Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Talking Point > The girl who found a mother in Gandhi

The girl who found a mother in Gandhi

  • The first volume of Manu Gandhi’s diaries offers curious insights into her life as a close associate of M.K. Gandhi
  • Beginning with a record of her daily routine, the diary acquires depth and definition as it proceeds

A file photograph of Mahatma Gandhi flanked by his grand-niece Manu Gandhi (left) and Abhaben Gandhi, wife of his nephew Kanu.
A file photograph of Mahatma Gandhi flanked by his grand-niece Manu Gandhi (left) and Abhaben Gandhi, wife of his nephew Kanu.

In 1943, as 13-year-old Anne Frank began writing her diary, now recognized as one of the most extraordinary literary documents of the 20th century, another young girl, in another part of the world, also started recording her daily routine in a journal.

Like Frank, who was in hiding with her Dutch Jewish family to escape the Nazis in those years, 15-year-old Mridula Gandhi, better known by her nickname Manu, had been dealt a cruel hand by life. After her mother died in 1942, Manu’s father Jaisukhlal packed her off to Sevagram, the ashram near Wardha, in Maharashtra, run by his world-famous uncle, M.K. Gandhi. The diffident but affable girl was meant to learn English and Sanskrit from the man millions revered as a “Mahatma", and also serve his wife Kasturba, whose health was in a precarious state, and worsening every day.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Soon after Manu’s arrival, just as she was settling into the loving care of her grand-uncle (Bapuji) and grand-aunt (Ba), Gandhi and his associates were arrested by the British, moved to the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, and detained there for months. Upset by this abrupt separation, especially from Ba, her beloved charge, Manu took to the streets to protest against the government. Her hope was to get arrested and be sent to the Aga Khan Palace to join her adoptive family. She was indeed picked up by the police and incarcerated with other women for weeks, before being sent over to Pune to resume her duty as Kasturba’s nurse.

Thus, it was there, under Bapuji’s supervision, that Manu’s emotional education began—a crucial aspect of which involved keeping a detailed log of her days, noting down even the tiniest things she did from morning to night. Recently, the first volume of the diaries written between 1943-44 was published in an English translation from the Gujarati, with an introduction by the scholar Tridip Suhrud.

With no part of the text changed, the book captures a volatile period in Gandhi’s life, both as a private individual and as a public figure. Seen by a young girl who is intensely vulnerable and self-aware, it is an account that shies away from very little. It is through Manu’s innocent eyes, and her joys and disappointments, that we rediscover the Mahatma and his followers as all too human, acting up now and then, even as they strive to live a morally unimpeachable life.

Holding up a mirror

From 1942, when she came to Sevagram, until the final moment of Gandhi’s life, as he fell to Nathuram Godse’s bullets in front of her eyes, Manu hovered like a shadow by her Bapuji’s side. Coming into Gandhi’s life shortly after the untimely death of his faithful secretary Mahadev Desai, Manu went on to fill the void left behind by the older man through her years of self-effacing seva (service). For much of this time, she kept a diary, which began as an exercise in improving her orthography and grammar. But, gradually, it turned into an invaluable chronicle of Gandhi’s life, his personal choices and political actions, as well as a mirror into Manu’s own maturing personality.

Keeping a diary was an indispensable part of ashram life on Gandhi’s watch. Recording one’s thoughts and feelings truthfully was a stepping stone towards achieving the higher ideal of satyagraha. A diary, Gandhi believed, could act as a vehicle of self-examination and self-purification. But there was a conundrum in this act too, in Manu’s case at least—the requirement that she show her diary to Gandhi at the end of each day. The very notions of privacy and secrecy, which are associated with the act of keeping a journal, were turned on their heads by this injunction from Manu’s satyagrahi grand-uncle.

For the first few months, Gandhi corrected Manu’s prose, left terse remarks on the margins (he chided her, for instance, for being irregular at spinning), and signed off each entry “Bapu". No wonder almost all the entries in this phase appear as bullet points, marked by a specific activity against each hour of the day. Waking up at dawn (usually after being prodded by Bapu), saying the daily prayers, cleaning, cooking, giving massages to Bapu and Ba, eating, sleeping, studying, playing, learning new lessons: Manu’s days roll on with unremitting sameness. The austere ashram life leaves no time for indulgences or even the slightest of transgressions.

It is only after she began to confess her shame, contrition or misery to her diary—after being rebuked by her teacher, Pyarelal Nayyar (Gandhi’s private secretary in the later years), for instance—that Manu began to withhold some entries from her Bapuji. Tears did come easily to the motherless girl. A crooked joke about eating disorders by Sushila Nayyar—personal physician to the Gandhis—led to an episode of misunderstanding. Manu would be wracked with guilt, self-doubt and misgivings if she got a scolding from Ba for neglecting her duties. And every time she failed to wake up for the morning prayers, she got a slap from her Bapuji, the self-proclaimed advocate of non-violence. In the relentless daily cycle of cooking, cleaning, praying, studying and administering care, Manu had little time to note her personal landmarks. “I have begun menstruating," she remarks crisply in one instance, with not a word before or after to bookend that clinical observation.

Becoming Bapu’s stick

Selfless devotion to Bapuji and Ba was, indeed, the abiding theme of Manu’s days, to the extent that she frequently wrote about Desai’s good fortune at being able to die in his mentor’s arms. For a girl of 15, Manu’s obsession with the idea of a perfect death may seem like a morbid preoccupation, but she was no ordinary teenager.

Unlike her contemporary Anne Frank, whose interest in boys was expressed in great detail in the pages of her diary, Manu’s account is, needless to say, untainted by such thoughts. But in spite of her vow of celibacy, in accordance with the code of conduct followed by all ashramites, Manu did not remain immune to the appeal of clothes or external appearances. Her shock and pain are palpable when Gandhi cut off Sushilaben’s thick, curly hair, for instance.

It is possible to glimpse in these early diaries the role that Manu would go on to play in Gandhi’s last years. Towards the end of the volume, she is already helping her Bapuji answer his voluminous correspondence and acting as a “stick" on which Gandhi leant when he took his daily constitutional. In the years to come, Gandhi would repeatedly urge Manu to bear witness to his final moments, to note whether he breathed his last with Ram’s name on his lips like a true believer, which was his cherished dream, or whether he died in a fog of agony, like any ordinary mortal.

It was, however, by participating in his most controversial and widely reviled experiment that Manu proved her utmost fealty to Gandhi. Schooled in the ideals of brahmacharya, a word which connoted very specific meanings in the Gandhian lexicon (Suhrud explains this at length in the introduction), Manu agreed to sleep on the same bed as Bapu to help him test the strength of his commitment to asceticism. The fallout of this act was so severe that Gandhi was reprimanded even by his most ardent supporters. Several of his close followers deserted him. It was only after Manu withdrew her consent that the experiment stopped.

Given the dynamics of Manu’s relationship with Gandhi, in whom she claimed to have found a mother after the demise of Kasturba and her own mother, what was the nature of the consent that she gave and withdrew? How much agency did she have in controlling the terms of this bizarre experiment? And what thoughts and feelings ran through her as she partook of this ritual night after night?

The portrait of a self-assured young lady that emerges at the end of this volume of Manu’s diaries would hopefully attain more depth and definition when the more explosive sequel is published next year.

Next Story