Gandhi's iron will was well known. He was gentle but inflexible. The nearer one was to Gandhi the more ruthless the discipline imposed on one. That is why perhaps Gandhi was most ruthless with himself. Gandhi was never intolerant. Not only did he not resent opposition, but he actually encouraged it. And yet people shrank from opposing him because they trusted him more than they trusted themselves. But in the Satyagraha Ashram there was one person who was an exception to this rule. That person was nearest to him, his own wife. In the Ashram she was always called Ba, meaning 'mother'. In the Satyagraha Ashram she was a little imperious old lady with flashing eyes, sharp voice and firm-set lips. When she chose she could be very sweet; she could also be hard and unbending. She ruled her part of the Gandhi cottage, including the kitchen, with an iron hand. But dear soul that she was, she had heavy job on her hands. She had to cook for and feed, besides her own great husband and children, some twenty other inmates of the Ashram. These twenty were her burden, allotted out of some two hundred inmates, who were divided among the different kitchens in the Ashram. In her own kitchen she was no mere supervisor. She was the chief cook. There were, of course, others to help her, but the main burden fell on her. In those days she was vigorous and active, and a dynamic force to be reckoned with. Her energy was prodigious, so was her temper too, sometimes. It was not easy to serve as an assistant in her kitchen. She was a most exacting mistress. She herself was regular to the minute and worked tirelessly. She made her assistants follow her excellent example. If they were one bit lazy or careless, out they went. Once a young lad from Travancore was posted as her assistant in the kitchen. He found it a tough job, but he made good progress and gave Ba great satisfaction. Ba and he got on smoothly together. Gandhi, who always unobtrusively kept an eye on the kitchen department, did not fail to compliment the young man more than once. Gandhi knew the 'politics' of his kitchen quite as well as he did the politics of India!
There was one matter on which Ba would sometimes clash with Bapu. Gandhi used to be somewhat nervous on these occasions. Justice was on Ba's side. There would often be a crowd of unexpected guests at the Ashram, then the 'political capital' of India. These guests would be distributed among the various kitchens. But Ba always got more than her fair share of the guests. It was when she had several such guests suddenly put on to her without any notice that she would sometimes let her temper fly through strictly in private. Gandhi on such occasions would be very humble and tactful. He was then a little afraid of Ba.
One day this happened again just after Ba and her young assistant had washed up after lunch and closed the kitchen. Ba was very tired - who would not be? May be, she was a little indisposed. She went and lay down in her room. Gandhi quickly approached the kitchen and reckoned to the young man, who was himself about to leave. He spoke in a whisper so as not to disturb Ba in the adjoining room. A number of guests, he announced, were to arrive in an hour, very distinguished guests, among whom was the late Pandit Motilal Nehru. Gandhi wanted lunch to be prepared for them.
He put a finger to his lips as he glanced at Ba's room. 'Do not disturb her, Summon Kusum, light the fire, chop the vegetables and knead the flour for the chapaties. Send for Ba only when she is needed. And mind you do not irritate her. You will deserve a prize if Ba does not go for me!'
He had the look of some innocent conspirator. He was a little nervous lest Ba should wake up suddenly and burst upon him.
The young assistant and Kusum opened the kitchen noiselessly. The fires were lit, the vegetables chopped and flour kneaded, And then, as ill-luck would have it, a brass plate crashed to the floor. The din woke up Ba. She thought the Ashram cat was up to some mischief in the kitchen and rushed in. The sight that greeted her eyes astounded her. She demanded to know what it was all about. There was a sharp edge to her voice. Kusum and the young man explained gently.
'Why did you not send for me?' she demanded, 'You think I cannot manage this extra work?'
'No, Ba,' explained the young man again, 'we intended to summon you when everything was ready.'
Ba's English was always a little uncertain and the young man knew little Gujarati. With a sweet smile she answered in her quaint English: 'You also tired much, why you think you work more and I can do no extra work?'
It was all smooth sailing thereafter. But Ba was shrewder than one thought. She knew Gandhi had arranged the whole thing. At night, after prayers, when all the guests had left, she faced Gandhi unexpectedly. She stood before him, arms akimbo, and a mischievous light in her eyes.
'Why did you ask them to do the work without me? You think I am such a bag of lazy-bones?
Gandhi replied with an answering twinkle : Don't
you know, Ba, I am afraid of you on such occasions?"
Be gave out a quite peal of incredulous laughter, as if to say, 'What! you afraid of me!'
And yet that was the truth, Gandhi was afraid of none perhaps. But if he was afraid of anyone, maybe he was a tiny bit afraid if the little indomitable woman who was his wife.