There is a news report in The Guardian that Gandhi’s statue has been removed from the campus of the University of Ghana after protests from students and faculty who argue the Indian independence leader considered Africans “inferior”.
The report ends with these lines:
/Ghana’s former government had said the statue would be relocated to prevent the controversy from “becoming a distraction from our strong ties of friendship” with India. But two years later the statue had still not been relocated./
I hope the Indian government does not indulge in any sort of statue diplomacy in Africa. If young Africans feel they don’t want Gandhi’s statues in their countries or universities, we should respect their sentiments.
Was Gandhi racist? I don’t think so. I understand his statements and language in a certain context. I understand why his struggle in Africa was limited to securing/protecting the rights of Indians. Africans seeking to assert themselves may not necessarily pay much importance to those contexts. It is their loss in a way, but they have the right to choose their heroes.
Let Gandhi win their hearts first, through his life and message. Statues can fall. This is what Gandhi would have wanted.
This however, does not mean that Gandhiji made Jawaharlal his successor because he believed him to be the best of Gandhians. Gandhiji was not much bothered by the question of how far Gandhism would remain intact or change or grow in the hands of Nehru. What weighed with him was in whose hands the onward march of the next phase of India’s history would be most powerfully dynamic and effective. If such a person was found, he would pass on the mantle to him. It did not matter to him whether Gandhism could thereby be kept alive or not. This was what Gandhiji meant by the phrase ‘reducing oneself to zero’. This was what Gandhiji commended to others and to himself. To see this in any other light is to belittle Gandhiji.
– Revolutionary Gandhi, Pannalal Dasgupta
I begin to think more and more of Mahatma Gandhi’s approach. It is odd that I am mentioning his name in this connection. I am entirely an admirer of the modern machine, and I want the best machinery and the best technique, but, taking things as they are in India, however, rapidly we advance towards the machine age- and we will do so- the fact remains that large numbers of our people are not touched by it and will not be for a considerable time. Some other method has to be evolved so that they become partners in production, even though the production apparatus of theirs may not be efficient as compared to modern technique, but we must use that, for, otherwise, it would be wasted. That idea has to be kept in mind. We should think more of the very poor countrymen of ours and do something to improve their lot as quickly as we can. This problem is troubling me a great deal.”
– Nehru, Reply to the Debate on Planning, Lok Sabha, Dec 11 1963
(Published in Tamizhini)
Gandhi’s relationship with various women associates from Mira Behn to Manu Gandhi has become a major talking point of biographies, novels, gossips and takedowns. Gandhi’s brief relationship with Saraladevi Chaudhurani is pitched as a major selling point for new biographies on Gandhi. But his most remarkable relationship with a woman has probably drawn the least attention. It was, in fact, with his wife, Kasturba Gandhi. A marital relationship may seem unexciting and dull but the Gandhi-Kasturba bond was remarkable nevertheless. After Kasturba died on his arms in prison, Gandhi said, “If I had to choose a companion for myself life after life, I would choose only Ba.”
My daughter asked me, if I knew when was her birthday or their wedding day. When I said no, she quipped, then how do you only know of October 2nd as Gandhi Jayanti. It was then that it struck me that this 150th Anniversary should be as much a celebration of the woman behind the Mahatma, as the Mahatma himself.
My interest in the Gandhi-Kasturba story was further kindled, when an otherwise knowledgeable Facebook friend, asserted that Gandhi killed Kasturba with his ‘anti-science’ attitude by denying her penicillin, when it could have saved her. Kasturba was on her death bed when the penicillin injections arrived. Initially Gandhi had agreed to give penicillin but he had not known that it needed to be injected frequently. The doctors could not give Gandhi enough confidence that this will help her recover. She had already suffered for long. He feared that the treatment will only prolong her suffering. She died within an hour of deciding against penicillin. We do not know if it would have made a difference. Many of us have faced this situation in our lives of having to choose a certain line of treatment for our near ones and made a call, one way or the other. Intuitively, I could brush aside this charge against Gandhi as being too harsh. Yet, I felt, I needed to understand, more in depth, the nature of the relationship between Gandhi and Kasturba, and their natures, before setting aside that accusation. And I am glad that this discussion led me on to a deeper understanding of their relationship spanning nearly 70 years.
Compared to the spouses of other prominent leaders, we do know quite a lot about Kasturba. But there is not much literature available focussing exclusively on Kasturba. There are two noteworthy books on Kasturba that I came across. The first is the impressive memoir by Sushila Nayar, ‘Kasturba: A personal reminiscence’, and the other, a rather loose personal biography by her grandson, Arun Gandhi, ‘Kasturba: A Life’. Gandhi had written a fair bit about Kasturba in his numerous letters to friends. Mahadev Desai recorded many incidents and discussions involving Kasturba in his dairies. His son, Narayan Desai wrote about Kasturba in his memoirs, and his four-volume biography on Gandhi. He had also written a play in Gujarati on Kasturba, but it is still not available in English. Millie Polak, who had lived with the Gandhi family in South Africa, gave a brief but intimate picture of Kasturba in her memoirs on Gandhi – ‘Mr.Gandhi: The Man’. In addition to these, there are many other works which give a fleeting glimpse of Kasturba. Gandhi’s autobiography is the foremost among them and the source for most other works, but we see Kasturba entirely through Gandhi’s eyes. His intention, often, was to show the mistakes he made and what he learnt from them. We do not know what exactly went through Kasturba’s mind during those moments.
Retelling their well-known tale, by keeping Kasturba as the focal point, allows us to look at her in a different perspective. All the gaps in the story do not get filled yet, but with a little bit of imagination on the part of the reader, the gaps can be filled in our minds.
Nothing in Kasturba’s early life indicated that she was to achieve greatness. For that matter, nothing in Gandhi’s early life indicated his future greatness. Kasturba was groomed to be a traditional Gujarati Hindu wife. She grew up to be one. Gradually, she started keeping pace with Gandhi. She became the ideal foil for Gandhi. It was not just a complex family that she had to manage for Gandhi; she had a huge role in managing his large extended family and the ashrams. Without Ba, resiliently standing with and behind him, there could have been no Bapu. Often, she showed glimpses of being a leader and a fighter, in her own right, managing the large coterie of family and friends around Gandhi, leading protests and going to jail. However, Gandhi still remains the primary reason for our interest in Kasturba. It is more for her unwavering role in the making of the Mahatma, that she is remembered. And it wasn’t an easy task to be close to a person who was putting himself and everyone close to him inside his crucible of experiments with truth. His eldest son fell out with him. Most of his friends and associates couldn’t travel with him the entire journey; Kasturba did, almost.
They were born in the same year, 1869. We have no records of Kasturba’s exact date of birth. 11th April,1869 is cited in some notes, but the authenticity of that date is uncertain. Kasturba was born as Kastur Kapadia, came to be known as Kasturbai after marriage, and then became Kasturba, or simply, Ba (Mother).
While Mohandas Gandhi grew up hearing tales of Rama, Harichandra and Shravan, Kastur had her fill of tales about Anusuya, Savitri, Sita and Taramati – all women devoted to their husbands. In 1876, their fathers, Karamchand Gandhi and Gokaldas Kapadia, reached an agreement for betrothing them. Their mothers, Vrajkunwerba Kapadia and Putliba Gandhi were friends and neighbours. The seven-year olds, Mohandas and Kastur were engaged. Then, at the age of 13, Mohandas and Kastur were married. Gandhi, ‘took no time in assuming the authority of a husband.’ His part as a jealous husband, and his carnal desires and his pangs of guilt when his father died, are all well documented in his Autobiography. But we know very little about what Kasturba felt during their joint teenhood. Their grandson, Arun Gandhi, writes: ‘My grandmother left no written records and, in later life she never confided her innermost feelings or personal reminiscences to anyone.’ She was by no means meek and submissive at that time. She made it a point to go out wherever and whenever she liked. ‘How could a guileless girl brook any restraint on going to the temple or on going on visits to friends?’
Gandhi tried to teach Kastur whatever he learnt at school but she never shared the same enthusiasm. Gandhi attributed his failure to teach her to his lust but it was probably more due to indifference on her part, at that time, and her conservative nature. ‘It was after years of effort that she could with difficulty read and write letters in simple Gujarati.’ It is also interesting to note that Gandhi’s dallying with cigarettes and meat-eating along with his brother Karsandas and his friend Sheik Mehtab occurred when Kastur had gone to her parent’s home at Porbandar for an extended stay. When she returned, she realised that he had taken to eating meat. She must have been aghast but bore it in silence. Meat-eating ended with his confession about a theft to his father. He also visited a brothel, urged by his friend. But he did nothing there and was sent away with abuses. Kastur did try to talk him out of his friendship with Sheikh but to no avail. This friendship lasted till, much later, a bitter incident put an end to it in South Africa.
Their first child was born, when they were barely 16 years old, four days after the death of Karamchand Gandhi. At the time of his father’s death, Mohandas was in bed with Kastur, having been relieved by his uncle from nursing his father a few minutes earlier. The child did not live longer than a few days. Gandhi thought of the death of their first child as a moral lesson for him. ‘Before I close this chapter of my double shame, I may mention that the poor mite that was born to my wife scarcely breathed for more than three or four days. Nothing else could be expected. Let all those who are married be warned by my example.’ But did Kasturbai share the same moral indignation, and a certain degree of indifference, about the loss of their first child, or was she filled with sorrow? Arun Gandhi writes, ‘But as far as I can discover, she never discussed the matter with anyone. I believe even after she became the mother of four sons, Ba carried in her heart a burden of silent sorrow for her lost firstborn son.’
They had another child, Harilal, when they were 18 years old.
After finishing matriculation, Gandhi joined Samaldas college at Bhavnagar. Unable to cope up, he dropped out after the first term. Based on the advice of a family friend, he then decided to leave for England to become a barrister. There were numerous objections, not just from his mother which has been frequently cited, but also from his in-laws. In an interview to ‘The Vegetarian’ in 1891, Gandhi said:
“Small blame then to my wife’s parents if they thought that they had a right to interfere if only for the sake of their daughter. Who was to look after her? How was she to manage to spend the three years? Of course she was to be looked after by my brother. Poor brother! According to my ideas at that time, I should have taken little notice of their legitimate fears and growlings, had it not been that their displeasure would have been reflected on my mother and brother. It was no easy task to sit night after night with my father- in-law and to hear and successfully answer his objections.”
For money, apart from what he got from his elder brother, he sold Kasturbai’s jewels. We do not know if Kasturbai had objections to selling her jewels. Gandhi would have recorded if she had any. She was probably pained more by the prospect of separation from her husband than the loss of jewels at that time. He took a painful leave from his adolescent wife. “She, of course, had been sobbing long before. I went to her and stood like a dumb statue for a moment. I kissed her, and she said, ‘Don’t go.’ What followed I need not describe.”
We do know she was vehemently against the idea of losing her jewels again, when many years later, Gandhi decided to give away the jewels given to her during the farewell dinner at South Africa to the Indian cause in South Africa.
It was not just the jewels that Kasturbai had lost. She had to bear the brunt of being an outcast in a conservative society, while the outcast tag did not matter much for Gandhi who had left the shores. She was also left in the care of her mother-in-law and Mohandas’ brothers, who themselves did not earn as much as their father once did. Her visits to her parents home at Porbandar also became sparse due to the excommunication. Before Gandhi returned to India, his mother too died. The family – Kasturbai may have had a role in making this decision, decided not to inform Mohandas about the death of his mother.
When Mohandas returned to India, he came back as a Westernised barrister. He again sought to teach Kastur to read and write. She still had no interest in literacy. He taught English ways to Harilal, and the other boys of the Gandhi family…shoes, long walks, calisthenics, cocoa, oatmeal and porridge. One thing had not changed – he still was a jealous and suspicious husband, though Kastur seemed to have given no cause for suspicion. She was sent off to her parent’s house after a quarrel. When she returned after a month, Mohandas had mellowed a bit. He was obviously feeling the burden of his inability to start off his professional career. Gandhi left for Bombay, alone, to set up his practice there. Kastur had to stay back in Rajkot, with her son. She was pregnant again. After many humiliations in Bombay, Gandhi returned to Rajkot, where he started earning a decent income, writing petitions and memorials. Their second son, Manilal, was born. Kastur, for the first time, could step out of the care of her brother-in-laws. But Gandhi was not a man for intrigue, submission and local politics. His prospects of becoming a Dewan, like his father, were shrinking. When he got an opportunity to work for an year in South Africa to settle a dispute, he seized it. With two small children, Kasturbai must have felt daunted by another separation, but she welcomed it due to the comparative financial security and independence it offered.
In April, 1893, Gandhi set out for South Africa. He faced and fought racial discrimination in courtroom, train, hotels and elsewhere. He was all set to return to India after amicably settling the dispute before the end of the year. On the eve of his departure, during his farewell party, he chanced upon a news item which talked about the loss of franchise for Indians. The South African Indians convinced him to stay back and fight for them. Kasturbai, who was eagerly awaiting the return of her husband, and the father of her young sons, received information about his extended stay to help the Indian community. ‘She felt a mixture of relief and apprehension. Relief that, at last, her husband had found something he would do well.’ All the reports she received about her husband was through the wives of his brothers. She could not have known the massive changes that her husband was going through. While on the financial front, his success would have been obvious to her by the way he supported his extended family, she could have hardly imagined the strides he was making on the social front. The successful social activist and barrister was not the same shy barrister, whose burden of insecurities she bore in India.
In 1896, he visited India on a working holiday. He intended to spend six months in India to garner support for the Indian cause in South Africa, and then take back his family with him. He prepared a ‘a green pamphlet’ laying out the conditions of Indians in South Africa and their intended course of action. Taking help from his sons and the neighbourhood children, he sent copies of this pamphlet to various Indian leaders and newspapers.
Finally, after 13 years of marriage, most of which were spent in separation, Kasturbai set out with her sons (and Gokaldas, the 10 year old son of the bereaved sister of Gandhi) to live with Gandhi, for the first time, away from the extended family. Crossing the sea was the price she had to pay for it. She had to wear a dress worn by Parsi women, to appear more civilised. . “What a heavy price one has to pay to be regarded as civilised,” she had said later. She had a tough sea journey, weathered a violent storm, and at the end of it, when they reached Durban, there was still no end in sight. The ship was put on a quarantine, reportedly due to the bubonic plague in Bombay, but actually due to the presence of one Mohandas Gandhi on board. The green pamphlet had made its way to the Durban in a distorted form. Some of the whites of Durban were up in arms against Gandhi. There were rumours that he was bringing two shiploads of unindentured Indian immigrants. The ships were held at the sea for 25 days.
When finally, the passengers were allowed to disembark after 44 days on sea, Kasturbai and the young boys could not have faced a more fiery welcome to her new home. Angry mobs were waiting for them at the shore. Kasturbai and the boys were sent away in a carriage to the house of Rustomji, a Parsi friend. Gandhi followed them on foot with a European lawyer. Kasturba, in a strange place, in the house of strangers, was awaiting his arrival. After a long time, Gandhi arrived, badly beaten up and bruised, but saved by the intervention of the wife of the Police Superintendent. To make things worse, the mob surrounded Rustomji’s house. The Superintendent reached their house and convinced Gandhi to leave the house alone in the disguise of a policeman. The mob, after confirming that Gandhi was not in the house, finally dispersed. Gandhi did not return for 2 more days, kept away under police protection. Gandhi decided not to proceed legally against his assailants, clarified the contents of green pamphlet in a newspaper report, and finally normalcy returned. He won new friends and admirers. After 2 more days, they went to settle down in the house that he had rented earlier. But what a turbulent experience it would have been for an unlettered, orthodox young woman in a strange place with three boys to look after!
In the new house, Beach Grove Villa, built in European style, Kasturbai felt lonely and lost. She longed for the company of her sisters-in-law at Rajkot. Gandhi frequently brought in clerks and other visitors to stay at the house. If any of the visitors did not clear the chamber pots, Gandhi or Kasturbai had to carry them out and clear them. The very thought of this task repulsed her. When a new guest, who was a Christian from an untouchable caste, left without knowing that he has to clear his chamber pot, Kasturbai carried the pot out reluctantly. She knew Gandhi would do it if she didn’t. She was in tears and furious. Gandhi watched her. It wasn’t just enough for him that she carried the pot. ‘He would have her do it cheerfully.’ She shouted, “Keep your house to yourself and let me go,’ and Gandhi complied, dragging her to the gate. Kasturbai cried: ”Have you no sense of shame? Must you so far forget yourself? Where am I to go? I have no parents or relatives here to harbour me. Being your wife, you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks. For Heaven’s sake behave yourself, and shut the gate. Let us not be found making scenes like this.” Gandhi further writes in his autobiography, “I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her.“
Kasturbai was pregnant at that time, with her third (fourth) child. Gandhi’s reformative mindset had blinded his compassion for his wife. ‘He never ceased to regret this incident, and used to relate it with tears in his eyes.’ When the child was born, Gandhi was prepared, after having read a Gujarati book on childbirth and childcare, to assist during delivery (May 1898) and to take care of the child and the mother, when they were too weak.
Kasturbai had to face other anxieties too. Gandhi did not believe that the exclusive European schools or the Christian Mission schools that admitted Indians would be able to give his children the right kind of education. He tried employing a private tutor but it didn’t work out. So he decided to educate the young boys himself. Considering how busy he was, it meant the boys got very little time with him, and were hanging out on their own at the house most of the time. When they did get time with him for studies, it was late in the evening when they were tired, or early in the morning when they were half-asleep. Kasturbai argued with her husband on this account too, saying some education was better than no education, and if there were schools, children should go to them.
Gandhi was now earning more than he would have liked to. This prosperity repulsed him. He wanted to reduce their expenses and free up the money for public work. He dismissed all the servants. The entire family took on all the household chores. In India, Kastur had got used to seeing women doing all the household work. In her South African home, she had to get used to doing a bulk of work herself and having the male members contribute. Gandhi took on a major share of work himself. From kitchen to laundry, he pitched in. He even started cutting his own hair.
In 1899-1900, Gandhi went off to participate in the Boer war, after organising the Indian medical corps ‘to prove the loyalty of Indians to the Queen without bearing arms.’ During the many weeks that Gandhi was away, Kasturba managed the house on her own. She was again pregnant. ‘For the first time ever, she was in complete charge of her own daily life and she found such independence not at all unpleasant. Kasturba was quite content, moving at her own pace, looking after her own little empire; taking care of the boys, planning for the new baby’s arrival, enjoying visits from new friends she had made in Durban, and trying not to worry about Mohandas. The couple’s fourth son, Devadas, arrived on May 23, 1900. Kasturba went into labour so suddenly and the birth came so quickly there was no time to summon doctor or nurse. Once again the birth was difficult and Kasturba’s suffering was great, but this time Mohandas delivered the baby safely all by himself. (“I was not nervous,” he reported in his autobiography. He disclosed nothing about his wife’s state of mind.) With Kasturba’s health again in a fragile state, Mohandas again cared for her, their newborn and the other boys. Then, in the midst of these domestic endeavours, 7-year-old Manilal came down with a serious case of smallpox. Mohandas put aside any thought of an early return to India. After many weeks, Kasturba’s strength returned.’
Finally, in October, 1901, Gandhi decided to return to India, under the condition that he would come back whenever he was needed in South Africa. It was during a farewell party hoisted for the family at this time that Kasturbai was given a gift of jewellery. Gandhi wanted to give back the jewels to a trust he would create for service to the Indian community. He had a ‘torrent of arguments’ with Kasturbai. She said she wanted the jewels not for her, but for their sons and their brides to be. But Gandhi had already enlisted the support of his young sons. They spoke in his favour. ‘You are trying to make sadhus of my boys from today!’ she lamented. When Gandhi, unfairly, pointed out that the jewels were given for his service, she firmly rejoined, ‘I agree. But service rendered by you is as good as rendered by me. I have toiled and moiled for you day and night. Is that no service? You forced all and sundry on me, making me weep bitter tears, and I slaved for them!’ Somehow Gandhi prevailed and the jewels were returned.
Back in India, after a brief stay in Rajkot, Gandhi moved with his family to Bombay in order to set up practice there, and also do political work. While in Bombay, their son, Manilal, then 10 years old, fell ill with typhoid and pneumonia. The Parsi doctor who came over told them that Manilal lacked nourishment and needs to be given egg and chicken broth. Gandhi writes in his autobiography that he refused after consulting Manilal. Kasturbai was equally, or perhaps more, determined not to give eggs and chicken broth. When Gandhi commenced hydropathic treatment for the ailing Manilal, Kasturbai stood by him steadfastly. She gave him encouragement when he was having doubts. Manilal recovered.
While Kasturbai felt very much at home and in control, at her new house in Bombay, Gandhi seemed to be still out of sorts. They had surely settled into a comfortable life but this was not the life of a couple, who were about to change history. Then, the call came from South Africa that Gandhi was needed there as Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, was expected there. Gandhi had to leave immediately. Gandhi left them behind, and travelled alone. He expected the work to not last for more than a year. Harilal and Gokuldas were studying at boarding schools. Kasturbai remained behind at Bombay with her other sons. Gandhi’s nephew, Chhaganlal Gandhi and his family moved into their house to give them company.
In Gandhi’s absence, his brother Lakshmidas arranged for the betrothal of Harilal, then 14 years old, with Gulab, only 11 years old. Kasturbai consented for this. Gandhi had strong views on child marriage and they had all not anticipated his reaction. When Gandhi was informed of this, he refused to give his consent but had to finally relent, when he was assured that the wedding would not take place for many years.
Gandhi did not, as expected, return to India after an year. Instead, he asked his wife and sons to join him in South Africa, if they wished to. Harilal did not want to travel this time. He wanted to pursue his studies. Kasturbai paid heed to his wishes, and agreed to leave him behind.
By this time, Gandhi had moved to Johannesburg in Transvaal. In her absence, he had started a weekly newspaper, Indian Opinion, which was initially published in four languages: English, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. Most of his savings had gone into it. When Kasturba arrived, she had another issue that occupied her mind. Their son, Ramdas, had fractured his arm during the ship journey. Gandhi offered to treat Ramdas, with earth poultices. Kasturba was worried but once again placed trust in his remedies. Ramdas was completely healed within a month.
When the highly contagious and fatal pneumonic plague struck an Indian settlement, Madanjit, who started Indian Opinion with Gandhi, acted quickly to isolate the 23 patients in a vacant house. Gandhi immediately rushed there to provide care for them. Certain biographical notes on Kasturba, including Arun Gandhi’s book, mention that she played a role in educating the women and mobilising them to clean a warehouse during the plague. But nothing about Kasturba’s presence is mentioned in Gandhi’s autobiography or his major biographies. In fact, at the time of the plague – 18th March, 1904, Kasturbai and the children were still in India.
Life soon began to move at a rapid pace for Kasturba. Gandhi, after reading the book, ‘Unto the last’, by John Ruskin, on a train journey, got inspired by its ideas so much that, almost immediately, decided to buy a farm and move his printing activities there. Within 10 days, he bought a 100-acre farm, 14 miles from Durban. He also planned for people to settle down on that farm, which he named as the Phoenix Farm, and lead simple, self-sufficient lives. The friend who lent him the book, Henry Polak, moved in to live with Gandhi at his Johannesburg house. Soon, he got married, and his wife, Millie Polak, also moved in with them. Kasturbai took them in with joy.
They were living in a double-storied, eight-roomed modern villa in a ‘fairly good middle-class neighbourhood.’ It was surrounded by a garden. Their household, noted Millie Polak, already had other members too – ‘a young Englishman engaged in the telegraph service and a young Indian ward of Mr.Gandhi’s.’ Millie Polak started teaching Kasturbai spoken English, and also taught the children reading, writing and arithmetic. Then came the big step – Gandhi decided to keep no money, over and above that required for basic necessities. It caused a breakup with his elder brother, who felt Gandhi was letting the larger family down by not supporting them financially.
Gandhi ‘introduced as much simplicity as was possible in a barrister’s house.’ His thrust on physical labour was increasing. He bought a hand-mill for grinding flour. He and the children worked on the mill, usually sparing Kasturbai of that work.
Kasturbai had to do the balancing act of dealing with the increasingly ascetic attitude of Gandhi, and the material needs of her children. She had her own ways of doing it. Millie Polak writes about one such instance: ‘Mrs. Gandhi, like most mothers, was proud of and ambitious for her children, and, among other things, she wanted them to be nicely clothed. Apart from her, the household wore European clothes, so that, when new shoes or a new suit was wanted for one of the boys and Mr. Gandhi seemed indifferent to the need, Mrs. Gandhi would often say to me: “You ask Bapu for it,” and I did.’
Gandhi in his autobiography tends to be too hard on himself and focus on his flaws, downplaying the responses of Kasturba. This has resulted in painting Kasturba as a meek woman, who was always a helpless victim to her husband’s whims. Later he did say that he learnt non-violence from the peaceful but stern defiance of Kasturba. Yet, the meek, obedient wife image lingers. Millie Polak throws more light on the combative nature of Kasturba. When there was no core principle at stake, she could score a point over her husband.
“On one occasion, some Europeans had invited themselves to dinner. Mr. Gandhi did not know them very well and Mrs. Gandhi not at all. When they arrived, they were frankly and almost rudely curious about the home-life, asking all kinds of intimate questions in a very arrogant manner. Mr. Gandhi answered quite kindly, but laughed at many of the statements about what they thought Indian people did or did not do. Mrs. Gandhi had, from the first, been angry about them, and before we went to the dining-room she disappeared. Mr. Gandhi sent for her, but she did not come. Eventually, Mr. Gandhi went himself in search of his wife, and found her in her room, but she refused to come down. The dinner passed off, Mr. Gandhi giving some explanation for his wife’s absence. The next day when I saw her, she told me that she would not have people come to the house just for idle curiosity and to “make laugh” of her and her home. So that, if they came, they would not see her. Bapu could see them himself. I think Mr. Gandhi tried to reason her out of this mood, but she stuck to her opinion and was not moved by any of our arguments.”
The life in the villa had to come to an end. When the Zulu rebellion broke out in Natal, Gandhi made an offer to again form an Indian Ambulance Corps. His offer was accepted by the Governor. In anticipation, Gandhi had already planned to vacate the Johannesburg house and move his family to the Phoenix farm. Gandhi writes, “I had her full consent to this decision. I do not remember her having ever stood in my way in matters like this.”
But Millie Polak had more to tell:
“My first view of Phoenix disappointed and depressed me. Mrs. Gandhi, too, did not feel happy at being transplanted from the town, with its domestic and human amenities, to the more primitive conditions which prevailed at the settlement. She and I shared a little room the first night we arrived, and lay awake talking and grumbling for hours. We were probably overtired, both nervously and physically; for we had had two days and a night in a train, and at the end of that a long two-mile tramp along a badly constructed road across difficult country, our path lighted only by a flickering lamp, and the fear of snakes constantly in our minds. The youngest boy also had become tired and commenced to cry miserably. When we reached our destination, we had to set to work to make beds ready, and all the arrangements for the night.
About four o’clock in the morning, just when it was getting daylight, Mr. Gandhi came down the ladder and walked up and down outside our room. After a time, knowing that we were only dozing, he spoke and asked what it was we really wanted. His voice had a worried note, and it was evident that our attitude of the previous night had much disturbed him. Mrs. Gandhi replied in Gujarati, and a conversation ensued which I could not understand. Eventually, Mr. Gandhi begged us to be patient and see what we could do with the things around us, promising to get any other really necessary things that we required. The essence of the last sentence lay in the word “necessary”, however, for so many things we desired we could not prove to be necessary, and so life was lived at Phoenix in a very simple way.”
Millie Polak could not adapt to the wild Phoenix life. With Gandhi’s concurrence, she soon left for Durban. But Kasturba stayed on. She might have even enjoyed her stay there, because she had the company of the families of her husband’s nephews, Chhaganlal and Maganlal Gandhi, and others.
In May 1906, Harilal, who had stayed back in India, got married to Gulab. His uncles had arranged it. Harilal was 18 years old, and Gulab 15. Gandhi had already been upset with their engagement at an young age. He had then insisted on delaying their marriage. This caused him more anguish. Kasturba must also have been upset at not being consulted and not being present for her first son’s wedding.
In June 1906, Gandhi went off to do ambulance corps duty in the Zulu war. He came back resolved to take a vow of brahmacharya – a life of self-restraint, especially abstinence from sexual activities. As a first step, he stopped ‘sharing the same bed with his wife or seeking privacy with her.’ What he had been trying to follow ‘willy-nilly since 1900, was sealed with a vow in the middle of 1906.’ He thought that without brahmacharya service to the family would be inconsistent with service to the community. He consulted Kasturba at the time of taking the vow, and, ‘she had no objection’. Even during his earlier failed attempts, ‘she was never the temptress’, and after this vow, she seemed to have made the transition with much less fuss than Gandhi. It was after his practice of brahmacharya, he ‘realised that the wife is not the husband’s bond slave, but his companion and his helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows – as free as the husband to choose her own path.’
Gandhi went back to Johannesburg. Harilal brought his wife Gulab to South Africa in April, 1907. After living with his father for a while, Harilal shifted to Phoenix. Kasturba must have been delighted. But, soon after, in response to the Asiatic Act or the ‘Black Act’, Satyagraha was initiated under the leadership of Gandhi for the first time. And Gandhi went to jail in December 1907. Another 150 Indians followed him to jail. Gulab was pregnant and a celebration was being held for her, when the news of Gandhi’s arrest reached Phoenix. With gentle authority and love, Kasturba grew into her role of a motherly figure for everyone at the farm, playing an influential part in running the farm and later their ashrams in India. Her barrister husband would henceforth spend more time in prison than in court rooms.
Kasturba also started getting used to seeing her sons going to prison. Harilal was the first to go. He entered Transvaal from Natal without a permit, and also hawked without licence. He was arrested on 24th July, 1908. Appearing as the defence counsel for him and others, Gandhi said ‘he had a long conference with the prisoners at the gaol, and he had been requested to ask for the severest penalty. The accused had acted as they had done with deliberation.’ They were fined £1 each or imprisonment of seven days with hard labour. They chose the prison. On receiving various inquiries as to why he sent Harilal to prison, he gave his reasons in The Indian Opinion:
“1. I have advised every Indian to take up hawking. I am afraid I cannot join myself since I am enrolled as an attorney. I therefore thought it right to advise my son to make his rounds as a hawker. I hesitate to ask others to do things which I cannot do myself. I think whatever my son does at my instance can be taken to have been done by me.
- It will be a part of Harilal’s education to go to gaol for the sake of the country.
- I have always been telling people that satyagraha is easy for those who can understand it well. When I go to defend those who have been arrested, I do not, strictly speaking, defend them but only send them to gaol. If we have acquired real courage, there should be no need for me to present myself in Court. I thought it only proper that I should make this experiment in the first instance with my son. Accordingly, no arrangements were made for him at Volksrust, and he was left to fall back on his own strength. Since there were others with him in Johannesburg, I attended the Court, but asked for the maximum penalty for him and for his associates. It was their misfortune that they did not get it.”
Harilal went to prison six times in South Africa. He was deported twice. Once both father and son were in prison together. He earned the sobriquet ‘Chote Gandhi’. When Gandhi was in jail, he said, “I am proud of my respected father.” When Kasturba fell ill, he rushed to nurse her. Gandhi wrote loving letters to Gulab from prison. But all this bonhomie was short lived. Harilal had a serious fallout with Gandhi. His major complaint was that he was not sent to England to qualify as a barrister, when Gandhi’s friend Dr.Pranjivan Mehta had given a scholarship. Gandhi had instead sent Chhaganlal Gandhi, and then when he had to return due to bad health, Sorabji Adjania. Both of them had gone under the obligation to return to South Africa and work for the Indian cause. We do not know if Harilal refused those conditions. Gulab was already in India for her second pregnancy. Harilal too left, initially without informing anyone, and his life kept sliding downhill. In India, after the death of his wife, his children were all brought up by Kasturba in their ashrams. But father and son never quite patched up, despite several attempts.
Kasturba, too, lost her patience with Harilal, admonishing him when he converted to Islam, in 1936.
“Every morning, I rise with a shudder to think what fresh news of disgrace the newspapers will bring. I sometimes wonder where you are, where you sleep and what you eat. Perhaps, you take forbidden food. That and other similar thoughts give me sleepless nights. I often feel like meeting you. But I do not know where to find you.
I do not know why you changed your ancient religion. That is your affair. But I hear that you go about asking innocent and ignorant people to follow your example. Why will you not realize your limitations? What do you know about religion? What judgment can you exercise in your mental condition? People are liable to be led away by the fact you are your father’s son. You are not fit to preach religion. In time to come if you go on like this you will be shunned by all alike. I beseech you to pause and consider and turn back from your folly.
I did not like your conversion, but when I saw your statement that you had decided to improve yourself, I felt secretly glad even about conversion, hoping that you would start leading a sober life. But that hope too is dashed to pieces.”
She even wrote to his Muslim friends:
“I am only referring to those of you who are taking an active part in my son’s recent activities. I have not been able to understand your action. I know and I am glad to think that a large number of thinking Mussalmans and all our life-long Muslim friends condemn the whole episode.
Instead of redeeming my son I find his so-called change of faith has actually made matters worse. Some people have even gone to the length of supplying the title of ‘Maulvi’ to him. Is this fair? Does your religion permit such persons as my son being called Maulvi?
I do not understand what pleasures you find in sometimes lionizing him. What you are doing is not at all in his interest. If your desire is mainly to hold us up to ridicule, I have nothing to say to you. You may do your worst.
But the feeble voice of a stricken mother will perhaps quicken the consciences of those who may be in a position to influence you. I feel it my duty to repeat to you what I am telling my son, namely, that you are not doing the right thing in the eyes of God.”
Harilal, though, remained attached to his mother. His reaction to this was, “’Ba didn’t write this letter. Someone else wrote it and signed her name.” Narayan Desai narrates this incident, when Harilal met them at Katni Station:
“He was emaciated. His front teeth were gone. His hair had turned grey. From a pocket of his ragged clothes, he took an orange and said, ‘Ba, I’ve brought this for you.’
Breaking in, Bapu said, ‘Didn’t you bring anything for me?’
‘No, nothing for you. I only want to tell you that all the greatness you have achieved is only because of Ba. Don’t forget that!’
‘Oh, there’s no doubt of it! But now, do you want to come with us?’
‘Oh, no. I only came to see Ba. Take this orange, Ba I begged for it, and now I give it to you.’
Ba took the orange. But Harilalkaka wasn’t satisfied. He said, ‘It’s only for you, alright? If you’re not going to eat it yourself, give it back to me.’
Ba promised to eat the orange. Then she too pleaded with Harilalkaka to come with us.
Harilalkaka’s eyes were full of tears. ‘Leave off such talk, Ba. There’s no way out of this for me.’
There was no time to talk further. The whistle blew. The train started moving.
Harilalkaka was reminding her, “Ba, my orange is for you only!”
Our compartment had pulled away from him when Ba realised, ‘I didn’t even ask the poor boy if he wanted anything to eat! We had a basket full of fruits. My dear child must be dying of hunger!’
But by then the train had left the platform. Amidst the cries of “Gandhiji ki jai!”, we could still hear the faint cry, “Mata Kasturba ki jai!”
Narayan Desai adds elsewhere, ‘When Ba told him to join her, I saw how Gandhiji complied in a choked voice and with tear-filled eyes.’ Sushila Nayar recounts the last two meetings of Harilal with Kasturba:
‘On the 17th afternoon (February, 1943, at Aga Khan Palace prison) Ba’s eldest son, Harilal Gandhi, had come to see her. She was very pleased to meet him. On learning that he had permission to see her just once, she was very angry. “Why this discrimination between two brothers?” she said. “They allowed Devadas to come every day and they tell Harilal that he can come only once! Let Bhandari, (Inspector-General of Prisons) come to me. I shall ask him why a poor son cannot come to see his mother as freely as the rich one.” Gandhiji tried to pacify her. “I shall get permission for him to come every day,” he said. Permission was received on the following day but no one could find Harilalbhai’s whereabouts. Ba asked for him every day and every day she got the reply that he could not be traced. On the 19th Ba’s condition was serious. We were informed that the Government had sent for Ramdas Gandhi and Devadas Gandhi telegraphically and they were searching for Harilal Gandhi.
At last, on the 20th, Swami Anand succeeded in tracing him. Harilalbhai told the Superintendent on the telephone that he would have come during the day but for the fact that he had overslept in the afternoon. We all understood what oversleep in the afternoon meant in his case. Ba was angry. Gandhiji pacified her. At last, on the 21st afternoon, Harilalbhai came. Ba was deeply grieved to see his drunken state and she began to beat her forehead. Harilalbhai had to be removed from her sight.
The excitement brought on an attack of pain in her chest.’
Though her other sons also had their share of troubles with their father, they remained equally devoted to both father and mother. In South Africa, Manilal and Ramdas served prison terms. Kasturba seems not to have made any efforts to stop them from participating in the struggle. The fifteen-year-old Ramdas went on a fast to demand better food and treatment in the jail. There came a time when Kasturba herself went to prison.
(To be continued)
(Posted in Facebook on 31 Oct.)
If one manages to find the poorly-placed login page on the new IRCTC website, there is more surprise in store.
You have to type ‘paytmmall’ in the captcha box!!
Next what, we have to write hosannas for paytm? It is not just vile, it is outright stupid from a functional perspective. Doesn’t a default text defeat the very purpose of captcha?
Thankfully, there are ways to sidestep it. Refresh and get another captcha option, or request to login through an OTP. But, of course, it is only a notional victory. Cursing it etches it deeper into your mind.
Is this a celebrated Made in India jugaad, or have others done it before? I thought even Facebook is yet to come up with such invasive advertising that forces active participation.
[Published in Tamizhini e-maganize.]
You have been watching tennis for many years. You remember Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, McEnroe and Conners on the wane; Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, Steffi Graf and Gabriala Sabatani on the rise. Seles and Hingis. Agassi and Sampras. Even Ivanisevic and Jana Novotna. Federer and Nadal. Djokovic and Murray. You have moments and memories from their matches. But you ask yourself, how much do you remember of the greatest woman player of our era, and probably of all time. Or about her illustrious sister. Honestly, very little. Yes, you know, she has been winning match after match; slam after slam. More than Federer. More than Sampras. More than Nadal. More than Graf. But those are numbers. Not moments. Why? Is it because she lacks charm? What charm did Sampras have, or Nadal? Is it because she has played a hard-hitting game? Don’t most modern players do the same, with the exception of Roger Federer at his brilliant best? [This part was written before this year’s US Open Finals. Now you may have moments to remember from that match. Even now, you may not have watched the match live, but caught those moments on youtube. But in the context of those moments, these lines have chosen to remain unchanged. If you think what you saw was a one-off incident of bad behaviour, and Serena crying sour grapes and Serena justifying bad behaviour and Serena seeking license for future bad behaviour, this piece may urge a rethink. You may want your champions to be made of spotless white material; however, well, it is not that Serena is spotless but Serena is not white.]
Ralph Ellison starts his novel, Invisible Man, with these lines:
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”
You are wondering if it is the phenomenon of the ‘Invisible Woman’ that has made you overlook Serena Williams and Venus Williams, and not carry any significant memories about the matches involving either of them. Black champions in a game dominated by Whites. Were you inflicted by racial bias? Maybe, not. You would even like to consider yourself to be vehemently anti-racist. Yet, you may admit, maybe with shame, that you too had probably become conditioned to equate grace with White grace, and charm with White charm, and not really appreciate the greatness of these two wonderful black women, when they were at their peak.
More than anybody, the poet, Claudia Rankine, makes you see the invisible men and women in her book, Citizen: An American Lyric. “What doesn’t belong with you won’t be seen,” writes Rankine.
The wanton obliviousness to the invisible is what has perhaps helped the proudly liberal and democratic West to practise racism, genocide, plunder, slavery and segregation with a clean conscience and a sense of moral superiority, even while it fought to liberate the Jews from Hitler or Afghans and the Vietnamese from the Communism, or Africa and India from superstition and rituals.
Is it a book of poetry? Ah, yes. But the line between poetry and prose is so completely blurred and erased, that many of the poems lay claim to the status of poems sheerly on the weight of the content, and shedding all pretences of form. If modern poetry pushed out and rewrote the prosodic boundaries around poetry, newer poets like Claudia Rankine completely break free of all restraints. A lyrical essay on Serena Williams and a wonderfully sequenced assortment of quotes to bring out the story of Zinedine Zidane in World Cup 2006, sit comfortably with a series of poems and reminiscences.
She starts with everyday occurrences in ‘your’ life.
In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.
Then Rankine turns her sharp poetic gaze towards celebrities like Serena Williams and Zinedine Zidane. You had not learnt to look at their successes and lapses through the prism of race.
You knew the head-butt by Zinedine Zidane that costed the French team another World Cup victory. But you could never fathom the pressure he was under. The abuses that were thrown at him.
“Do you think two minutes from the end of a World Cup final, two minutes from the end of my career, I wanted to do that?” she quotes Zinedine Zidane. “What he said “touched the deepest part of me.””
“Big Algerian shit, dirty terrorist, nigger,” Claudia puts together the accounts of lip readers responding to the transcript of the World Cup.
“Every day I think about where I came from and I am still proud to be who I am…” asserts Zidane.
No one is free.
For all that he is, people will say he remains for us an Arab. “You can’t get away from nature.” (Frantz Fanon)
Even more glaring but unseen has been the racial bias encountered by Serena Williams. You wonder how many of us remember this incident in 2004, which Claudia narrates with such rancour. Even if you do, how many of us could see the racist tinge on that incident.
The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Mariana Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her semifinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Commentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening. Serena, in her denim skirt, black sneaker boots, and dark mascara, began wagging her finger and saying “no, no, no,” as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world. Tennis superstar John McEnroe, given his own keen eye for injustice during his professional career, was shocked that Serena was able to hold it together after losing the match.
Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line. “One commentator said he hoped he wasn’t being unkind when he stated, “Capriati wins it with the help of the umpires and the lines judges.” A year later that match would be credited for demonstrating the need for the speedy installation of Hawk-Eye, the line-calling technology that took the seeing away from the beholder. Now the umpire’s call can be challenged by a replay; however, back then after the match Serena said, “I’m very angry and bitter right now. I felt cheated. Shall I go on? I just feel robbed.”
Serena is meted out more such decisions. A bad line call at a crucial juncture. A harsh penalty at another critical moment. She gets furious. She swears. She breaks racquets. She faces a hefty fine. She is put on a two-year probationary period. (And outside the book, she gets picked for wearing a full-length black catsuit, to counter her post-maternity issues. And yes, the infamous US Open incidents now.) She asks a referee if ‘she is trying to screw her again.’ Claudia highlights the use of the word ‘again’, which ‘returns her viewers to other times calling her body out.’
Again Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background. “Aren’t you the one that screwed me over last time here?” she asks umpire Asderaki. “Yeah, you are. Don’t look at me. Really, don’t even look at me. Don’t look my way. Don’t look my way,” she repeats, because it is that simple.
Yes, and who can turn away? Serena is not running out of breath. Despite all her understanding, she continues to serve up aces while smashing rackets and fraying hems. In the 2012 Olympics she brought home the only two gold medals the Americans would win in tennis. After her three-second celebratory dance on center court at the All England Club, the American media reported, “And there was Serena … Crip-Walking all over “the most lily-white place in the world…. You couldn’t help but shake your head…. What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church…. What she did was immature and classless.”
It is true that wrong line calls and poor umpiring decisions are part of every sport. But when a particular player of a particular colour, ‘thrown against a sharp white background’, is repeatedly at the receiving end, you cannot help attributing a racial flavour to it [Serena, now, attributes a gender flavour too]. Why does the rule book have a knack of flinging itself only on you, and often unfairly, you ask. Claudia writes about another farcical incident, when ’the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, a former number-one player, imitates Serena by stuffing towels in her top and shorts, all in good fun, at an exhibition match.’
It’s then that Hennessy’s suggestions about “how to be a successful artist” return to you: be ambiguous, be white. Wozniacki, it becomes clear, has finally enacted what was desired by many of Serena’s detractors, consciously or unconsciously, the moment the Compton girl first stepped on court. Wozniacki (though there are a number of ways to interpret her actions—playful mocking of a peer, imitation of the mimicking antics of the tennis player known as the joker, Novak Djokovic) finally gives the people what they have wanted all along by embodying Serena’s attributes while leaving Serena’s “angry nigger exterior” behind. At last, in this real, and unreal, moment, we have Wozniacki’s image of smiling blond goodness posing as the best female tennis player of all time.
If these are the problems faced the by black celebrities, and let us move away from celebrities – you have your own opinions, judgements, biases which are difficult to engage with, Claudia’s poems on the black common man and woman, the invisible folks, are the mainstay of the book. Almost all are written using the second-person pronoun. She shuns the ‘I’. She embraces the ‘you’.
Sometimes “I” is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it.
This makes the first person a symbol for something.
The pronoun barely holding the person together.
Someone claimed we should use our skin as wallpaper knowing we couldn’t win.
You said “I” has so much power; it’s insane.
And you would look past me, all gloved up, in a big coat, with fancy fur around the collar, and record a self saying, you should be scared, the first person can’t pull you together.
Shit, you are reading minds, but did you try?
Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried.
Elsewhere, she scorns the ‘I’ yet more, ‘Don’t say I if it means so little,/ holds the little forming no one.’ It is not just the I of the invisible that is futile, but that of the visible, the prominent too.
“Listen, you, I was creating a life study of a monumental first person, a Brahmin first person.
If you need to feel that way—still you are in here and here is nowhere.
Join me down here in nowhere.
Don’t lean against the wallpaper; sit down and pull together.
Yours is a strange dream, a strange reverie.
No, it’s a strange beach; each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads.”
You feel ‘you’ is a powerful tool. It is no longer a story about somebody else. You have no scope to look away. You have no room to skirt the issues. You are suffering. You are causing the suffering. You are the invisible. But you can’t help seeing yourself. And seeing others in yourself. And seeing yourself in others.
You are the oppressor. You are the oppressed. You have risen up from the downtrodden. You refuse to see your brethren from the earlier times. You are now the elite. Rankine introduces you to a middle aged writer at London, a writer, with what she calls the ‘the face of the English sky—full of weather, always in response, constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly’; a writer, who asks her to write about the riots over the killing of Mark Duggan, a black man [a black man, a husband, a father] shot dead by the police on suspicions of being a drug dealer. The riots led to looting. ‘Whatever the reason for the riots, images of the looters’ continued rampage eventually displaced the fact that an unarmed man was shot to death.’ Rankine asks, “Why don’t you (write)?” Then she goes on to ponder the question.
Arguably, there is no simultaneity between the English sky and the body being ordered to rest in peace. This difference, which has to do with “the war (the black body’s) presence has occasioned,” to quote Baldwin, makes all the difference. One could become acquainted with the inflammation that existed around Duggan’s body and it would be uncomfortable. Grief comes out of relationships to subjects over time and not to any subject in theory, you tell the English sky, to give him an out. The distance between you and him is thrown into relief: bodies moving through the same life differently. With your eyes wide open you consider what this man and you, two middle-aged artists, in a house worth more than a million pounds, share with Duggan. Mark Duggan, you are part of the misery. Apparently your new friend won’t write about Mark Duggan or the London riots; still you continue searching his face because there is something to find, an answer to question.
Claudia Rankine largely talks about the experience of blacks in America. But you know you can see the Dalits of India there. And the oppressed of everywhere there.
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
How many times have you, in India, faced the question, “Will you choose to be treated by a doctor who got through quota?” But how many times have you faced the question, “Will you find out if the richest doctor running the heppest hospital bought his medical seat with money or privilege?”
A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something—she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?—her son wasn’t accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater’s legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn’t seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive.
How often have you heard someone lament, “I/my son did not get the opportunities we deserved because of reservation.” You ask her, where is she/her son now. In US or UK or Australia or somewhere where he is a big shot. You are never surprised. And you ask the same question to someone who did not get opportunities despite reservation. In a slum. Cleaning vessels. Or wiping tables.
You do not expect them to make it past odds.
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech.
And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
Claudia explores the conflict between the historical self and the real self that makes you understand your own inconsistencies and social failings.
A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.
As you interact with your brethren in your village, you constantly come in contact with this conflict. You are at a loss to explain how a person, who is so nice, so helpful, so hospitable, so unselfish, so generous when interacting with you, can be so unmindful of the concerns of the lower castes. You see how a Dalit is denied entry into their houses that so welcomed you. You see how the language changes so swiftly from respectful to demeaning, when addressing them. You see how they assert, “whatever you do for them, they are like this only.”
You are conditioned to look at the other with suspicion.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she? The man behind the register returns your card and places the sandwich and Pellegrino in a bag, which you take from the counter. What is wrong with you? This question gets stuck in your dreams.
Whenever there is a natural calamity, you call nature a great leveller. Really? Claudia writes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:
And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.
You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black.
Have you seen their faces?
He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.
He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.
He said, I don’t know what the water wanted.
Call out to them.
I don’t see them.
Call out anyway.
Did you see their faces?
In the few places, where Rankine slips into the first person, she still sews the second person into the first person and the third person, with the sheer power of her narrative. You feel the pain of being singled out.
My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget that we are named. What is that memory?
The days of our childhood together were steep steps into a collapsing mind. It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued. Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers’ hearts. The hearts of my brothers are broken. If I knew another way to be, I would call up a brother, I would hear myself saying, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—
On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call.
If I called I’d say good-bye before I broke the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up. Don’t hang up. My brother hangs up though he is there. I keep talking. The talk keeps him there. The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot. Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool?
My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down. He won’t hang up. He’s there, he’s there but he’s hung up though he is there. Good-bye, I say. I break the good-bye. I say good-bye before anyone can hang up, don’t hang up. Wait with me. Wait with me though the waiting might be the call of good-byes.
When the system suspects you every time you do nothing, when the police stop you for doing the regular things, when you are made to explain why you talk when you have done nothing, you know you fit a certain description. Claudia’s hysteric language drives you into a frenzy in this stanza.
I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew.
And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I knew. I just knew. I opened my briefcase on the passenger seat, just so they could see.
Yes officer rolled around on my tongue, which grew out of a bell that could never ring because its emergency was a tolling I was meant to swallow.
In a landscape drawn from an ocean bed, you can’t drive yourself sane—so angry you are crying. You can’t drive yourself sane. This motion wears a guy out. Our motion is wearing you out and still you are not that guy.
Then flashes, a siren, a stretched-out roar—and you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren’t speeding. I wasn’t speeding? You didn’t do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up.
Then you are stretched out on the hood. Then cuffed. Get on the ground now.
Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same. Flashes, a siren, the stretched-out roar—
Maybe because home was a hood the officer could not afford, not that a reason was needed, I was pulled out of my vehicle a block from my door, handcuffed and pushed into the police vehicle’s backseat, the officer’s knee pressing into my collarbone, the officer’s warm breath vacating a face creased into the smile of its own private joke.
Each time it begins in the same way, it doesn’t begin the same way, each time it begins it’s the same.
Go ahead hit me motherfucker fled my lips and the officer did not need to hit me, the officer did not need anything from me except the look on my face on the drive across town. You can’t drive yourself sane. You are not insane. Our motion is wearing you out. You are not the guy.
This is what it looks like. You know this is wrong. This is not what it looks like. You need to be quiet. This is wrong. You need to close your mouth now. This is what it looks like. Why are you talking if you haven’t done anything wrong?
And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
In a landscape drawn from an ocean bed, you can’t drive yourself sane—so angry you can’t drive yourself sane.
The charge the officer decided on was exhibition of speed. I was told, after the fingerprinting, to stand naked. I stood naked. It was only then I was instructed to dress, to leave, to walk all those miles back home.
And still you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
When you are so lost, and so isolated, how do you feel part of a larger society? How do you make the society feel you are part of it? How do you become a Citizen? These are also the questions that the poet grapples with.
Just this morning another, What did he say?
Come on, get back in the car. Your partner wants to face off with a mouth and who knows what handheld objects the other vehicle carries.
Trayvon Martin’s name sounds from the car radio a dozen times each half hour. You pull your love back into the seat because though no one seems to be chasing you, the justice system has other plans.
Yes, and this is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on.
Despite the air-conditioning you pull the button back and the window slides down into its door-sleeve. A breeze touches your cheek. As something should.
Claudia Rankine manages to slam you and hem you into a black body set against the whitest background. You feel the pain. You feel the indifference. You feel the suspicion. You feel the discrimination. You feel history. And you feel the present. You feel no escape.
you’re not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad—
It’s just this, you’re injured.
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?
You feel the urge to reproduce her entire book in this essay. You have to only say so little when her book says so much. But you have to stop somewhere.
I can hear the even breathing that creates passages to dreams. And yes, I want to interrupt to tell him her us you me I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.
Tell me a story, he says, wrapping his arms around me.
Yesterday, I begin, I was waiting in the car for time to pass. A woman pulled in and started to park her car facing mine. Our eyes met and what passed passed as quickly as the look away. She backed up and parked on the other side of the lot. I could have followed her to worry my question but I had to go, I was expected on court, I grabbed my racket.
The sunrise is slow and cloudy, dragging the light in, but barely.
Did you win? he asks.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.
What is poetry? What is the purpose of poetry? Does poetry need a purpose? Shorn of all rhyme, rhythm and even form, what differentiates poetry from prose? You are left with these and more questions. You may not yet have the right answers but you know all the answers you knew earlier are wrong. You know you have not even started asking all the right questions.
Claudia Rankine quotes Dostoevsky and James Baldwin.
“The purpose of art,” James Baldwin wrote, “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” He might have been channeling Dostoyevsky’s statement that “we have all the answers. It is the questions we do not know.”
Claudia Rankine is not the first person to write poetry in the form of prose. Nor is she the first person to employ the second person pronoun so extensively. Nor is she the first to use poetry to drive home political points. But she is, clearly, a masterful exponent of all these.
Since the first time we met Krishnammal six years ago, most of our most precious moments have been made in the presence of her and her extended family, with people of all castes and countries.
If anyone thinks that Gandhi belongs to fiction, they should meet Krishnammal once. Her deeds make us feel small but her words and her touch always make us feel big.
I am so glad that friends at Cuckoo are celebrating her as she should be.
Suneel Krishnan has been compiling and editing the writings on Gandhi in Tamil for a book to be published by Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan. I am translating this work into English. With Thirukkural translation also nearing completion, I am again spending more time on the desk than on the field. But, no regrets, I’m loving this too. My wife, anyway, is the real farmer in our house.
The book contains short stories, novel extracts, essays, tributes, memoirs and poems – both modern and conventional. Can’t ask for more variety. Though Suneel has finished the book in a few months time, it really is a culmination of the intense work of Suneel and his other friends over the last decade.
An extract from the translation in progress…an engaging poem by Raya Chokalingam. I can’t judge how well it has turned out but I had fun recreating the poem, with a meter and rhyme, not taking too many liberties with the original verse:
Poem on Gandhi
A Girl to her (girl) Friend
– Raya Chokalingam
With love as a rope, Gandhi binds the world
Words that melt the bones, sweetest words he told;
My friend, let’s praise, sing and dance, he’s our lord.
In praising this lord, what is there to gain!
Do you not know, world by nature is vain!
My friend, in singing his name, there’ll be pain!
This pain means fragrance, what we hail is Truth!
If we sing of him, with red pearl-like mouth,
My friend, heavens will honour us, have faith!
Ev’n those who keep this world under their sway
Seek him and to their heart’s fill, respects pay,
My friend, though half-naked fakir they say.
What full respect! They jailed him that moment!
The thoughtless honoured him, but what’s the point?
My friend, if we join him, it’ll be torment.
His task’s to break the chains of our mother
Is it joy or woe to follow our leader?
My friend, what do you mean by this jabber?
Do you not know what I mean? Worldly bliss
If we want, could we follow his footsteps,
My friend, and be confined to the jail’s darkness?
When others rule, how will happiness sprout?
Why do you speak dismissive words? Without
The right to rule, my friend, is there delight?
My dear, plight of prisons, and fools’ lashes,
We can’t bear! If the nation manages
To turn free, my friend, let’s enjoy, no hassles!
Wear khadi, the dress Gandhi most esteems,
For humans to rise, it’s the way, he deems!
My loveable friend, in you, beauty teems.
Go, silly girl! how will we bear khaddar?
Flowers tire us! It’s illusion, I gather!
Hey, my friend! If our waists break, who’ll bother?