Kasturba: From the Shadows to Satyagrahi

Despite the heavy influences of Tolstoy and Thoreau’s philosophies of transcendentalism, Kasturba was more advanced than Gandhi as she lived through the experiences

By Armoogum Parsuramen

Kasturba, very often overshadowed by the heavy presence and activism of M.K. Gandhi mostly remained unknown to the outside world. Despite her female existence within the silences of her husband’s voice and public appearances within the highly patriarchal Indian society, Kasturba not only failed her husband’s attempts to exert his domination upon her, but rather “began to exert very gently and in a dignified manner her authority and won the respect and cooperation of everyone”, writes Vinay Lal, historian, adding that “she was a subtle detractor”, who “never acceded to her husband’s wishes easily” (2000).

“While Kasturba experienced and lived Truth, Gandhi merely experimented with it. On her death, Gandhi confessed: “She helped me to keep wide awake and true to my vows. She stood by me in all my political fights and never hesitated to take the plunge. In the current sense of the word, she was uneducated; but to my mind she was a model of true education.” Photo – sahistory.org.za


Though uneducated, she maintained the accounts accurately. She was extremely self-disciplined and soon became everyone’s mother or “Ba”. Kasturba dismantled the systematic male-oriented ideologies right at an early age when she revealed her resilient personality. She imposed herself as well as marked her female presence in her tacit manner. Later, Gandhi in his autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’ revealed that Kasturba displayed “tenacity and independence of judgement, and the sharp disagreements she came to have with him when, in the first two decades of their marriage, he unreasonably sought to bring her under his control” (2000). The strength of her character was stamped in her codes of conduct.

Very often, when the Mahatma’s South Africa (mis)adventures are referred to, Gandhi remains the focal point of the narrative. Kasturba’ stay in South Africa is an untold story. It’s one of exemplary female courage and fearlessness like when she helped her husband to flee from a white mob, menacing and ready to lynch him, and acting spontaneously to move her sons to a safe place. She also revealed her ability to cope with any predicaments – living alone in Phoenix’s wilderness, while Gandhi was away; she ensured that a cheerful and peaceful atmosphere reigned within the settlement.

These trying moments revealed her female zeal to stand by her husband, family and society at large. Kasturba demonstrated an indomitable determination to take the lead during her husband’s absence. Unearthing the life of Kasturba, Aparna Basu (2000) reveals that “she had great courage, both physical and moral as can be seen from the grave illnesses she suffered and overcame, the hardships of her early days in South Africa and during her imprisonments. In fact, she was a source of strength to her fellow women prisoners”. Kasturba’s inner moral, physical and emotional strengths are visible in her South Africa experience.

The headship of Gandhi always blurred and overshadowed Kasturba in multiple ways. She stood as the support system and the unwavering pillar of Gandhi’s life right from his legal practice days to his transformation into a social activist and freedom movement public figure.

Kasturba was only superficially mentioned in the accounts of the Gandhian movement. However, history reveals an unknown side of the story whereby Ba evolves from the patriarchal domination and silences to be ‘the first individual’ who shared a privileged proximity with her husband and would most likely be the ‘only person’ who would oppose him, going to the extent of listing his mistakes. While Gandhi was acclaimed as the Father of the Nation, Kasturba was not only his wife and mother of his children but went far beyond these assigned roles attributed by Indian patriarchy. She was his ‘Ardhangini’ (better half), the pillar of his existence to later turn into his representative.

The backbone of Mahatma Gandhi’s activism for justice, Kasturba appeared as one of the first dissenters commonly called ‘Satyagrahis’, given that Gandhi would urge passive and non-violent resistance for ‘dharna’ at Transvaal in South Africa following the nullification of non-Christian marriage proclaimed by the colonial government. Gandhi, in his autobiography, acknowledged and acquiesced that the essence of Satyagraha was bequeathed to him by Kasturba. Despite the heavy influences of Tolstoy and Thoreau’s philosophies of transcendentalism, Kasturba was more advanced than him as she lived through the experiences.

In ‘My Experiments with Truth’, Gandhi states that “I learnt the lesson of non-violence (Satyagraha) from my wife. I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to suffering my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her; and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.”

While Kasturba experienced and lived Truth, Gandhi merely experimented with it. On her death, Gandhi confessed: “She helped me to keep wide awake and true to my vows. She stood by me in all my political fights and never hesitated to take the plunge. In the current sense of the word, she was uneducated; but to my mind she was a model of true education.”

It’s said that behind every successful man, there is a woman. For M.K. Gandhi, however, there was not one, but two inspiring women as the pillars of his life. In his letter to Dr Julian S. Huxley, Director-General, UNESCO, Paris, dated 15th June 1948, Gandhi’s strong filial bond with his mother was expressed when he wrote:

“I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for.”

The statement emphasizes the great respect for and proximity to his mother and wife respectively. They were his guides from his birth (the mother) till the last phases of his life.

Prof Armoogum Parsuramen, former Minister of Education, Arts, Culture & Science, is presently the Founder-President of Global Rainbow Foundation

References

– Aparna Basu, Kasturba Gandhi, Gandhi National Memorial Society, Agakhan Palace, Pune

– Vinay Lal, “Nakedness, Nonviolence, and Brahmacharya: Gandhi’s Experiments in Celibate Sexuality.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 9, No. 1/2 (Jan. – Apr., 2000), pp. 105-136


* Published in print edition on 2 October 2020

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