He is a wise man, a Mahatma, father of the nation, but after all a human being. Is it not? He used to lie in bed at night and say, I cannot imagine a life without ‘ba’.
Today a play was enacted with me as the protagonist, scripted by Narayanbhai, son of Mahadevbhai, and Naushilbhai. It was directed by Aditiben Desai with Kalpana Gagdekar playing my part. I saw this play. It has weaved in various aspects of my life. There is plenty written and enacted on Bapu, and I was a bit bashful about someone writing about me. Am I really worth writing about? I asked myself. I, just a wife of the father of a nation and Bapu’s ‘ba’! Yes, it is true that everyone loves me, but there must be hardly an Indian woman who has been loved by his husband as much as I was loved by Bapu! To tell you the truth, that was the only satisfaction I had when my eyes closed forever. I remember that evening….
It was 22nd February 1942, the place Aga Khan Palace which was our prison, I was with him. Sushila Nayyar came to my room at seven in the morning. I was very unwell. The previous night Bapu had suffered from loose motion. Devdas was at his beck and call looking after him. My mind was foggy and delirious. I was showing signs of uremia. Devdas and Sushila had an inkling that I was sinking and I did not have much time left. I was ready to go leaving everyone, but it was difficult to leave him. He was in the next room. I asked Sushila to call him.He came into my room and stood in front of me. I became tearful. I don’t know why, maybe he could not bear seeing me cry, after a while he asked, “Can I go for my walk now?” I clearly refused. He sat at my bedside. I asked him to make me sit up. I put my head against his chest and closed my eyes and just stayed that way for a long time. I had never touched him in the presence of any other person, not even when he was ill. Therefore, when I was being comforted this way, others quietly left the room. He sat with me till ten o’clock.
I used to intermittenlty cough and he would tenderly pat my back and ask me to chant Ram Naam. Dr. Dinsha Mehta, Devdas and others were around me. He put holy basil leaves in Gangajal (water of the River Ganges) and gave me drops of that water with his own hands. Santok, Keshu, Rami, Sushila, Devdas, were all near me. Kanu started clicking our photographs; I knew he had wanted to take photographs of Bapu sitting next to me. How could anyone admonish Bapu. He was a stubborn and self-willed person. Sushilagently told him, “Bapu, sit next to Ba and take charge of her.” He answered, “I am taking charge, but from here.” (sitting at a distance).
Col. Shah and Col. Bhandari came with penicillin for me. He said, “why do you now want to pierce her with injections, let her be, let her rest, leave it to the almighty and let her go in peace.” At exactly 7:35, I breathed my last.
Kanu and Sushila were talking in the verandah, “had Bapu not refused, we would have had such lovely photographs.” They could not probably understand that he may have been the father of the nation, a Mahatma, but for me he was my life and breadth, my god, my guru, my husband, and my life mate. We spent sixty-two years of our lives together. Now at the time of parting, we did not want to compromise our privacy and make ourselves public. Had I been in his place, I would have also declined.
To be honest, when I was breathing my last, so many events and incidents of our life flashed in front of my eyes, both happy and unhappy ones. We have walked together in our journey of 62 years and in a period when such companionship between couples was not a common phenomenon. In such an age, he treated me as his equal, worked shoulder-to-shoulder and kept me at his side at all times and gave me due respect in the real sense of the term.I not only became a mother to his children, but also of the whole nation.
He wrote a lot about me in his autobiography but I vividly recall one incident. This was when we were in Durban, South Africa, and he was practicing as a lawyer. He noticed the disgust and tears in my eyes when I had to dispose off a Christian accountant’s urine. He said aloud, “such aversion showing behavior is not going to be tolerated in my house”, a comment distinctly directed at me. I had also tired of his Satyagraha (non-violence civil disobedience movement), his obstinacy and imposing his will on others, so I could not help retorting, “Ok then, I am leaving, and you can keep your house to yourself.” He got up and took my hand and dragged me to the doorstep, opened the door and he was about to throw me out of the house, when I said, tears running down my cheeks, “your are shameless; I am not; where do you think I can go? My parents are not here to whom I can go. I am a woman, so I am compelled to take your blows. Have some shame and close the door, if someone sees us, it is not going to look good for either of us.” And then he shut the door.
After this, whenever I read what he wrote, it fills my heart with contentment. In households in India, where women hardly get opportunities to even see their husbands, I considered myself fortunate to have a husband who shared his life with me. What more can I ask for, than that I am sitting beside him and ending my life in his arms? He has written in his autography, My Experiments with Truth, “We had many quarrels, but always ended happily. A wife has won with her amazing tolerance and patience. I can say this dispassionately today because this incident belongs to the distant past. Today I am not a husband blind in love, I am not a teacher. If she wants, Kasturba can pull me up today; ours is a trusted and tried friendship; now we live together with total detachment. She took care of me selflessly when I was ill without any expectations in return.”
Whenever I think of the past, a train of events pass through my mind. I remember once there was a theft of two trunkful of clothes in the ashram sometime in 1926 or 27. When I told him about the theft, instead of trying to find out details of the theft, he instead asked me “from when did you get two trunkful of clothes! And why do you need so many clothes? You don’t wear different saris each day I hope!”
I thought aloud, “don’t I have to give some clothes to Rami and Manu (Harilal’s daughters) when they visit me? I had kept some saris which I received as gift. Their mother is no more, so don’t I have to give them something?”
He cut me short, “We cannot afford such things. The girls are welcome to come and stay with us here, but we can’t afford to give them such gifts.” As if this was not enough, he brought up this issue during the evening prayers. He further added that “Whatever saris or khadi we receive as personal gifts should be deposited in the ashram stores if they are notrequired for immediate use.”
I don’t know how such thoughts even enter his mind! But with time, I realized one thing. If I have to live with him, I have to compromise and submit to his will. Not that he compels me, but the way he says it leaves no choice but to give in.
He used to call himself a poor man and me a wife of a poor man!
After my death, when Shantikumarbhai suggested using sandalwood for my pyre, he replied, “she was a poor man’s wife, how can a poor man afford sandalwood? When the superintended insisted on using sandalwood, he said, “the government can use what it wants, she was a prisoner of the government.”
Since my body oozed too much water, the whole process of cremation lasted till 4 pm, but he did not move away from there even for a second. When friends and relatives told him that he would get tired waiting at the pyre, he smiled and replied, “How can I leave my companion of 62 years like that at this stage? ‘Ba’ would not forgive me if I did.”
He is a wise man, a father of the nation, a leader, a Mahatma, but after all a human being. Lying in bed at night he would say, “I cannot imagine a life without ‘ba’ but still I felt that ‘ba’ should end her life in my arms, so that I would not have to worry what would happen to her after I go. She was an inseparable part of my life. Nothing can fill the void left after her departure.”
Actually, that was also my worry! What will happen to him after I go! I cannot bear to see the differences between him and Harilal, and I shudder to think about the travails of Harilal. In a way it is good that I am not there to see these tragedies. Let him now handle his own problems, leave him to his work. I did whatever I could.
Lilavati once wrote to me thinking that I may be unhappy due to the strict rules and regulations imposed on me. I wrote to Lilvati,
“Your letter has bothered me. We have never had an opportunity to talk to each other, then how did you decide that Gandhiji is harassing me? Have you come to see that I am downcast, that I am not given proper food? I am sure that no one in the world has the fortune of having a husband like mine. He is worshipped all over the world, thousands come to him for advice, and he guides thousands.
He has never scolded me without any reason. True, I do not belong to your kind of world; living independently, wanting to keep husbands under their thumbs, and if that does not happen then part and go your own way. But this kind of thinking is not possible for a Sanatani Hindu. Parvati had wished to have the same husband in life after life.