Gandhi’s biographer Ramchandra Guha tells ThePrint about an unexplored chapter of the great man’s life, featuring a platonic love tie.
New Delhi: Mahatma Gandhi is the acknowledged star of the decades-long freedom struggle that led to Indian Independence in 1947. But in the midst of this wide and dramatic landscape of events, it is incredible that Gandhi was unafraid to explore his feelings for an older, married, “very independent-minded” woman who lived in Lahore, said Ramachandra Guha in an interview with ThePrint.
The historian has just published the extraordinary story of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in a book simply called ‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914 to 1948’ — the time he returned from South Africa to his assassination.
Guha also talks about Gandhi’s experiments with both love and brahmacharya, or the struggle to remain celibate.
In a searing account that seeks to excavate the great man’s experiments with sex and celibacy, Guha talks about how and why he decided to sleep naked with Manu, his much younger grand-niece.
This, of course, is a familiar story to Indians, even though it is not much talked-about.
But for the first time, Guha has explored a platonic love tie between Gandhi and Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, a progressive, middle-aged woman who lived in Lahore with her husband. Gandhi was married too, of course, to Kasturba.
Gandhi was “utterly charmed” by Sarala Devi. She was the daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, and was very accomplished. She was a poet; she sang at nationalist gatherings, and she sang beautifully. Gandhi had heard her singing.
So when he went to Lahore in 1919 — her husband was in jail at the time — and they met, they got on famously. This was unusual at the time, but as Guha says, “she had great charisma, and was very independent-minded”.
Sarala Devi married a widower quite late in life, which was an unusual act in itself.
“He was charmed, besotted…they got along famously. They were truly enchanted by each other,” Guha says about the Mahatma and Sarala Devi. “But there was no sexual consummation.”
Sarala Devi and Gandhi exchanged letters after he returned to Gujarat. In one letter, she wrote to him, asking why he hadn’t written. “There’s only the bathroom to receive my sobs,” she said.
Guha pointed out that “this happens in many marriages, after 15-20 years, (although) it happened less then…”
He went on to add that as a biographer of Gandhi, he wanted to pen down all the aspects of his personality, warts and all. He admitted that previous biographers hadn’t talked about Sarala Devi Chaudhurani in the same breath as the Mahatma.
Finally, C. Rajagopalachari told Gandhi to call it off, which he did. “He had to choose between furthering this romantic attachment or furthering the freedom struggle,” Guha said.
Asked what Kasturba Gandhi had to say, Guha admitted that nobody really knew.
“It was a moment of great intense passion. It was a moment of crisis in the marriage too. It was a very human story,” Guha added.
Experiments with Manu
As for the Mahatma’s experiments in brahmacharya with Manu, his grand-niece, Guha said he accepted he found the whole affair rather strange. As Gandhi slept naked with her, in an attempt to discover whether or not he was still sexually aroused, Hindu-Muslim riots exploded around them in Noakhali, Bengal.
One of the reasons for the sexual experimentation was because Gandhi felt, according to Guha, that the violence was somehow his fault. “The violence is happening because I am not pure,” Guha quoted Gandhi as saying.
“It was very strange. That is why in my book I have a chapter called ‘The Strangest Experiment.’ The most painstanking biographer of Gandhi cannot get a handle (on what Gandhi did),” Guha said.
“He was alone, lonely, without a guide.” So many of his loved ones had died, including Kasturba and C.F. Andrews, the historian added, seeking to understand and explain the mind of the Mahatma.
Manu Gandhi also becomes a subject of interest in the book. Guha points out that Pyare Lal, Gandhi’s closest confidante and aide, had expressed an interest to marry Manu, but that she had rejected him.
She called the Mahatma “Ma Bapu”. There is a short exploration of her own sexuality as well, although Manu is very clear that she looks at Bapu like her own mother, and to that extent is willing to go to the ends of the earth with him.
Guha reiterated that he included these explorations of Gandhi’s sexuality in his book because he “didn’t want to suppress” any of the complex facets of the Mahatma’s personality.
“The reader can make his own judgement,” Guha added.