Monday, 30th October 2017

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Press freedom

  • Published 1.10.05

The more I ponder over the lives of great men in world?s history, the more I feel compelled to conclude that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was perhaps the greatest of them all. What we know of our prophets, messiahs, and teachers is from hearsay: most of it entrusted with myth, magic, miracles and make-believe. Any thinking person has to take it with large spoonfuls of salt. Not so in the case of Gandhi. Not only did he expose himself in stark nakedness and confessed to all his shortcomings, there were dozens of men and women close to him who bore witness to what he did and said everyday. Like many great men, he was a bit of a crackpot, a very loveable crackpot. But in his life did he ever tell a lie? He was full of compassion of the kind of which Gautama the Buddha was the living embodiment.

I found confirmation of my opinion of Gandhi after reading Sudhir Kakar?s Mira and the Mahatma. He calls it a novel but it is in reality a dextrous inter-weaving of hard facts, with a sugar-coat of fiction. It deals with Madeline Slade?s close relationship with the Mahatma. All the letters exchanged between them ? when separated they wrote to each other every day ? are available in the National Archives. So are the jottings of Gandhi?s personal secretary, Mahadev Desai.

Like epics of old times, Kakar?s story has a prince and a princess. The princess in his story is Madeline Slade, daughter of Admiral Sir Edmund Slade. She spent her childhood years with her grandfather, who owned a large country estate. She was a loner and spent her time walking around the countryside, looking after her grandfather?s herds of cows and pigs. Her father lived mostly in London and entertained prime ministers and cabinet ministers (including Winston Churchill) in their home. Madeline was also a dreamer and a girl of great passions. Her first love was the composer Beethoven. She listened to his music for hours every day, fell in love with a Scottish pianist, Lamond, who excelled in playing Beethoven?s sonatas. She organized concerts for him in London. She read everything she could find written about Beethoven, including the French Nobel laureate, Romain Rolland, who had also written extensively on Gandhi. Although she did not see Gandhi in the two years she spent with her father in Admiralty House in Bombay, the sapling of love for Gandhi had been planted in her. Back in England, she wrote to Gandhi asking him if she could become his disciple and live with him in Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi wrote back inviting her over and at the same time warning her of the ascetic discipline of time and diet every one of the inmates had to observe. Madeline was then 33 years old, almost a foot taller than Gandhi, grey-eyed and strongly built. Gandhi was a frail 56 who had taken a vow of celibacy some years earlier without even consulting his wife, Kasturba. It was love at first sight. Madeline wrote; ?I saw his slight figure sitting on his cushion on the floor, I felt a strong sensation of light coming from his direction, it was a light I felt rather than saw till it exploded behind my eyes.?

From day one of her arrival, through nine years (1925-1930 and 1940-42), Madeline remained Gandhi?s closest disciple. She took to ashram life like fish to water. Her hut was closest to his; she gradually edged out Kasturba from her privilege of rubbing Gandhi?s scalp and feet with ghee or oil every evening. She travelled with him in India and to London for the Round Table Conferences. She took other crackpots in the ashram in her stride. One ate exactly 55 chapatis at every meal, another had his lips sewn by a silversmith so that he could not break his vow of silence. He had to be fed through a pipe. She accepted Gandhi?s views that a wet dream was swapnadosh, evil dream. Once three boys were caught sodomizing each other, he did not reprimand them but went on a week?s fast to atone for their sins. Poor sods! He believed the sex urge could be reduced. The best cure for most sicknesses was an enema and vegetarian diet. He believed in mud packs to cure stomach ailments and headaches. Madeline?s final conversion was dramatic. Gandhi made her clean the ashram?s latrines and later with the help of Kasturba cut short her long hair with a pair of scissors. He gave her a new name, Mira Bai, after the Rajput princess who abandoned her husband and family to wander round the country singing about her love for Krishna. It is noteworthy that Gandhi did not name her Radha, Krishna?s consort, but Mira, Krishna?s lover who came many centuries after him.

Miraben, as she came to be known, answered the question why India?s millions and others round the globe who had never seen Gandhi nor shared all his views were besotted by the magical aura he exuded. In her case it was frustrated sexuality on both sides; in the case of the masses, he was the beacon of hope to a better future. He had charisma, the like of which the world had not seen before, because he was honest and sincere in whatever he said or did.

The Gandhi-Miraben romance came to an end with the arrival in Sabarmati of Prithi Singh, a tall powerfully built handsome Punjabi Rajput. He wore the halo of martyrdom, having once been sentenced to death. He was a braggart. Ladies of the ashram, including Miraben, fell for him. Like most men he liked making conquests, but as soon as he sensed women wanting to cling to him and claim exclusive rights over him, he turned cold. Miraben proposed marriage to him; Gandhi approved. Prithi ran for safety. A broken-hearted Mira returned to her first love, Beethoven, and went to live in Buden, Austria, where he had spent many years.

Sudhir Kakar has written many books, all highly informative and readable. Mira and the Mahatma is the best of his books. It makes you fall in love with Bapu.

Press freedom

There was a fellow who applied for a job as a press aide to a politician. Not long after he submitted his application, he received an answer: ?Your resum? is full of exaggerations, distortions half-truths and lies. Can you start work on Monday.??

(Contributed by K.J.S. Ahluwalia, Amritsar)