‘On His Sexual Experiments, Gandhi Refused to be Swayed by Disapproving Associates’

THE DAY IS overcast and, in his quiet Ahmedabad office, Tridip Suhrud is busy at work, occasionally puffing at a roll-your-own cigarette and sipping tea. The light music in the background seems to add to the charm of his literary pursuit: demystifying Mahatma Gandhi. Suhrud, India’s foremost Gandhi scholar and former director of Sabarmati Ashram—where he helped create the Gandhi Heritage Portal, a free digital archive running into over 1.4 million pages—has been working on the diary of Manu Gandhi, a companion of the Mahatma, that covers the crucial period of 1943 to 1948. This month, its first volume, The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944, will hit the stands and the more epochal second volume will be out next year.

I ask him whether it was tough to work on the diary of Manu Gandhi, the grandniece of the Mahatma who was his constant companion in his last phase. He responds, “If it is easy, then why do it?”

For a multilingual scholar who enjoys the rigour of research and finds learning about Gandhi a passionate journey, Suhrud says he chose to work on the subject because understanding Manu is central to understanding Gandhi’s last phase. Manu enters Gandhi’s life at a very crucial point, the 53-year-old scholar reasons. He describes her entry into Gandhi’s life as an incident “in the shadow of Mahadev Desai’s death”. Desai, as is well known, was perhaps the closest collaborator, the most able interpreter and associate that Gandhi had, notes the author.

Desai died on August 15th, 1942, while he was a prisoner at the Aga Khan Palace along with Gandhi and his wife Kasturba. Manu comes to the palace as a caretaker for Kasturba. Explains Suhrud: “We know that soon thereafter Ba [Kasturba] is to die [on February 22nd, 1944].”

He goes on, “At a personal level, it was one of the most difficult years of Gandhi’s life. Two people he was closest to leave him during that period. And Manu becomes the chronicler of that period. So what we get in the first volume of the diaries is written in the shadow of Mahadev’s death and moves towards Ba’s passing. That is the first part of the Diary.”

The second volume of the Diary covers the period from 1946 to Gandhi’s death when Nathuram Vinayak Godse sprayed bullets into his frail body just before a prayer meeting at Birla House in Delhi on January 30th, 1948.

Manu rejoined Gandhi in 1946. Until then, Suhrud tells us, “She came and went. But she became his companion in 1946 and it was in her arms that his body fell. Manu was with Gandhi in Noakhali [now in Bangladesh], in Bihar, Kolkata and Delhi.”

Emphasises Suhrud: “Manu is a very important witness. She witnesses Gandhi’s last phase. And what we know of Gandhi’s last phase in large measure is due to Manu because, at least in the last year, none of the other associates were with him on a day-to-day basis during this period.”

Suhrud cautions that as regards Gandhi’s ‘sexual’ experiments and Manu’s attitude towards what the man who would become the Father of the Nation considered his duty, he wouldn’t make a comment at all. He avers, “I think for that we have to read the diaries. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Manu. Nor do I want to pre-empt the second volume. A lot of people have spoken on behalf of Manu all these years without ever having read her writings and I don’t want to add my name to that large list. I think we should let Manu speak in the language she wishes to speak, reveal what she wants to reveal and do it in the way she has done it.”

For the second volume, which will feature more of Gandhi’s sexual experiments, we will have to wait till next year. But until then, we have time to understand the great significance of Manu’s diaries the way they have been interpreted and explained by a masterful reader of Gandhi, Suhrud. His annotated and contextualised edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth is arguably the best source for future researchers of Gandhi.

Manu’s diary was, in fact, a continuation of a practice by Desai, the scholar and lawyer. Desai used to write every day on all days he had spent with Gandhi, but he never consulted Bapu or ran it by him. Suhrud says Manu also wrote diaries on all days she had spent with Gandhi and not when she was away. Suhrud notes, “What is very unusual about these diaries is that most of these were read by Gandhi or read out to Gandhi. Initially, he would correct the diaries—which bear the mark of his corrections, asking her to write on certain aspects, asking her to be reflective—and Gandhi would then sign these diaries as proof of him having read these diaries. These are authenticated diaries, and that is what increases their documentary value.”

‘In the social, economic and political realm, Gandhi’s attempt was to establish a non-violent order. And that seemed to be collapsing around him, and there are all these doubts that Gandhi begins to have about Indians’ capacity to be non-violent,’ says Tridip Suhrud

There are many more grounds why Manu’s diaries are remarkable. Suhrud tells Open, “These are the years when the country was passing through a very large turmoil and Manu becomes a witness to that. These are also the years Gandhi was passing through a deep turmoil and she was a witness to that as well.”

The author who has edited and written numerous books and papers on Gandhi knows only too well that Pyarelal Nayyar, secretary of Gandhi in his later years, was destined to write what he calls a “magnificent” set of volumes on the great man’s last phase, “but even there he draws a great deal from the kind of documentary evidence that Manu left, because she acted more or less as a secretary to Gandhi”, he points out.

Manu’s record-keeping was similar to Mahadev Desai’s from another period of time, and included all the speeches Gandhi had made, conversations he had had and letters he had written. Being with Gandhi from the age of 15, Manu considered each day as a lesson in life. It was her education. “A lot of diaries in the National Archives of India contain English work books where she is taught English; notes on studies of geographies when war was raging in Europe; her learning Sanskrit and the Gita with Gandhi [some of which are not published in Suhrud’s two-volume work],” says the author who worked close to five years to complete this project. Manu wrote mostly in Gujarati and also sometimes in Hindi.

Suhrud reveals to us that Gandhi wanted Manu to witness his death. I ask him why. “I don’t know. I have no access to Gandhi’s mind. What one recognises is that Gandhi increasingly feels that the project of collective non-violence seems to be failing. Individual non-violence is a possibility. Many of us are capable of that. In the social, economic and political realm, Gandhi’s attempt was to establish a non-violent order. And that seemed to be collapsing around him, and there are all these doubts that Gandhi begins to have about Indians’ capacity to be non-violent. And strangely he wants proof that he is capable of non-violence. And he feels two things. One is that our failure to be non-violent is in some way a measure of his own failure to be non-violent, his own failure to curb his desires, to be completely free from aggression of any kind. And there is another feeling: if he were to meet a violent death, in some way it could satiate [Indians’] desire for blood. Or that we would recognise the futility of violence. And he begins to imagine a violent death for himself, not just as an imagination but as a way of providing two kinds of proof: one that he is able to meet violence with non-violence and that his violent end could establish or re-establish certain sanity in the subcontinent. He was proved right on probably both counts.”

Gandhi’s assassination by Godse stuns the nation into silence and the kind of communal peace and collective non-violence that we achieved for a very long time is in no small measure due to our response collectively to Gandhi’s violent death, Suhrud argues.

David Hardiman, among other Gandhi scholars, has talked about the man’s efforts to build alternative social, political and economic institutions through what he describes as his constructive programme. And such endeavours brought him into conflict with many others, even those within the Congress.

TOWARDS THE MID-1940s, Gandhi finds himself marginalised within the Congress. I ask Suhrud whether it was one of the key reasons for the turmoil Gandhi was going through. He says that Gandhi was certainly disappointed with the Congress. “But he was more disappointed with the people of the subcontinent. After all, his movement was not that of the leaders, it was that of the people. And this disappointment with the people was much greater. He realises that times have changed or that the times are changing very fast, that the leadership and the people of India [represented by the Congress, Muslim League and others] are impatient for freedom. And that the British are also impatient to leave India and any workable solution would be acceptable to all stakeholders. It may not be an ideal solution. It had to be a solution that meets the least opposition. It had to be a solution that would have the least areas of disagreement,” says the author. Gandhi returns to political centre-stage when the fears that he had expressed earlier—that any talk of Partition would lead to massive transfers of population and result in violence—come true.

But the more critical question as regards the diaries of Manu is whether Gandhi’s stress on Brahmacharya has to do with his own carnal desires and how they affected him. As a voracious reader of Gandhi’s works and letters, Suhrud says, not in the least.

He continues, “I think we misunderstand Brahmacharya. Of course, a part of that is celibacy and chastity. That is how Gandhi in 1906 takes the vow to observe celibacy. Thereafter, Gandhi begins to realise that Brahmacharya is not the suppression of one desire alone. It is actually about bringing in harmony to all your senses and all your desires. You cannot have suppression of one kind of sense while other senses are running amok. Which is what I tried to narrate in the introduction to the book. Brahmacharya actually means charya [conduct] which leads to Brahman [truth].”

‘Gandhi begins to realise that Brahmacharya is not the suppression of one desire alone. It is actually about bringing in harmony to all your senses and all your desires. You cannot have suppression of one kind of sense while other senses are running amok,’says Tridip Suhrud

Gandhi also wanted to publicise his experiments with truth. Suhrud thinks it has nothing do with any obsession. He thunders, “Why does he write the autobiography in the way he writes? Why do you expect that when he talks about himself, he is candid and self-reflective? The autobiography is a candid and a troubling document because of his forthrightness and the way he speaks of his own follies and failings. What we know of Gandhi’s troubles, failings, deepest desires, his struggles to come to terms with his desires—all that is because of what he chooses to reveal. It is part of the practice of being truthful. You can’t say you seek truth and then not be truthful. It is not simple honesty. It is much deeper. You have the responsibility to reveal what Gandhi reveals somewhere as ‘what is known to you and your God’.”

Suhrud agrees that such commitment to truth is not a practice we often see among public figures. But then Gandhi was not only a public figure engaged in social or political life. He was also a deeply spiritual seeker. “Within the spiritual tradition, this is not an anomaly,” says Suhrud, emphasising, “We know of the very beautiful tradition of the confessional, which is part of Christianity. What is that? Gandhi in some ways is following the great saints of Christianity. So I don’t think that it is obsessive. It is what is expected of him.”

Talking of writers and historians being vicious towards Gandhi, making him a whipping boy, Suhrud says that is because Gandhi’s experiments with truth are very troubling, leaving even some of his closest associates uncomfortable with them. “[Gandhi’s experiments of all kind] require to be understood. You can understand with empathy. You can understand the way he described them. Or you can understand assuming that these are undesirable.”

While he was often convinced by his associates and amended his practices on many occasions earlier, when it came to testing his will power to be celibate even in the presence of naked women, Gandhi said he was not going to be swayed by what even his closest followers and associates said about it, Suhrud explains as he bids farewell and hurries off to refill his tea.

After the second volume of the Diary comes out, Suhrud has another project to handle. For that purpose, he is already collaborating with some scholars on a Herculean task involving a tranche of Gandhi’s letters to his sons from prison and testimonies of over 7,000 indigo cultivators recorded in Champaran, Bihar, by Gandhi and others.

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