Kasturba Gandhi, who is often known as the wife of Mahatma Gandhi was a lot more than that. Born as Kastur Kapadia on 11th April, 1869 – she lives amongst us today.
In his autobiography, ‘The Story Of My Experiments With Truth’, Gandhiji writes, “‘If I should be pledged to be faithful to my wife, she also should be pledged to be faithful to me,’ I said to myself. The thought made me a jealous husband. Her duty was easily converted into my right to exact faithfulness from her, and if it had to be exacted, I should be watchfully tenacious of the right. I had absolutely no reason to suspect my wife’s fidelity, but jealousy does not wait for reasons. I must needs be for ever on the look-out regarding her movements, and therefore she could not go anywhere without my permission. This sowed the seeds of a bitter quarrel between us. The restraint was virtually a sort of imprisonment. And Kasturbai was not the girl to brook any such thing. She made it a point to go out whenever and wherever she liked. More restraint on my part resulted in more liberty being taken by her, and in my getting more and more cross.”
Kasturba, who was fondly referred to as ‘ba’ definitely did not have an easy life. Today, on her death anniversary, we remember the lady for what she was and how she is an unsung heroine in Indian history.
Back then, around the 1870s, Kathiawad had a rigid system of ‘purdah’ – the life of women was far from ideal. Ba was illiterate at a time when the only things that were expected out of women were to get married, cook, clean and give birth. When she as only 14 years old, she was married in 1883. When she was 19 she was sent off to her husband’s home in 1888 – which was also the year when she was left alone to raise her son, Harilal as Gandhiji had gone to London for further studies.
It is known in history that Ba’s firstborn died at a young age and she never got over the loss of her child. How would it have been for a young, uneducated woman to deal with the loss of her baby, look after her second child in a strange home without her husband?
In another chapter in his autobiography, Gandhiji writers, ” My friend once took me to a brothel. He sent me in with the necessary instructions. It was all prearranged. The bill had already been paid. I went into the jaws of sin, but God in His infinite mercy protected me against myself. I was almost struck blind and dumb in this den of vice. I sat near the woman on her bed, but I was tongue-tied. She naturally lost patience with me, and showed me the door, with abuses and insults. I then felt as though my manhood had been injured, and wished to sink into the ground for shame. But I have ever since given thanks to God for having saved me. I can recall four more similar incidents in my life, and in most of them my good fortune, rather than any effort on my part, saved me.”
Furthermore, he writes, “I was both a devoted and a jealous husband, and this friend fanned the flame of my suspicions about my wife. I never could doubt his veracity. And I have never forgiven myself the violence of which I have been guilty in often having pained my wife by acting on his information. Perhaps only a Hindu wife would tolerate these hardships, and that is why I have regarded woman as an incarnation of tolerance. A servant wrongly suspected may throw up his job, a son in the same case may leave his father’s roof, and a friend may put an end to the friendship. The wife, if she suspects her husband, will keep quiet, but if the husband suspects her, she is ruined. Where is she to go? A Hindu wife may not seek divorce in a law-court. Law has no remedy for her. And I can never forget or forgive myself for a having driven my wife to that desperation.”
These words highlight Ba’s plight long before Gandhiji had become a public figure. Apart from the emotional turmoil that she faced, she must have also faced a physical one as after Harilal, she gave birth to three more sons in a gap of every few years – Manilal in 1892, Ramdas in 1897 and Devdas in 1900. When he last son was born, Ba was 31. When her first son was born Ba was 19. In 1906, Gandhiji took the vow of celibacy.
According to an article by Vinay Lal, “She showed an independence of spirit, and Gandhi’s autobiography records an incident when he was almost tempted, in a moment of acute anger, to throw her out of the home. He had asked that she should contribute, as did everyone else at their ashram, to menial tasks; and though she agreed, she balked at having to clean the toilets, and flatly refused to do so. There were also disagreements between them on the care of their sons, whom Kasturba (like some others) was inclined to believe had been neglected by their father. Gandhi, on the other hand, took the view that as his sons, they were entitled to no special privileges. Harilal, in particular, caused her great sorrow, and when he once arrived at her bedside during her last illness, she burst into tears.”
One must wonder how a completely simple and uneducated woman reached a point where the South African government perceived her to be a threat and imprisoned her for three months for protesting the working conditions of Indians in that country. The courage! The transformation from purdah to public protest! It is commendable in that time when it was unheard of. This was in 1913. She was jailed on numerous occasions in India for fighting for India’s independence.
In July 1914, when Ba and Gandhiji permanently returned to India, she was suffering from acute bronchitis, which kept worsening. But in spite of that, Ba took part in civil actions and protests. This is also when she began service in ashrams, helping people in need from where she got the name ‘Ba’.
Even though she was uneducated, she is known to have encouraged women during the Champaran movement to read and write. She also taught them discipline and hygiene.
After the Satyagraha of 1922, during which Ba was severely ill, she survived through the punishment of hard labour which was given to the protesters by the British.
Not many know that Ba had become a leader for women in her own way. In 1939, the women in Rajkot asked her to be their face. As a result of the non-violent protests that ensued, Ba was kept in solitary confinement for one whole month!
After the Quit India movement, Ba was imprisoned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune where she breathed her last at 7:35 p.m. on 22 February 1944. To those who tried to boost her morale while she was suffering by saying, “You will get better soon,” Ba would respond, “No, my time is up”.
“According to my earlier experience, she was very obstinate. In spite of all my pressure, she would do as she wished. This led to short or long periods of estrangement between us. But as my public life expanded, my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work,” Gandhiji wrote about Ba.
When we look at history from a completely different viewpoint – from Ba’s perspective – she jumps out as the heroine, in a time when only heroes were to surface.