing. It would not be unreasonable to surmise that the photograph may have been taken when Gandhi was staying in the Chaudhuri home. Khadi was just being talked about and khaddar saris were still a while away. Some months later, at the 1921 session of the All-India Congress Committee at Vijayawada, it was resolved that by June 30, two million charkhas should be in operation. Gandhi encouraged women, rich and poor, young and old, to spend at least an hour in the day at the spinning wheel, producing khadi yarn.
Born in 1872 to Rabindranath Tagore’s older sister, Swarna Kumari and Janakinath Ghoshal, Sarala Debi wrote at great length about a childhood of pain and unhappiness caused by what she perceived of as her mother Swarna Kumari Debi’s neglect. Jibaner Jhara Pata begins with Sarala Debi’s birth in a “sun-drenched room” on the second floor of the rambling Jorasanko home of the Tagores. And soon after, in keeping with the tradition of the family, she was handed over to a wet nurse. Her memoirs end with Sarala Debi being welcomed into the Chaudhuri home in Lahore in 1905, the year that Bengal was partitioned. Her mother, Swarna Kumari, the earliest Bengali woman novelist, lived a busy and professionally fulfilled life, where children were expected to fit in. A significant part of Sarala Debi’s book is about her longing for maternal affection — and its denial. When, at the age of four, she rolled down to the foot of the marble staircase, broke two teeth and was drenched with blood, “I did not have the courage to cry too much” for fear of rebukes from her ayah. She writes, “Mother made no comment or gesture. Father came down and applied arnica etc.” She goes on, “The ayah’s lap was like that of our mother’s. I did not know what a mother’s love was, she never kissed me nor fondled me”. As the youngest of three children, Sarala received little attention, and “I was brought up with the strictest of discipline, not with love and affection”. But she soon became one of the most outstanding and enterprising women of the family — and also one who was able to negotiate enough space for a very different life.
While a student of Bethune School, Sarala had wanted to study Physics in college, “just like the boys in the family”. As this was not a subject in Bethune College, special arrangements were made for her to attend classes at the Science Association. Not only was she the only girl in the class, but also one who came with two “bodyguards” — her brother and a cousin — on either side!
Her autobiography does not make clear in what subject she did her BA — but apparently she switched to the Arts stream. She did not finish her MA in Sanskrit — rather, she writes, “there was a great restlessness developing in my mind — to run free out of the cage of the home, on some journey without a fixed destination. And to claim the right to earn an independent income like my brothers”. The family gave an insistent Sarala permission to teach at the Maharani’s Girls School in Mysore. However, when she fell ill with a pernicious attack of malaria, she had to come back to Calcutta. She wrote sadly, “Wherever I go in Calcutta, whoever I meet, they ask, ‘Has the fancy for a job gone' Has the fancy to be independent gone'’”
A spirited mind cannot be that easily quelled. Intellectual satisfaction came from working for the family magazine, Bharati, and Sarala Debi’s nationalistic commitment led her to set up an akhara (gymnasium) for training young men in the martial arts. Yet, her inner restlessness returned and took her to Swami Vivekananda and the Himalaya. She was planning a trip to Manasarover from his Mayavati ashram when a letter arrived from her older sister saying that their mother was seriously ill and her last wish was to see Sarala married. The proposed bridegroom, Rambhuj Chaudhuri, was a Punjabi Brahmin widower with strong nationalistic inclinations. The letter pleaded with her to meet him and decide, and “don’t say no right at the start”.
On her way home, the thirty-three-year old Sarala broke journey at Lucknow to seek Atul Prosad Sen’s advice. Sen’s response was interesting: if she had no option but to marry, there could be no better person than Rambhuj. But, he cautioned, “Let me also add, popular opinion will not be favourable to the news of your marriage. The country will fear the loss of a person fully committed to giving herself to larger causes.” Events overtook her, and from the station, Sarala was borne away in a palki to a house where wedding preparations were on in full swing. Contrary to what she had been assured, the bride-to-be had no opportunity to get to know her future husband — she only saw him briefly on the night before her marriage. Sarala commented, “My hands and feet were tied. There was not space for any movement”. Clearly, the family was not prepared to take any chances.
Sarala continued to be active in the Punjab, helping her husband edit the influential Urdu daily, Hindustan — but soon after his death in 1923, she returned to Calcutta. In 1935, she accepted Howrah’s Acharya Bijoykrishna Debsharma as her guru and spent the last ten years of her life in reading spiritual texts, reflecting and writing, much of it autobiographical. And so Sarala Debi Chaudhurani’s many fallen leaves remain a chiaroscuro of a life well experienced — very rare for most women of her times.