Mahatma Gandhi was not shy of speaking about his relationship with his women associates, except in a few cases. He wanted the world to know of his tryst with Brahmacharya in which women constituted an integral part. He kept a meticulous record and tried to make the players keep the records too. Alas! Most of them seem to have either destroyed the records or refused to disclose the intensity of their feelings. A construct, however, is still possible based on Gandhiji's writings and on basis of writings of some of them, who were involved. Gandhiji persuaded Kanchan Shah, his role model for Married Brahmacharya, and Prabhavati, wife of Jaiprakash Narayan, to practice married Brahmacharya. It was a difficult odyssey and the book tries to analyse why it was difficult.
It was the revulsion from sex that forced Gandhiji to take the vow of Brahamacharya in 1906. Then onwards, till the laboratory experiment in Noakhali, Gandhiji kept trying to find out if it was possible to overcome desire and remain a brahmachari. There were more than a dozen women who came to closely associated with him at one time or the other. Some of them were foreigners - Millie Graham Polak, Sonja Schlesin, Esther Faering, Nilla Cram Cook, Margarete Spiegel and Mirabehn. Prabhavati, Kanchan Shah, Shushila Nayyar and Manu Gandhi formed a part of his entourage at various points in time. He called JEKI "the Only Adopted Daughter". Gandhiji was too found of Saraldevi Chowdharani, Rabindranath Tagore's niece, and often displayed her as his mannequin for popularizing Khadi. He called her his "spiritual wife".
His closeness to Saraladevi or arguments on Brahmacharya with Premabehn Kantak created a storm in the ashram and exposed him to public glare. He was undaunted and made a tactical retreat to allow the storm to subside. Soon things were back to normal. While the world was unsure, the Mahatma was sure of his actions.
There was a definite attraction in Gandhiji that brought womenfolk to him. It is quite possible that they were looking for glory and he provided the opportunity. Some like Mirabehn were inspired by his ideals and wanted to devote their entire life to his cause. But once they came close, Gandhiji and not his cause became their obsession. They hardly knew this was the next step to losing him, as the Mahatma could not be chained. He had higher goals. The book is a psycho-biography and a study of man-woman relationship involving one of the greatest men in living memory.
Experts from the Book:
"Saraladevi was the topic of discussion in undertones and overtones among his friends, associated and family members. How could Ba not be affected? The years 1919 and 1920 were years of mental torture and agony for her". (page 220)
Gandhiji referred to "small-talks, whispers and innuendos" going around of which he was well aware: "He was already in the midst of so much suspicion and distrust, he told the gathering, that he did not want his most innocent acts to be misunderstood and misrepresented". (page 339)
About the Author:
Born in 1925 at Dhera Ghazi Khan (Pakistan), Girja Kumar is a veteran research scholar. The man behind the Sapru House Library, he has held many important positions including Chairman of the Delhi Library Board (1983-85). He was Associate, Oriental Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC during 1954-55. He retired as chief librarian Jawaharlal Nehru University Library in 1985.
His world had been a world of books. While he wrote books on censorship and education, he always contemplated producing a book on greatest cult figure of modern times - Mahatma Gandhi. Brahmacharya, Gandhiji and His Women Associates is based on extensive research and quotes of the main players while delineating the Mahatma's relationship with his women associates. The present book, in that sense, is a biography with in a biography.
Girja Kumar was associated as a book critic with several national publications and wrote more regularly from the Indian Express (1975-79) and The Week (1984-87). He has published a definitive biography of world-renowned Librarian Dr S R Ranganathan, besides publishing an innovative work on the "arrogance of intellectual power". His "The Book on Trial, Fundamentalism and Censorship in India" was widely acclaimed.
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