A Bridge to the times of Gandhi – An interview with Narayan Desai

This is an account of my interview with Narayan Desai in September, 2012. The Tamil version of the interview was posted in GandhiToday.in – the links can be found here. Sarvodaya Ilakkiya Pannai, Madurai has published this interview in print form, both in English and Tamil.


“I am Gandhi’s friend. He used to swim with me.” This was how Narayan Desai, who was on his way from Madurai to Vedchchi, introduced himself to my 4-year old daughter when we met him at Chennai, last year.

The previous week, the moment I heard that Narayan Desai was delivering his Gandhi Katha at Madurai, I decided to go there from Chennai. I had been wishing to meet him for a couple of years and had enquired a Gandhian friend about his whereabouts only a few days earlier. Narayan Desai is one of the few amongst us, who have interacted closely with Gandhi.

Narayan Desai has captured and presented a historical hero through the eyes of a child. He is Mahadev Desai’s son. He grew up in Gandhi’s ashrams. Later, he was an active co-worker with Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. He played a leading role in the Sarvodaya movements like Bhoomidhan and Shanti Sena. Now he runs the Sampoorna Kranti Vidyalaya. He is the Chancellor for Gujarat Vidyapeeth, started by Gandhi during non-cooperation movement. He has written the biographies of Gandhi and Mahadev Desai. Along with Kanti Shah, he has also edited an important work on JP, in Gujarati, ‘Jayaprakash’.

After the first day of Gandhi Katha, I met Narayan Desai.  “Have you come from Chennai only for this?”, he looked elated. He introduced me to a colleague, ‘He has come from Chennai to hear us.” I requested for a personal meeting with him. He agreed immediately.

The next day morning, at 10 o’clock, I visited him at the guest house in Gandhi Museum. He was a tall man, thinly built. He wore a Khadi dress. His eyes were glowing with grace. For an 88-year old, he was quite fit. He sat upright on the bed, without resting his back, for the next 2.5 hours. He spoke slowly and deliberately. His speech was very clear, despite a mild shiver in the voice. Though he delivered Gandhi Katha in Hindi, he spoke impeccable English. Every word spurted out with energy. He was speaking continuously if I didn’t interrupt him. Sometimes, he continued to speak without noticing my interruptions. He completely ignored and remained unhampered by his occasional coughs. I was the one who worried that he would have to speak again for 3 hours in the evening. Since his Gandhi Katha speech was being translated sentence by sentence, he said, he got sufficient breaks in-between.

I told him that though I can’t speak Hindi fluently, I could understand his Hindi clearly during the Gandhi Katha. There is a lot that is lost during translation. He, too, was upset that the translator could not comprehend immediately, who ‘Jayaprakash’ was.

The conversation moved towards Gandhi, only gradually. He said someone from a newspaper interviewed him for long but he hadn’t seen the published interview, yet. Everybody was asking his opinion on Kudankulam. While he personally opposed the nuclear power plant, he was also ready to condemn the protestors if they had indulged in any violence. There was no place for violence in a Gandhian movement. But yet, he was not prepared to draw conclusions based only on media reports, without personally going there. His daughter, Dr.Sanghamitra Gadekar, is an anti-nuclear activist.

I apprised him of my efforts to impart training on leadership to students through Thirukkural.

Desai : I have an English translation of Thirukkural. But, I haven’t read it deeply. Vinoba had read Thirukkural. He, sometimes, used to quote from Thirukkural. The translators would struggle. While speaking in Tamilnadu, he would occasionally cite in Tamil.

Kannan : Vinoba knew 17 or 18 languages, didn’t he?

Desai : Yes, he knew more than 20 languages. In which language do you conduct your classes?

Kannan : Both in English and Tamil. Often in English, and I tell only the Kurals in Tamil. There are many students in Chennai colleges who don’t understand Tamil.

Desai : I too noticed. At Kalakshetra (Chennai), they translated my Hindi speech into English. I told them, let me speak in English directly. They said no.

Kannan : In my classes, I put forward the idea from Thirukkural that only those leaders who are righteous and compassionate can achieve lasting success. When I say, righteousness I mean ‘Aram’ or dharma.

Desai : You should raise the question in the minds of the students – what is development. They have to think whether development is going to America or there is more to it. One’s life has to be useful to the people.

Kannan : That is the ‘aram’ (dharma) in Thirukkural too. That is where Gandhi enters my life. I see Gandhi as a personification of Thirukkural. Today’s students have known Gandhi only through negative criticism about him

Desai :  My relationship with Gandhi’s family has been long. It was very interesting that I was present at the wedding of Devdas.

Kannan : Devdas-Lakhsmi?

Desai : Yes, and I was also present in the wedding, can you believe, of Rajmohan Gandhi with Usha. I was there for weddings in two generations.

I used to call him (Devdas), Kaka. But among all Gandhi’s sons, Harilal, the eldest son, was, I think, about a year or so elder than my father. All the others were younger than my father. I used to call Harilal also, Kaka. In Gujarati, there are separate words for elder brother and younger brother. But Kaka can be used for both younger brother and elder brother.

Kannan : You have written about Harilal.

Desai : There is a whole chapter in the book, 40 pages! The story about oranges given in Katni station was originally written by me (1). People liked it so much, that so many of them have included it in their books…including some plays on Harilal…plays which are almost trying to criticize Gandhi by saying he did not care for his son, which is all wrong. Absolutely wrong. He took care of Harilal’s whole family for years. His 4-5 children were raised under Gandhi’s care. He paid for them. They lived in the ashram. Then … his elder son (Kanti Gandhi) become a doctor, medical doctor. Even after that, Gandhi took care (of them). I think he married somebody from Kerala.  In that sense, they delivered the message that ‘My ashram is open for you. You can come anytime.’  That was always offered. But I think, after some time, Harilal realised that was not the kind of life he could live. Harilal’s son took him to, I think it was Mysore or Bangalore, somewhere in Karnataka, where he was practicing (In 1945) (2). He stayed there for a fortnight or so. He told his son and daughter-in-law, ‘I can’t live this kind of life’.  They were so affectionate. One day, when they were both asleep he left.

He always made himself disappear. Nobody knew (where he was), not even God. But he loved Kasturba. There was a lot of admiration for her. He said he loved only Kasturba, and not Mohandas. But that was not true. There was a lot of affection (for Gandhi).

Kannan : I think it is a very superficial way of looking at this relationship.

Desai : It was a love-hate relationship.

In fact, there was a time in South Africa when he was called Junior Gandhi…they were expecting him to lead after Gandhi. Then that incident happened when he was not sent for England. And, Gandhi had his reasons for not sending him. It was not because he was not a good father. There was a condition with the fund that whoever who goes to England will come back and work for Phoenix for atleast a couple of years. Harilal refused, ‘I don’t want to agree to any conditions’. That’s why he did not go. And, Sorabji was selected…first Chagganlal Gandhi was sent but he was not well and had to come back; then Harilal thought, naturally, it was my turn….but instead, Sorabji was sent. So that came as a shock. But Sorabji kept his word. He returned and worked for Phoenix – although he died at a very young age, still, he worked for Phoenix.

Later on Harilal slipped and slipped and slipped all the way. He was found in a gutter in Chennai…and a red light area in Bombay. He ultimately died in a hospital. Only after his death it was found that it was him (3). So it was a very tragic kind of life.

Kannan : Our youth have left all the positives aside…I keep hearing Harilal being talked about, Bhagat Singh is being talked about.

Desai : 6 times during Gandhi’s talks with Lord Irwin, Gandhi had made an effort to ask him to reduce the sentence for Bhagat Singh but Irwin did not agree.

Kannan : Yes, Irwin himself has talked about Gandhi’s intervention. I have even heard an audio of Irwin, where he mentions it.

Desai : But I think, well, after all, Irwin was only a Viceroy, he was not a Roy himself. Decisions were made at London. But he himself was personally against an absolution. So that made it more difficult. Though Gandhi tried to convince him, as they were coming towards some kind of an understanding between themselves…he said – your decision to reduce his sentence will enhance your prestige in the country and will be a great advantage to the British side – at least that’s what Gandhi was trying to represent.


From Bhagat Singh, the discussion moved to bureaucracy.


Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya)

Desai : They had a whole bureaucracy which was very different from some of the good rulers. And, Irwin was one such (good ruler). The Bureaucracy was a completely hostile force. For such officers, it was Gandhi who was making Congress bad. Until 1947, till the very last, three portfolios were kept by the British – until August 47 – those were the states, the bureaucracy and defense. These three were never given to anybody. Of course, not to Nehru, and also, not to Jinnah. I have been trying to write a book on Gandhi and division of India. I have almost finished writing or …have all the material available but I don’t find the time to complete the book….since October (coughs). Everytime I think about it, something new comes up. But if I get the time, I will probably finish.

There, I find that the real villain, behind the division of India was the British.

Kannan : Absolutely.

Desai : And the Congress said the League and the League said the Congress…they were blaming each other. The British were almost shattered after the second World War (coughs). Still they wanted to preserve as many interests as possible. They wanted to be completely in control of North-west of India and have some influence over North-east also. All though, they knew they will be leaving. The Labor Prime Minister was keen that, ‘We have to divide India but the blame must go to the Indians’.

Mountbatten all the time went on saying, he was willing to listen to any idea. But, whenever there was some possibility of some solution, he will kill it.  Gandhi’s 9-point solution was something that came to almost near acceptance. Even a man like Maulana Azad, who was completely against Jinnah, who was a real rival in a sense… when Mountbatten asked – because he was hoping that atleast from the Congress that there would be Maulana supporting his idea that Gandhi’s 9-point formula can’t work – ‘What do you think?’, he said…”it is not a new idea. Gandhi had been discussing this. This seems the only thing possible. And perhaps, even Jinnah might agree.”  Then in the end Mountbatten said, ‘but there are other solutions.’

Then personal ambition and personal rivalry, all those factors were there. There were 3 strong, proud persons at the top of the country – Jinnah, Nehru and Mountbatten. All three were equally proud.

Kannan : When Gandhi gave the option of making Jinnah the head, was he really meaning it?

Desai : I call it the Judgement of Solomon. When 2 women came to Price Solomon, quarreling over a child and claiming the child to be theirs, Solomon said, ‘alright, let us divide the child into two and give half to each one’. But the real mother said, ‘Oh no, let the child live and give it to the other women.’ My god! That is what Gandhi offered, ‘leave it to Jinnah and keep the country united.’

The key point of 9-point offer was Jinnah will lead a united India. That was the main point.

Kannan : Thinking of it, it actually makes immense sense.

Desai : I think both Patel and Nehru were against it. One of the reasons was they wanted to exercise power before dying. Both of them were getting old. They were both younger than Gandhi. That is what Nehru said, after the last imprisonment at Ahmednagar fort.

“Some of us were old. Some of us were ill. And not one was prepared for the next Satyagraha. “

In that, though Gandhi was older than any of them, he was still younger. He was released because of his poor health but he was still healthier than these people. He was still willing to lead the fight. But the Congress was not willing to support. Not only the Congress but also the Socialists. I have heard Jayaprakash Narayan saying this himself, ‘He offered it to us and we were having cold feet.’ They were not prepared to take up power at that particular time when the whole of North India was burning due to communal riots.

‘We developed cold feet. Gandhi said, if you are willing to join, I am willing to give them a fight.’

And Gandhi was released only after Churchill was convinced even if he lives, he will be completely disabled and he can’t do anything.  That absolutely proved to be wrong.

Kannan : I have read about the telegram where he asked the Viceroy, why Gandhi was still alive after he was released?

Desai : There are two international leaders whose tribute to Gandhi were with some kind of reservation … (4)

One was Jinnah who said, Gandhi was a great Hindu leader. But his last act was very different. He had accepted Gandhi’s offer to come to Karachi and work with him for Hindu-Muslim unity in Karachi. And the dates were fixed for 8th and 9th February of 1948.  But Gandhi was killed before that. Because he knew Gandhi’s visit to Karachi will be helpful to him. (5)

Kannan : What happened in Calcutta could very well have happened in Karachi.

Desai : In that sense, Delhi fast was qualitatively different from Calcutta. Calcutta was comparatively easier. Here it was much more difficult because it had international implications. Every little sentence uttered was having an impact on Karachi and vice versa.   And then, by that time, right wing Hindu had already started raising their head and of course, using violence in Delhi openly. That did not happen in Calcutta. In fact, the peace appeal that was signed by everybody after which Gandhi broke his fast was drafted by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.

That was the difference. Here before Gandhi broke his fast, leaders of all different parties came. But Hindu Mahasaba and RSS did not appear. ‘So consider that my fast continues’. In fact, people thought that day, he was dying. But he said ‘I can’t break my fast when they have not come’. Next day they came. The pressure must have been so much on them that they came. But that was an unwilling gesture. (coughs). I dont know, if there was some justification but there was some wrong judgement in considering Gandhi to be the essential decision maker of Congress. This (judgement) was made by Jinnah, this was also considered by Hindu Mahasaba…all the wrong things on which Congress was working against Gandhi – all that was attributed to Gandhi. That is also what happened at the time of Bhagat Singh. That Gandhi could have saved Bhagat Singh but he didn’t.

Kannan : To me, that is far fetched. It was not as if Gandhi could decide to hang or not hang Bhagat Singh.

Desai : He could influence the masses alright. But during the last few years of his life, he was getting more and more loyalty from the people, and less and less loyalty from his own colleagues. That is the gulf there. In fact, some of them had almost seriously thought that Gandhi had lost his qualities of leadership.  There is a proverb in Gujarati and Hindi, after 60 one loses the rails. And that was used by a very responsible person about Gandhi. So, maybe, in a lighter vein, maybe they were angry about some of Gandhi’s decisions, but that made Gandhi conscious. He himself said, ‘maybe after sixty I might have lost my rails’. He referred to that sentence during his prayer meetings at Delhi. So he was conscious of this kind of atmosphere among the top leadership of the Congress. (laughs).

He also said, well, he also wrote articles about this.

Kripalani, who was a friend of Gandhi for 30 years – he was among the first to join Gandhi. Nehru and Patel joined later but Kripalani was the first to join. He said, ‘well during his last days, we found that, in every other issue he had a solution for solving the problem. But we found that he did not have solution to this problem. That is why I signed that’.

Kannan : He was the President of Congress then.

Desai : Yes, he was the President.  I think he was honest to have said that. So many people would have believed so.

The one person who relied on him the most and mourned the most on Gandhi’s death was Patel.  Although there were many differences during the last year. But personally to him, it was very big. In fact, we have heard him say, ‘Oh when we were in jail together, we decided we will live together and die together. Why did you die earlier?’.

He was almost complaining against Gandhi. Why did you die early? We should have gone together.

Because even in his death, his department was partially responsible.

Kannan : He was the Home Minister.

Desai : Because the names of both Apte and Godse were given to them 10 days earlier. And so, ofcourse the bureaucracy could be blamed but the man at the top was Patel himself, the Home Minister.

And his counterpart at Bombay, Morarji, who was the home minister at Bombay, said ‘I gave the information to the home ministry’. But they spent some 12 days for all that inbetween. Then when they got the name, they sent the information through one of their officers, who chose the slowest train between Delhi and Bombay. He could have flown. And by the time, he had reached Bombay those two people had already left Bombay.

It is very interesting, Robert Payne, has written a big biography of Gandhi. He has written several biographies which are all called “Life and Death of Stalin”, “Life and Death of Hitler” etc.  Like that ‘The Life and Death of Gandhi’. There he says that this was the same operandi in which Savarkar worked for 3 different cases of assassinations. This was not the first one. This was the third. In every case, he just narrowly escaped.


We were interrupted. Later when we resumed, we did not talk specifically about Gandhi again. We moved on to Ahimsa in independent India, Vinoba Bhave, Jayaprakash Narayan and his Shanti Sena experiences.

He speaks with a lot of love and respect for Vinoba and JP (he calls him Jayaprakash). Shanti Sena is one of the ideas that emanated from Gandhi that is probably not widely known. While he had given shape to that idea partially during his lifetime at a few places, it was after independence that Vinoba and JP took forward in a big way. When JP was the President of Shanti Sena, Narayan Desai was its Secretary.


Desai : Jayaprakash gave so many new ideas internationally. For example, the solution to the problem of India and Pakistan : why can’t there be a confederation of India, Pakistan, Srilanka and Nepal…with every country having their own autonomy. That kind of thinking beyond your own country is something that is needed for international politics. He was the first person, along with a Spanish peace worker…both of them signed the peace appeal first…in 1950s…the United Nations Peace Keeping army must be without arms. If they use arms then it is not right. He was the President of Shanti Sena and I was the Secretary. We sent our suggestion to them…you know, the Secretary General of UNO was from Burma (U.Thant) and he was a friend of Jayaprakash. And they acknowledged it. But ‘we can’t make decisions. Only the member states have to decide. Suggestions from individuals are not considered; only member states can decide’. Of course, India had never suggested that. 

Kannan : I found Shanti Sena to be a powerful experiment. Is it still functional?

Desai : Actually, I think I am responsible for…I won’t call it complete failure but lukewarm success…because we were poor in follow-up programs. Some of us did do some really good work in different parts on different aspects of Shanti Sena. For example, after the clash with China, we had 58 centres on the border. With the final view that we may be able to produce an atmosphere for non-violent resistance to foreign aggression. That was a dream. But we said, before that, let people be conscious that they belong to India. They didn’t even know – the people in the North-east – didn’t even know that they were Indian. The Chinese were claiming that to be their area. And they (Chinese) were using psychological methods for that. In North-east, Arunachal…they would bring a mirror and say, ‘look at your self, your face. This is the picture of our President. The Chinese president. Does your face look like him? Or no?’. The Congress President was Kamaraj Nadar… ‘This is the Congress President. Look.’ That kind of argument they will have. So many different things were happening when we were working.

And later, because the President of Shanti Sena was Jayaprakash Narayan and there were people like us supporting him, one of the first things, that Indira Gandhi did after emergency was to ban us from working there. So we were all thrown out of the area where we were working. And the local people…there the distance is measured not by kilometres but how many days of walk…so our centre was some 45 days walk from Dibrugarh…we had to walk some days until we got a train….but there, the whole villages followed us because we were leaving…we were all leaving….‘Who will work with us?’…they were weeping all the time. But just…‘you shall leave within 15 days notice’. It was a political decision. They did not want Jayaprakash to function in that area, although, Jayaprakash visited there only one or two times. It was I who continued all the activities there.

But still, people, after so many years now – 40 years, still remember Shanti Sena. I think that loyalty towards somebody who did some good is wonderful. They just can’t forget. When the local assembly was created and there was a ministry, one of the members said in the assembly, ‘I am here because of Shanti Sena. I did not know anything about the outside world. It was only the Shanti Sena which made me aware that we are part of this whole world.’  We used to have international and national Tarun Shanti Sena camp every year. Those who attended Tarun Shati Sena camps in Bangalore and Tamilnadu…they became Chief Ministers of Arunachal Pradesh later on…(laughing)…because they were the only educated people there at that time. Unfortunately they also became like others…that is what they copied from the other people.

When they first asked us this question, “What will our prayers be like and what will be our religion?’….they did not know anything about it. And all the officers, who worked there said, ‘If you are a Hindu, of course, you are a Hindu. If you are a Muslim, you are a Muslim.’ They were not convinced about it. We knew why they are saying that. But they were not convinced. So they asked us the same question when we went there…this was some days after the clash with China…when we had seen dead bodies of Indian soldiers on the border…the first visit that Jayaprakash did was at that time…that is when they started asking.

Ultimately I had to go and see Jawaharlalji and said, ‘Well, this is what we want to do.’. He said, ‘I don’t believe you will be able to do anything big. I don’t believe non-violence can work that way. But I don’t want to stop you from trying to do that. And you have, not only my permission, but all kind of help that you need’. That kind of democratic spirit he had. ‘I don’t believe in this, But if you want to do it, I won’t stop you.’ So I immediately went back to Benares, which was our head quarters and wrote down, what we talked. I said, ‘Let me state what I think I understood from our talk’. And he wrote a personal letter, right after that, in his own handwriting. ‘What you report is correct and now I am issuing orders to enter the inner line.’ Because nobody was allowed to go into that area. When I first talked to him, he gave me 10 minutes but we continued to talk for an hour and a half. I was one of the first people to have given him a non-official report of what was happening in that area.

One of the things that was very shocking and sad for me was, well, this whole area, their language had no word for rape. There was no concept of rape. There was elopement. And that may be done; and, that was dignified. There was no word for rape. This is what has happened, because of our army.

I said that to Jawaharlal Nehru. Panditji said, ‘Narayan, do you know a word called war-babies?’. I said, ‘Panditji, I am talking about my own country. Between North-east India and the rest of India’. So he immediately stopped. Are they war-babies?  If they are war-babies, it is allowed – Is that what he meant? Even then, I would not accept. 

Then he immediately took action. Some of the officers were changed.

He said, ‘Give me the names of places. Where do you want to start your work?’ So, I gave him names of some places in Assam. After the Prime Minister gives instructions for Shanti Sena to work…it took 10 months for us to get permission to…so slow, lethargic bureaucracy! All maps had roads only on the map…all the money for the construction was in the pockets of contractors and officers in between. No roads. When the Chinese had their roads right up to the border. That way,…(laughing)….so much of…eh, and for a country, which had given so many original ideas and new ways of working in a new world, for everything just, ‘ No that is impractical, forget about it.’ Everything has to be impractical when it is original. Make it practical, no?

Kannan : That is something I find sad. Despite the success we found with non-violence, we totally abandoned it after independence.

Desai : Very difficult to say but…(coughing)…generally speaking, non-violent movements after independence were all for short time and for little causes. They succeeded wherever there was a women’s movement. Prohibition, for example; Chipko movement; prohibition in Uttarkand; prohibition in Andhra Pradesh; prohibition in 2 districts of Maharshtra. Wherever there were women in it, it has succeeded. Otherwise, it is easy to bribe the men..haha…women were the sufferers…because our men drink, we have to suffer, and our children have to suffer. Thats why we want to fight against it. Not only prohibition…Chipko was not a thing to with prohibition…but the women hung to the trees. Thats how it succeeded. That is the faith which Gandhi had. Perhaps, in non-violence, women can do more that men.

Kannan : That is what I was telling my father yesterday. He asked about Kudankulam, ‘Why are they putting so many women and children at the forefront?’ We hear this often. I said what you mentioned…women come voluntarily. And, they are the ones who are stronger and they stand at the front. It is not as if somebody is forcing them to be there.

Desai : No. First of all, electricity that is going to be created, according to them, is never sufficient…the figure that they produce is always lower than that…it is very little. It is so little that it is not worth spending so much money on it. And then, it is not clean. From the very first very first process of mining to the closure of the atomic centre, it is not clean. And of course, it is not fair. Then…this country which has the largest availability of solar energy, we are not spending more than 4% investment on alternative energy methods.

Kannan : we divert 10000-20000 crores there…

Desai : And nuclear energy cannot be discussed in the parliament. Because it is part of defense. You can’t discuss that. I think it is absolutely foolish to think of that.

Kannan : Yes, if we don’t invest in solar energy now, 10 years later, the same Americans and Russians will come and sell us solar energy with their patents and everything. Then we will buy solar energy from them.

Desai :  Russia tried that (nuclear plants) and miserably failed. Now they are selling their machines etc. Now that is coming to Kudankulam. It is all Russian technology. And Russian technology after Chernobyl is something ridiculous – it has affected so many countries adversely. And then to claim that our nuclear power cannot have any adverse reaction : we have had our own accidents in our country. Fortunately there have not been many serious ones but we have had accidents in almost every state. In Tamilnadu, Gujarat, very near Delhi..Narora…there was a fire. That would have got the capital had it been large. But they have all the centralized information agencies in their hand – in spite of many TV channels etc, they are just repeating what the Government tells. There is no independent information coming across. That way, I think, America is better…they do really give news that can go against the government. But if somebody does that in India, they will be put in prison.

Kannan : I think if someone like Chomsky is born in India, he would be permanently in prison. But he is still a professor at a University. For all the things he is saying about America, if he says anything like that in India, he will be definitely behind the bars.

Desai : Last March, some American friends invited me for a retreat there…what we call as a camp. The retreat was around one person…that was around me and the subject was Gandhi. There were representative from 25 states attending that..from Seattle to Miami everywhere. And all of them just kept their thoughts to Gandhi. They were so sincere and they have studied Gandhi more than many of the scholars here.


Our discussion moved to what I was doing in my leadership program. I explained to him, how Gandhi was a personification of a few kurals. For instance,

‘One who, guided by his heart, lives without lies,

will forever live in the hearts of all.’

There is another kural, which is very close to the concept of trusteeship.

‘The wealth of the wise one who loves, and is loved by, the world,

is like a public pond brimming with water. ‘

When he saw the slides on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, he was intrigued.


Desai : Where did you get information about Ghaffar Khan?

Kannan : I read Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography.

Desai : His first biography was written by my father.

Kannan : Two Servants of God?

Desai : Yes, Two servants of God. Then there is a much larger book by Tendulkar, one who wrote 8 volumes on Gandhi. I have not seen Rajmohan’s book.

Kannan : I have read him. He has referred your father’s book. Ghaffar Khan is received well by students..the idea of a non-violent Pathan. For Gandhi to put Indians on the path of Satyagraha is one thing ..but for this man it was a lot more difficult.

Desai : He was not a vegetarian. But whenever there was a vegetarian guest in his family, they will not cook non-vegetarian food. I was with him in Kabul for 3 days. And for those 3 days, everything was vegetarian. There was almost a clan living there…all these people were eating vegetarian.  That kind of respect, he had for other people’s habits. And when he came to Sevagram, he ate only vegetarian food. Gandhi said, ‘it is ok for you to be vegetarian but how about your 2 sons? And they may probably need some’. So Gandhi made some special arrangement for them to eat meat.

Kannan : Oh, very nice. I find Ghaffar Khan’s story very powerful. After 27 years in prison, he remained steadfast in his beliefs.

I also narrate stories of JP.

Desai : I was in Paunar, talking to some of the inmates of the Vinoba ashram. And I made a statement that gave them a jolt. I said, our movement, the Sarvodaya movement, has two leaders – one of them is the saint and the other, the politician. And Jayaprakash is the saint.

Kannan : Haha

Desai : So Deshpande, who was listening, got so excited, immediately ran to the room where Vinoba was staying and said, ‘Bhaba you know what Narayan is saying’. And Vinoba had this habit : whenever he likes something, he would stand up from his seat and start clapping. He stood up and (claps)…”It is true what he said…our movement has two leaders, one a saint and the other the politician. Jayaprakash is the saint. And I am the politician!”. After this, in public meetings he started saying this. That is because of this man’s absolutely crystal-clear honesty. Absolutely. After working with him for 20 years, it was a great experience of life.

Jayaprakash was not treated well during emergency in the prison. And I think, as a result of that he lost his life. But while he was still alive, the Janata party government had a one-man commission to inquire about the treatment JP was given during the former rule. So there was Dr.Alva from Mysore, who ran the one-man commission. He talked to some of us and then he said, “I must also talk to Jayaprakash and find out what he went through”. Then we went to Patna. Jayaprakash was having dialysis every alternate day…for 6 hours he would be lying on the table. They were known to each other, and, in fact, he called him JP, which was because they were quite close.

He said, “JP put your hands on your chest and tell me, do you have doubts about the treatment meted out to you?”.

He said,‘Dr.Alva, you asked me to put my hand to my chest…I must confess I have some doubts.’

Dr.Alva asked, ‘ Can I take it down?’.

He said, ‘No, this is off the records. You asked me a personal question..I don’t want it to be recorded like that.’

‘Why not? I am looking for the truth. I am trying to find out the truth.’

Then the debate went on for some minutes. And then, he asked, ‘Tell me why you want it this way?’. 

“You saw me yesterday when you came, lying on the dialysis table. Today I am talking to you. Tomorrow again I will be there. One day I live in this world and the next in the other world. I may not be here tomorrow. But she is very young. And she has to live many more years”. Without mentioning her name. Just She. ‘I don’t want to put any blame on her’. Huh.

Kannan : So great.

Desai : Although he had doubts, he did not want to put the blame on Indira. That is how, he was.

Kannan : That is so great. Not many people will be so gracious, after facing so much.

Desai : He was the first to visit Indira, after she was defeated in the Parliament . All his colleagues complained against him…‘Are you going to visit her? She was your main rival.’

‘Whatever. She is Indu. She is Kamala’s daughter.’

Not even Jawaharlal. Kamala’s daughter.  Kamala and Prabhavati were very close. They were like two sisters. She is Kamala’s daughter.

“Having been defeated, she must feeling very isolated and sorry. I must go and see her.” He went to see her. And she wept. She said, “I am afraid that they will kill Sanjay.” She had this doubt that they will kill her younger son. Which of course, did not have to happen; Sanjay killed himself. But still.

There was a young man, much younger than Jayaprakash. He was in Sarvodaya movement. He was against him – he was in the other group when the Sarvodaya movement split. He was a powerful speaker. He spoke so roughly against Jayaprakash. And people thought that was – to be talking about Jayaprakash in such mean language -was awful. That was the kind of person he was. Then…he (JP) found that this man’s daughter was of marriageable age and he found it difficult to raise money to get his daughter married. Jayaprakash went to Calcutta to raise funds for this man’s daughter’s marraige…who was the absolute total opponent inside the movement.

Kannan : Hmm

Desai : She is your daughter. You know, People in Bihar find it very difficult to get their daughters married. And it just came to him from…but that was the natural thing for him to do. Those were the qualities of the man.

Kannan : I don’t find too many good books on Jayaprakash Narayan.

Desai : If you can read Hindi, there is a book by me. I was not the writer. I was one of the 2 editors. I wrote a few articles. There were about 90 people who have written about Jayaprakash.  I collected articles from others. The other editor, wrote the biography of Jayaprash..it was for half of the book.  Kanti Shah. That was written very well.

Kannan : Has it been translated?

Desai : No. It was in Gujarati and was translated into Hindi. People dont even remember that book now. It gives different perspectives on Jayaprakash..by 90 different people. These people, because I was connected with Jayaprakash, I knew them. The other man, he was not connected..he only studied Jayaprakash. The book is just called ‘Jayaprakash’. It was published by Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi.

Kannan : I have read a book in English…it was the centenary publication…also a compilation of articles.

Desai : There is a good biography by an Australian (Wendy Scarfe – J.P. His Biography). But this man who wrote in my book (Kanti Shah)…he went to so many original sources. And the chapters he has written on his married life were superb. People think that it was at the insistence of Gandhi that they practised Brahmacharya. But Gandhi was telling Prabhavati all the time, ‘You can’t take a brahmacharya vow without consulting Jayaprakash.’  And he opposed it.

But Prabhavati said, ‘I have already taken the vow.’ ‘If you have already taken the vow, then I can’t ask you to break it. But you have to explain to Jayaprakash.’

Jayaprakash, he thought, ‘Oh it is Gandhi’s influence.’ Gandhi was not able to change Prabhavati’s decision. Jayaprakash did not like this idea at all, of Brahmacharya. He was coming from the Marxist party of USA.

Then Gandhi said, ‘then that means that Jayaprakash should remarry. He must lead the life he wants to lead, right. You must not insist on him to lead your life.’

Then Jayaprakash started weeping. Only the 3 of them were sitting then. As soon as Gandhi made this statement, he started weeping. ‘How can you think of me not honoring my wife’s decision. I have to honor. How can you think?”. This, when he was an anti-Gandhian. Very noble person. Very noble.

I am blessed to have lived with people like that…Jayaprakash, Vinoba, Gandhi. 20 years with each of them. Of course, 20 years with Gandhi was during my childhood. And Jayaprakash and Vinoba..almost concurrently, with both of them together. Then defying Vinoba. Putting my head on his lap, crying…saying, ‘This is the parting of ways.’

Kannan : Was this before the emergency?

Desai : This was before the emergency. ‘I am afraid, this is the parting of ways. And I am going to be on the other side.’ I was weeping all the time…putting my head on his lap. He never encourages any kind of touching of the body…he is like namashkar….he put his hand on my head for half an hour..and everytime…the only sentence is that, ‘You are doing the right thing for you. It is absolutely right for you.’ That is the kind of freedom he gave.

I said, ‘Well, I am doing it because of what I learnt from you: that one has to work as per one’s conscience. Not from Gandhi, but from you. My conscience tells me to go to Jayaprakash.’ There was not, for one minute, any kind of bad blood between us. Nothing like that.

Kannan : Just some ideological differences.

Desai : I had a lot of respect for him. Bhakti I would call it.

Kannan : Was it true that he supported emergency. I have read both versions.

Desai : That was not true. That was the Congress propaganda. But he thought emergency wont last for a more than couple of weeks.  After that I wrote a poem also..in Gujarati: Emegency koi amargency nahi hai.

He never imagined that it will continue for 19 months. And it will come to his own house. And he just published one article. Seva Satyagraha. Because of that, 200 copies of his magazine were seized by Indira. That is the time he understood what censorship meant.

Kanti Shah, who co-edited my book on Jayaprakash, was a huge fan of Vinoba Bhave. But on this particular thing, when they met, he said, ‘We thought you understand things very quickly.  Now you need these books in front of you to understand what emergency means. We understood it from the very first day.’ Because Vinoba used to say, ‘Pashyathe the pasu. Manyathe the Manu.’ One who thinks is a man. One sees things and then decides is a pashu.  Kanti Shah said that to Vinoba. And he was a great fan of him.

Vinoba also thought that the Prime minister of the country will have much more information than an ordinary citizen. So she makes decisions based on the information that she had. And it will be dangerous for the country to function like that.

I was present when JP and Vinoba talked about it. I was the only person, sitting next to them. “I am willing to support your Bihar movement. I am willing to say that. But you must desist from struggling against the central government.’ That is what Vinoba said.

JP said, ‘To my understanding, the whole thing begins from there. And as I struggle against this I cannot not struggle against that. The beginning is there.’

‘My understanding is this maybe dangerous for the country.’

Jayaprakash said, ‘I too have my own understanding of the whole situation. And I think, our struggle will strengthen our democracy.’

This was the intellectual difference between the two. Vinoba broke his silence to talk to him. Immediately after this, knowing there is not going to be meeting of minds, he started his silence again. And, he kept quiet.

There can be differences between great men also. And both of them were right from their own points of view. In fact, now I see, those who were with JP all the time, now think  maybe Vinoba was right at that time. I never think like that. I am completely with Jayaprakash. He saved our democracy. She was completely personal, unlike her father. He (Nehru) was also a very self-centered person. Ambitious man. Continued to have power. But he was never undemocratic. He never groomed his daughter for Prime ministership. That was the difference.

Kannan : There are people waiting. I will never have enough of talking with you.


We had to end our conversation there. He asked more about Thirukkural. He listened to me keenly about Facebook, the role of Twitter in Egyptian spring and about how much vitriol is being poured about Gandhi on social media.

While talking about Gandhi, there is a glow in Desai’s eyes. It is evident in the pride and pain in his voice that he is someone who has dedicated his life to Gandhi. In his book, Gandhi Through a Child’s Eyes: An Intimate Memoir, Desai writes, ‘Work with Bapu was an extraordinarily heavy load. For years on end, I watched Kaka work at least fifteen hours a day. Yet in the twenty-five years Kaka was with Bapu, Kaka took off from work only twice. These were the two times he was sick. In all those years, he took no other time off—no Sunday, no holiday, no summer vacation.’

He has the same verve that possessed his father. He never tires of speaking about Gandhi. His enthusiasm remains undiminished for hours. He spoke to me for over 2.5 hours that day. Later, he spent an hour with professors from Madurai Kamaraj University; and then, 3 hours of Gandhi Katha in the evening. The next day there was a trip to Gandhigram. He had agreed to speak there for an hour. The whole trip would take him half a day in travel and speech. Again, he had to return to Madurai for another 3 hours of Gandhi Katha. Is he trying to make up for the time lost by his dad who died young? I should have asked this question, but didn’t.

Later, we met at Chennai. We spoke again while he had to wait for his train. We went to Gandhi Study Centre at Thakkar Baba Vidyalaya. He was dismissive of the construction of Gandhi and Ambedkar as opposite poles. He said, Gandhi never rejected Ambedkar. It was Gandhi who insisted on having Ambedkar in Nehru’s ministry. He ensured that Dalits got more seats than what Ambedkar bargained for. He was against a separate electorate only because it would have led to permanent fissures. When Ambedkar asked him, ‘Why didn’t you tell this at London? What is the need for a fast?’, Gandhi said, ‘If we had decided then it would have been our decision. It wouldn’t have been the decision of Hindus, which it is now.’

Desai said, at Madurai Gandhi Museum, he saw the copy of the letter written by Gandhi to Hitler. He had typed that letter. But the letter never reached Hitler – the British saw to it. Hitler’s mind may not have changed a bit because of the letter, had he got it, but it is interesting to see how Gandhi’s mind worked – he believed he could even influence Hitler.

Even at that age, Desai never for a second, seemed to tire or get bored. “In Tamilnadu, wherever I go, people keep bringing gifts.’

He wanted to make a poem in Gujarati out of what I shared about my daughter – that she asked, ‘Why did Hanuman bring Sanjeevi mountain and save only Laxman, but not Kumbakarna.’

I mentioned about the preference of many students in Tamilnadu for Hindi, ahead of Tamil, since it is easier to score marks. He appreciates the role of Hindi as a connecting language but insists that Hindi cannot and should not replace other regional languages. He has formed a team to translate literature directly from other Indian languages to Gujarati. He feels that we tend to lose a lot by translating via English. He greatly admired the line of the Tamil poet Bharati, ‘Gather all the artistic wealth of the world and bring  them here.’

The words he said about poverty line and GDP, still pierces my heart. ‘They don’t see. That is why, they measure.’

The compassion in his eyes is infectious. It rains on us and stays with us. We also get drenched by the showers from the downpour, long ago, of great souls like Gandhi and Jayaprakash.


  1. ‘Service to Mahatma (மகாத்மாவுக்குத் தொண்டு)’, Narayan Desai (translated in Tamil by Harihara Sharma), Gandhian Literature Society, Madurai, 1997.
  2. Harilal’s eldest son, Kanti Gandhi, was staying with his wife, Saraswati, at Mysore in 1945. In April 1945, Gandhi wrote to Saraswati: “God will grant you success. The victory over Harilal which was denied to me has come to you two. You are correct in saying that if he can get rid of the two vices, he can be the best of all the brothers. (in ‘Mohandas – A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire’ by Rajmohan Gandhi)
  3. Rajmohan Gandhi writes that Harilal died in a Bombay hospital, in the presence of his daughters Rami Parikh and Manu Mashruwala.
  4. The other leader, who he missed to mention, I presume, was Churchill. He merely said, “I am shocked by this wicked crime.”
  5. It is interesting to imagine what would have happened if Gandhi had proceeded to Karachi, as planned. Pyarelal, when writing about this, mentions about a Muslim leader who told Gandhi, that he ‘looked forward to witnessing a fifty-mile long procession of Hindus and Sikhs returning to Pakistan with Gandhiji at its head.’ The prospect had thrilled Gandhi too.
  6. There is a recording of a wonderful speech by Narayan Desai here…his voice and diction have changed quite significantly now. http://www.markshep.com/peace/recordings/Narayan.mp4
  7. Narayan Desai’s 4-volume biography on Gandhi in Gujarati is an important work on Gandhi. (My Life is my Message, translated by Tridip Suhrud, Orient Blackswan, 2009.)

Published by:

Sarvodaya Ilakkiya Pannai, No 32/1, Near Madurai Junction, West Veli Street, Southern Railway Colony, Madurai, Tamil Nadu 625001 0452 234 1746

Related Blogs:

Narayan Desai – A Tribute

Shanti Sena : Peace is not news


3 Responses to A Bridge to the times of Gandhi – An interview with Narayan Desai

  1. […] It is not easy to explain the impact he has made on our lives. Forever, I will cherish the day I interviewed him, the day when we received him at the Egmore railway station to drive him down to Thakkar Baba […]

  2. […] ஆங்கிலத்தில் இங்கே படிக்கலாம். […]

  3. I have met and heard his Gandhi katha in Gujarat navsari. Narayan desai is our last living link to Gandhi. he writes as he saw first hand invaluable. he presents facts as they were.his first hand knowledge is invaluable and presents in lucid simple language any one can follow. thanks for bringing up hail to narayabn desai may his soul rest in etrnal peace.

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