Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

BA (1869)

Sep 16, 2022 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


      In the 1990s a photograph appeared in a newspaper; in the top corner was a rainbow-striped apple with the slogan ‘Think Different.’ The lone image was of a follicle-challenged, emaciated man wearing a loin-cloth and oversized spectacles. But his small frame belied his huge achievement: A half century beforehand, Gandhi, known as Bapu, (“father”) had freed his nation from the yoke of the Raj. However, obscured by the giant shadow of the diminutive leader was Ba, mother of India.

       The woman who was to prove the mettle behind the Mahatma, Kasturba Kapadia, was born in 1869 in Porbandar, daughter of an affluent merchant. In order to cement a friendship with a local family, she was betrothed at seven, and married six years later to a groom her age, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Later he recounted, “As we didn’t know much about marriage, for us it only meant wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives. The carnal desire came later.” Even as a teen he harbored misgivings about having no voice in his life’s companion; Kasturba, however, accepted the event as the natural cycle of life, much like the annual monsoons. This was a natural response for a girl raised on tales of ancient India’s faithful modest wives. 

Gandhi, however, refused to accept old traditions.. Instead, he taught his partner to read and they perused the newspapers, never imagining one day his image, albeit greatly altered, would peer back.. Later Gandhi stated had they not enjoyed such a libidinous life there would have been more time for his wife’s education, “I am sure that had my love for her been absolutely untainted by lust she would have been a learned lady by now.”

As they grew into adulthood,, his desire to push the boundaries of tradition subsided. In the patriarchal society Mohandas soon assumed the role of a traditional MCP and demanded his wife seek permission before leaving home. As a girl from a traditional background she could not openly defy her husband; however, she discovered a loophole. When her mother-in-law asked her to accompany her to temple she could not ask Mohandas who was at school. When he raised an objection she responded, “Are you suggesting I obey you and disrespect your Mother?” At age fifteen two tragic events occurred: the death of their first son who lived for a few days and the passing of Gandhi’s father.

        Three years later, on the advice of a Hindu priest, Gandhi decided to study law in London; the enterprise financed by selling his wife’s jewels, wedding gifts from her parents. What helped assuage Kasturba’s loneliness during this time was the birth of son, Harilal, and Mohandas’ acquiescence when his mother requested, while abroad, he not touch wine, women, or meat.  Upon his return, a second son, Manilal, arrived. When Gandhi’s Bombay practice failed because he was too shy to speak in court, he accepted a position in South Africa, a part of the British Empire where, like India, its  sun never set. Lonely he returned to India to bring his family to the continent where he was to embody the slogan: ‘Think Different.’ 

         Kasturba was apprehensive about moving to a country dominated by Apartheid, where the Indian minority was derogatorily referred to as ‘coolies.’ However, she felt comforted she would be with her husband who had scarcely had any contact with his two sons. Her first taste of what was to lie ahead came before the Gandhis  even set foot in Durham. Their ship, the Nadir, was forced to remain in harbor for twenty-three days, ostensibly because the authorities were afraid its passengers had been exposed to the plague rampant in Bombay. In fact, the ship had been placed in ‘quarantine’ not for fear of disease, but for fear of Gandhi. The welcoming committee ashore consisted of a mob of white South Africans who did not want the agitator, Mohandas, whom his people had taken to calling ‘Bapu,’ to return. When they finally disembarked the pregnant Katsurba and the two boys were spirited to safety, but he was assaulted with bricks, rotten eggs, and fists. The police interceded and Gandhi refused to press charges, saying, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

      Kasturba, badly shaken at this violent welcome, derived comfort from her beautiful new house, the Beach Grove Villa, in Durban, modeled after European architecture.     Their family grew with the births of   their next two sons, Ramdas and Devadas.

      To Kasturba’s dismay, life in the villa came with an expiration date. Mohandas, who donned philosophies for a mid-life crisis as other men did cars,  adopted a belief in aparigaha, (non possession,) and determined his wife and sons  engage in communal living. Kasturba must have uttered the Indian equivalent of the Yiddish ‘oy.’ He established the Phoenix settlement, situated in the midst of miles of sugar cane. When they travelled it was only in third class and when questioned why he did so he quipped, “Because there is no fourth.” To promote his view of simplicity he bought shears to cut hair and studied a childbirth manual so he would be able to deliver any subsequent babies. However, the latter never occurred because of his next philosophy,­­­­­­­­­ brahmacharya, sexual abstinence. Mohandas was burdened with life-long guilt he had been in the throes of lust with his teenage wife when his father breathed his last, without his son at his side. This may have been the subliminal reason behind his decision to channel his sexual urges into working for the communal good. He stated, “One who conserves his vital fluid acquires unfailing power.” Gandhi claimed Kasturba was compliant with his decision; this is understandable as her plate was more than full with raising four sons and a husband who, well, thought differently. Another Gandhi quirk was  he  always slept with a light burning by the bedside. Entirely unafraid of the British, he was afraid of the dark.

      The philosophy for which he had most need of saving his bodily fluids was satyagraha, the Indian equivalent of Christ’s, “turn the other cheek.” Ironically, although this method of non-violent civil disobedience is the one with which he is most associated, it originated with Kasturba, whom he had tried to control as a young wife. . She had simply turned the other cheek at his outbursts. Interestingly, these were in some ways the birth of his tenet of passive nonresistance, one later adopted by Dr. Martin Luther King.

She also often joined him in his protests toward the outside world. In his role in fighting for his people he was arrested on innumerable occasions; with each incarceration, in solidarity, Kasturba subsided on the same meals as her husband, and ate nothing but cornmeal porridge. Her true religion was her husband.

On one occasion she became seriously ill and the prison officials informed Mohandas that if he admitted guilt he could walk through the prison gate. The price of freedom was too high and he wrote home, “I am not in a position to come and nurse you. If it is destined that you should die, I think it is preferable that you should go before me. Even if you die, for me you will be eternally alive.” He went on to reassure her that he had no intention of remarrying after her demise and told her that her death would serve as “another great sacrifice for satyagraha.” Katsurba survived and for her part in civil disobedience was sentenced to three months of hard labor. Denied a vegetarian diet in the labor camp, she resorted to a fast; General Smutts, avid adherent of white minority rule, not wanting the Ba as a martyr, ultimately  conceded. 

         In 1914, after two decades in South Africa, Gandhi decided it was time to return to India, the Empire Queen Victoria had dubbed ‘the jewel in her crown.’ His reputation had preceded him, and he was referred to as the Mahatma, the Enlightened. It was a title he disliked, “The woes of Mahatmas are known to Mahatmas alone.” The same sentiment was felt by Mrs. Mahatma. After establishing a spiritual retreat, his famous ashram, (where he slept naked beside similarly undressed young girls to prove his power over preserving his vital fluids,) he set about trying to right the wrongs imposed by the Raj who used his country to line England’s coffers. It was there he adopted the garb of the Indian peasants and wore only a loincloth and a shawl when cold.

Once more he began his acts of civil disobedience which landed him in jail where he fasted in protest. Winston Churchill was incensed by the agitator who he referred to as that ‘half naked Fakir’ and determined that he  be crushed. When that proved problematic, a meeting was arranged between the Mahatma and the King of England. In 1931 he arrived with his entourage: a goat to provide milk and a collapsible spinning-wheel. When someone asked how he could have dressed in a loincloth to meet royalty he replied, “The King had on enough for both of us.” The conference bore no fruit and shortly after his return to India he was arrested on order of the country which had erstwhile served as his host.

In retaliation, Gandhi embarked on a lengthy fast. His people now viewed him not just as Bapu, but as a dhoti-clad demigod. He was the Indian Moses; his life’s mission for the British to let his people go. From his prison he urged his followers to eschew violence, a plea which often went unheeded. He stated, “There are many causes I am prepared to die for, but none I am prepared to kill for.”

      Kasturba was direly afraid for her husband and was simultaneously dealing with her prodigal son, Harilal, who had been estranged from his parents for many years. His entire life had been spent in the shadow of his father and he lived it rebelling against everything Mohandas represented. He was angered his parent had spent all his time being the Bapu to his people and never one to his sons. At one point, when Mohandas and Kasturba were in a train-station, a feeble voice was heard, “Kasturba ki jai,” instead of the customary “Gandhi ki jai.” Harilal, in rags and toothless, approached and offered an orange to his mother. When Mohandas asked what he had brought him, his son replied, “Nothing. If you are so great, it is because of Ba.”Privy to what went on behind the homespun curtains, he knew it had been his mother who had been her husband’s metaphorical walking stick.   

           Mohandas and Kasturba were  incarcerated in the Aga Khan Prison where they fasted, a situation detrimental to a woman who at this point had suffered two heart attacks and chronic bronchitis. Despite this she tried her best to nurse her husband and work at her spinning-wheel. She eventually came down with pneumonia and Halil, greatly intoxicated, visited her sickbed. He insisted she take penicillin while Mohandas demanded she undergo traditional Indian medicine. Saddened there was no reconciliation between father and son—or perhaps unable to bear it--Kasturba placed her head on her husband’s lap and breathed her last.

A photograph shows Gandhi huddled in a corner, a shadow of himself. Kasturba was clad in a white sari woven by her husband and after her body had been consumed in the funeral pyre, Gandhi moaned, “I cannot imagine life without Ba.” His only solace was she had passed away in satyagraha, a woman who had spent her life turning the other cheek. After Mohandas was assassinated his ashes were interred next to Kasturba’s in the prison courtyard. 

    When Sir Richard Attenborough was producing his epic film Gandhi, Nehru told him, “Do not deify him. He was too great a man to be turned into a god.” It was a sentiment to which Kasturba would have whole-heartedly agreed. If someone had inquired if she had known her arranged marriage was to be deranged, would she still have desired it, she would have nodded acquiescence. For a life of unimaginable turmoil she deserves a tranquil spot by the Ganges, free from the monsoons of the life she spent with her ‘think different’ Mohandas.

          None of this is meant to diminish Bapu’s legacy; the Mahatama, despite his flaws, was a man of iron integrity. Many of the world’s greatest freedom-fighters were inspired by Mohandas Gandhi: Russia’s Leo Tolstoy, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the United States’ Dr. Martin Luther King. However, as Harilal realized, if his father was so great, it was because of Ba.