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The ‘Maulvi’ Gandhi: Kasturba’s letter to India about her alcoholic son

In 'The Lost Diary of Kastur, My Ba', Tushar Gandhi brings to the reader Kasturba, in her own words, for the first time.

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APRIL 1936


Ba accompanied Bapu to Nagpur to attend an All India Literary Conference. There, they had an unexpected meeting with Harilal. A few months prior, while Ba and Bapu were travelling by the Jabalpur Mail, a big crowd had gathered at Katani Junction in the Central Provinces to greet them. Amidst shouts of ‘Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai!’, they heard a lone voice shouting, ‘Mata Kasturba Ki Jai!’ It was Hari, dressed in rags, emaciated; he had also lost many of his teeth. He pushed his way through the crowd and reached the window of the compartment in which Ba and Bapu were travelling. He held out an orange in his hand and offered it to Ba. Bapu asked his son if he had any gift for him. Harilal told him, ‘Everyone else provides for you.’ Then he turned to his mother and said, ‘Ba, this is only for you. Promise me only you will eat it.’ He said to his father, ‘Don’t ever forget, you are great only because of the sacrifices made by my mother.’ Bapu told his son, ‘That I have always acknowledged, my son. Now why don’t you join us. Come with us, live with us, let us take care of you. You are always welcome.’ Just then, the train started; Hari was pushed away due to the jostling of the crowd. Ba realized that she had not given anything to her son. She picked up a few fruits in her hands and tried desperately to reach out to him. But Hari had been pushed away from the train. It gathered speed, and the last thing Ba heard as the train left the station was ‘Mata Kasturba Ki Jai!’ She was inconsolable.

Now, once again, in Nagpur, he was standing in her presence. His condition had worsened. He stood some distance away, as he did not wish for Ba to smell the alcohol on his breath. Ba could not recognize him in this dishevelled state. She was very disturbed, and pleaded with him to come and live with her. But Harilal was too far gone. While leaving, he informed them that many of his friends were keen that he embrace Islam. Then, he walked off. Ba had always defended her eldest son, made excuses for his waywardness. The conflict between her son and her husband filled her with sorrow, and she had hoped for a reconciliation. Lately, he had been writing open letters criticizing his father and getting them published in newspapers. Many times, the letters were printed in the same editions as reports of the wayward exploits of Gandhi’s son and his brushes with the law. To sustain his addiction to alcohol, Hari had got into the habit of asking for funds from his brothers, and now even his grown-up children. Gradually, Kasturba began realizing that her eldest son was too far gone to ever be the same person he was in his youth—he was lost to her, irrevocably.

Also Read: Kasturba Gandhi, the feisty woman whose patience inspired Gandhi’s call for satyagraha

The news that she heard a few weeks later finally broke her heart; her grief was unimaginable. The newspapers headlined a story that Hari had converted to Islam in Ratlam and taken on the name Abdulla Gandhi. (The biography of Ba written by my parents says that he converted in Bombay. But on a visit to Ratlam I was shown the room where Hari lived as a guest of a Muslim League member and a hotelier, and the restaurant where he used to eat, as well as the mosque where his conversion was done.) As Maulvi Abdulla Gandhi, as he was now known, he wrote an open letter to his father telling him that he had found the true path and his father should also follow him and embrace Islam. An Urdu newspaper published this invitation to his father on the front page. But on seeing that the conversion of his son had no effect on Bapu, Hari’s Muslim patrons lost interest in him and abandoned him. A few weeks later, he was arrested in Madras for making a nuisance of himself in a public place while being dead drunk. This too was widely reported. Ba was in Delhi at that time. She was devastated to hear of this. She summoned her son Devadas and in a voice choked with emotion dictated a letter addressed to her son. I reproduce it from The Forgotten Woman:

My Dear Son Harilal

I have read that recently in Madras policemen found you in a state of drunkenness at midnight in an open street and took you in custody. Next day, you went before a magistrate who fined you one rupee. He must have been a very kind hearted man to have treated you so leniently …

I do not know what to say to you. I have been pleading with you all these long years to hold yourself in check … Think of the misery you are causing your aged parents in the evening of their lives … Though born as our son you are indeed behaving as our enemy.

I have been told that in your recent wanderings you have been criticising and ridiculing your great father. You are only disgracing yourself by speaking ill of your father. He has nothing but love in his heart for you. He has offered to keep you with him to feed and clothe you, and even to nurse you. But you have never paid any heed to his advice. He has so many other responsibilities in this world. He cannot do more for you. He can only lament his fate [and] quietly suffer all the disgrace.

But I am unable to stand the mental anguish you are causing … Every morning I rise with a shudder at the thought of what fresh news the newspapers will bring. I sometimes wonder where you are, where you sleep, what you eat. Perhaps you eat forbidden food … I often feel like meeting you. But I do not know where to find you. You are my eldest son and nearly 50 years old [yet] I am afraid of approaching you lest you humiliate me.

I do not know why you changed your ancestral religion. That is your affair … (I did not like it) but when I saw your statement that you had decided to improve yourself I felt secretly glad, even about your conversion. Hoping that you will now start leading a sober life. But that hope also was dashed to pieces. I hear that you go about asking innocent and ignorant people to follow your example. What do you know of religion? What judgement can you exercise in your mental condition? People are liable to be led astray by the fact that you are your father’s son. In time to come, if you go on like this, you will be shunned by everyone. I beseech you to turn back from your folly … your father always pardons you, but God will not tolerate your conduct …

Also Read: Mahatma Gandhi’s second son Manilal was an obedient man with suppressed dreams

Ba was not yet finished. She dictated another letter—to be sent to newspapers throughout India. She was writing, she said, in hopes that ‘the feeble voice of a wounded mother’ would ‘awaken the conscience’ of the Muslims instrumental in her son’s conversion:

I fail to understand your action. I know, and I am glad, that a large number of thinking Muslims and all of our life long Muslim friends condemn outright this entire episode … Instead of redeeming my son, I find his so-called change of faith has actually made matters worse. You ought to reprimand him for this and try to wean him from these bad habits, [but] some have even gone so far as to give the title ‘Maulvi’ to my boy. Does your religion permit such persons as my son to be called Maulvi? What pleasure do you find in lionising him like this? If you truly consider him your brother you will not do as you are doing, [it] is not at all in his interest. But if your desire is merely to hold us up to ridicule I have nothing more to say to you. You may do your worse. But I feel it my duty to repeat what I have told my son. Namely, that you are not doing the right thing in the eyes of God.

Ba wept as she dictated these letters. The cry of her broken heart echoed in every word. The many traumatic and abrupt changes she had to face living with her husband had never hurt her as much as what Hari had done.

When Hari’s Muslim patrons saw that they had not succeeded in hurting and angering Bapu as they had hoped, they lost interest in Maulvi Abdulla Gandhi. He was proving to be too expensive to maintain. So they cut him loose. After the drunk incident at Madras, Sanatani Hindus and Arya Samajists got into the act; they ‘adopted’ Harilal and performed a shuddhikaran exercise on him and reconverted him to Hinduism. This time, after converting, he took the name Hiralal. After both conversions, since he wished to be identified with his father, Harilal still clung on to the family name Gandhi. Although he changed religions, he did not wish to lose his paternal association. Soon his Sanatani patrons cut him loose too, and Harilal was back to existing as a penniless, homeless and destitute alcoholic and drifter. But pride would not allow him to go to his parents, who still pined for their eldest son and prayed that he would one day return to the fold. Harilal’s life was a great tragedy, largely of his own making.

the lost diary of Kastur, my BaThis excerpt from ‘The Lost Diary of Kastur, my Ba’ by Tushar Gandhi, has been published with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers India.

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