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Mahatma Gandhi and Millie Polak: A study of unique association
By Dr. Prabha Ravi Shankar*

Amongst a few Europeans who admired Gandhi and helped him in his struggle against racialism in South Africa, the Polaks played a significant role. Henry Leon Solomon Polak, an English-born Jew, shared most of Gandhi’s ideas and was his close political aide and fellow-seeker. Millie Polak, his wife, was a companion and one of the earliest western female associates of Gandhi.1 The Polaks shared Gandhi’s joint family home for two years from 1904 to 1906. In 1906 when Gandhi moved to the Phoenix Ashram for an experiment in community living, the Polaks also shifted along with Gandhi. Millie expressed her opinion on almost all subjects on which she spoke to Gandhi. At the time of passive resistance movement when Gandhi and other leaders were arrested, Millie played an important role in organizing women together under the banner of ‘Transvaal Indian Women’s Association’. In 1914 when Gandhi decided to leave for India for his larger mission, he wanted the Polaks to stay back in South Africa to ensure that the agreement with the South African Government was implemented. The Polaks had already decided to return to England, but when the matter was referred to Millie Polak, she displayed supreme spirit of sacrifice by agreeing to the request of Gandhi. The Polaks returned to England only in 1916 via India where Millie stayed for some time before embarking on her journey back to England. In England, the Polaks continued to take interest in Indian affairs not only in South Africa but also in India and overseas. In 1931 Millie wrote a book entitled Mr.Gandhi, The Man, in which she gave valuable insights into Gandhi’s personality and her own independent character. This paper seeks to study the unique association between Gandhi and Millie Polak.

Millie Graham Downs, as she was called, was born in London and since the age of eighteen, began to work in connection with the Christian Socialist Movement. Young and vivacious Millie Downs was a Christian Scot woman and a fiancee of Henry Polak. They met at the London Ethical Society.2 Gandhi came to know her soon after his first meeting with Polak in March 1904 in South Africa where Polak worked as a journalist. Though Millie was engaged to Polak, the senior Polak had discouraged their marriage citing her physical weakness as unsuitable to the strenuous life of the Colonies and had pleaded with Gandhi to use his influence to postpone the marriage. Gandhi disagreed and wrote a persuasive letter to the elder Polak: ‘If the young lady in question was not at that time in robust health in London, all the more reason for her to hasten her departure from it, so that in South Africa, amidst loving care, a beautiful climate and a simple life, she could gain the physical strength she evidently needed’.3 In his letter to Millie, dated 3rd July 1905, Gandhi advised her to pay respects to Dadabhai Naoroji, who ‘represents the highest ideal of an Indian patriot’; to visit the Lady Margaret Hospital in Kent managed by Dr. Josiah Oldfield under hygienic principles, and learn everything about it; to make acquaintance with Miss Nicholson of the Vegetarian Society and study the working of Tolstoy farm somewhere in London.4 Gandhi also hinted to Millie that she would get valuable experience to take up service activities in South Africa.5 He assured Millie that she would be welcomed into the family where Polak was already a family member. Millie recollected later that the letter ‘set the tone to the whole of my relationship with him, establishing him in my life as ‘a loving and understanding elder brother’ and showed human tenderness of the man.6 She anxiously awaited meeting with Gandhi after the exchange of three or four letters with him.

Millie arrived in Johannesburg in the end of December 1905 and found Gandhi and Polak waiting for her at the station. This was her first impression of Gandhi:7

Medium-sized man, rather slenderly built, skin not very dark, mouth rather heavy lipped, a small dark moustache, and the kindest eyes in the world, that seemed to light up from within when he spoke. His eyes were always his most remarkable feature and were in reality the lamps of the soul; one could read so much from them. His voice was soft, rather musical, and almost boyish fresh.

At the end of December 1905 Polak married Millie in a simple civil marriage (their common religion being the religion of ethics) and in the court Gandhi was their special guest and a witness. The newly-married couple moved into a joint family house where Gandhi had introduced as much simplicity as possible. Between 1904 and 1906 the Polaks shared a home in which they lived apart from Gandhi, his wife, three children, a houseboy and a cook. Millie Polak was unprepared for the stark and Spartan conditions of life but soon settled down. Millie found that Gandhi’s three sons were not attending regular school. Though not a professional teacher, she voluntarily began to give lessons to them for three hours every morning in simple English, reading and writing, arithmetic, composition and elementary grammar. She also taught Kasturba Gandhi a few words of English.8 Like her husband Polak, Millie began to admire Gandhi for his simplicity, courtesy and kindness.

Initially, Millie found community living at Phoenix an ill-equipped place.9 She gives a graphic picture of the miserable little house where they were put up:10

The little house to which I was taken was devoid of any pretence of beauty or of the things that I had been accustomed to look upon as necessities. There were no carpets or rugs to cover the bare deal boards of the floor, no curtains to the windows, only some ugly yellow blinds to keep some suggestion of privacy. Of course, there was not a picture on the yellow-washed walls, and only furniture of the simplest was installed in the house... I said to Mr. Gandhi that I wanted some curtains, some floor-covering and a few other things to make the little house ‘home’.

For about a month and a half Millie left the settlement for Durban before the Polaks returned to Johannesburg in August with Gandhi. Millie gives a detailed account of the pattern of life at Phoenix where an experimental community living in a simplified and frugal life of public service had been set up based on equality. It took some time for Millie to adjust to the new surroundings. The newspaper Indian Opinion that Gandhi began in 1903 was also moved to Phoenix and everyone was expected to work for the paper in his or her spare time. Slowly she began to admire Gandhi’s first experiment in community living where people belonging to different races and religions lived together and in mutual support that broke the racial barriers to some extent. Millie noted in her book that they all had a busy household where often guests joined them and a dozen sat down to dinner every night.11 She found that the entire household had been experimenting with Gandhi’s dietary restrictions and novelty. Gandhi continued to make laws for the Phoenix settlement. Millie questioned him on his several health experiments such as earth poultices, cabinet steam bath, cold tub water bath, diet of acid fruits and the need for fasting. She found it amusing that all were busy since early morning grinding wheat for baking bread. When Gandhi prohibited tea because he considered it as a stimulant and also milk for the same reason, Millie challenged him, especially, when she became a young mother, and argued that in which case all children would be brutes. In fact, there were hardly any issues on which Millie and Gandhi did not debate or disagree.

As regards religious beliefs, Millie informs that there were many Europeans who thought that Gandhi had converted himself to Christianity. This was because he often quoted from the Christian scriptures and had a beautiful picture of Jesus in his office. To her question to Gandhi as why he did not embrace Christianity, Gandhi answered: “to be a good Hindu also meant I would be a good Christian. There was no need for me to join your creed”.12 Gandhi was keenly aware of the social evils such the caste system, child marriage and enforced widowhood that had turned the life of women into a misery in India. For instance, when a middle-aged follower of Gandhi returned to the settlement with a child-wife, Millie was aghast and questioned Gandhi on this disgraceful social custom. The latter accepted the charge but felt that women must rouse themselves to do their share in the work of reform, that they must set the standard of life, it is their privilege and their duty, that they can refuse to be a part of this evil practice. She argued that in India the so-called glorification of women was only in theory and not in practice, and that Indian women had always been subordinate. As Gandhi developed his non-violent philosophy of life, he found Millie constantly questioning his inconsistencies. Such contrary opinions did not affect their relationship. Millie felt that Gandhi appreciated her independent views voiced without fear. Recalling the events in Johannesburg, she pointed out how Gandhi, at times, proved to be a bundle of inconsistencies but would never waver in his belief and ‘would only smile or shrug his shoulders if she argued that such and such a situation might become unjust or absurd’.13

In 1909 at the request of Gandhi, Polak visited India as a representative of the Transvaal Indian Association to conduct propaganda on behalf of the suffering Indians and to secure moral and material support from India. When Millie terribly missed Polak who was away on duty, Gandhi soothed her with comforting words through letters and signed himself as ‘brother’: he wrote “You are Henry’s better half. No path can be considered right for him along which that he cannot carry you. Will you not have sufficient faith in him for certain that he is incapable of creating a gulf between you and himself? I ask you to trust me…A gift given or a sacrifice made grudgingly and not cheerfully is no gift or sacrifice.”14 In 1911 Polak again conducted propaganda in India as well as in England where he made full use of his contact with eminent liberals. He was accompanied by Millie. Gandhi wrote in praise of their work in the Indian Opinion:15

Mr. Polak could have done little but for the zealous support ungrudgingly given to him by Mrs. Polak. Nor has Mrs. Polak’s work has been of a neutral character. She herself moved freely among our womenfolk and enlightened them on our position...she lost no opportunity, whether, by speech or writing, or helping her husband in his work.

From Millie’s book we understand that her husband Polak was not a mere devoted follower of Gandhi. He disagreed with Gandhi on some issues and brought it to his notice. For example, Polak did not agree with Gandhi who insisted on imparting non-formal education to his children and felt that he was not doing the right thing in neglecting English. Once Gandhi and Polak, Millie informs, did not speak to each other for nearly four days. This was because of a distorted version of the Indian problem that had been published in a newspaper article and Gandhi did not bother to send a rejoinder. The matter ended only when Gandhi suggested to Polak that he himself can write the rejoinder.16

During her close association with Gandhi in South Africa, Millie found Gandhi to be very kind and considerate.17 She found motherly qualities in Gandhi and made a very pertinent remark.18

Most women love men for such attributes as are usually considered masculine. Yet Mahatma Gandhi has been given the love of many women for his womanliness, for all those qualities that are associated with women - great faith, great fortitude, great devotion, great patience, great tenderness, and great sympathy. Women could sense that in him they found a fellow traveller, one who had passed ahead along the road they too were travelling, and could give him affection, deep, pure, and untouched by any play of sex-emotion.

Gandhi, Millie remarked, “was himself rather womanly having the qualities of loyalty, trust, devotion, faith and purity.”19

During the ‘Great March’ into Transvaal in 1913 when almost all the male leaders were arrested, Millie played an important role in organizing the Transvaal Women’s Association. Initially, about forty women joined to whom Millie gave lessons on Indian struggle in South Africa. They met every fifteen days to discuss and plan their role in the struggle. From this small beginning grew the Transvaal Women’s Association that played a big part in the last phase of the passive resistance movement. Many women from Natal who travelled up to Volksrust, were arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment, and were the first of the hundreds to go to prison. They endured physical hardship and suffering but kept their spirits high. Millie Polak wrote that “India has many things to be proud of, but of none more than the part of the Indian women of South Africa took in the uplifting and recognition of a people here despised”.20 She observes that Gandhi was happy with the role of women and said:21

I have learned more of passive resistance, as a weapon of power, from Indian women than anyone else. Even Ba [Mrs. Gandhi] has taught me that I cannot compel her to do anything she absolutely and resolutely refuses to do. She just passively resists me and I am helpless

In 1914 when the struggle seemed to have ended, the Polaks were planning to return to their home in England for two reasons - first, to enable Henry Polak to practise law and second was to provide better education for their children. Gandhi had already decided to leave for India in June 1914 and wanted Polak to succeed him to ensure that agreement with the South African authorities were carried out properly. The matter was referred to Mrs. Polak, who had already sacrificed much in the early years of her married life. Millie recalled in her book that when the matter was brought to her, she told, “in all the circumstances, though it was a terrible disappointment, she felt that must free for his great mission”.22 “Who can say” she wrote “what might have been the course of political events in India had the decision been otherwise and he [Gandhi], had been obliged to remain in South Africa?”23 She felt a sense of deep sorrow when Gandhi left South Africa for India. She wrote: “As I watched the boat steam out I felt an intolerable sense of blankness came into my life. A chapter filled with movement and intensity of thought and emotion had definitely closed”.24 During a period of eleven years in South Africa Millie Polak completely identified herself with the Indian cause. She displayed a gallant and sacrificing spirit when both her children confronted numerous difficulties and overcame them.

Gandhi approved of their return to England in 1916. Before Millie and her two children could go to England, Polak had already left for India to help Gandhi. Millie arrived in India in 1917 along with her children and stayed in Bombay. Millie was surprised to see Gandhi even after three years, ‘the same; kind, gently, and sympathetic to all the little things of my life, as well as the bigger problems’.25 She noted that he had become more saint-like and his dress was simple like a peasant. She argued with Gandhi on his decision to act as the recruiting agent to the British during the First World War, his dietary experiments, on reincarnation and such other matters. She went to Champaran where Polak was helping Gandhi. Her sisters were in Conoor, a peaceful hill town in Southern India and Gandhi advised the Polaks to go there. Along with her two children, she left for Conoor. The influenza epidemic had broken out and Millie wrote how difficult it was to live in the hill town where many fell seriously sick or died, and when most Europeans ostracized her family because of their association with Gandhi.26 Nevertheless, Gandhi kept in touch with her regularly and as soon as the war was over, he advised her to go over to Bombay. Meanwhile, Polak had already left for England where he was editing journal India, an organ of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. When Millie returned to Bombay, however, cholera epidemic had already ravaged the city. Gandhi persuaded her to go to Matheran, a cooler and comfortable place at his own expense, where she stayed for six weeks. From Matheran Millie used to visit Bombay every weekend to meet Gandhi. At last when the war ended, Gandhi arranged for their passage back to England. At the time of parting Millie wrote with much sadness that they both knew that they would not meet again.27 In another letter dated 16 January 1918 Gandhi who wished Millie, a foreign woman with spiritual zeal to work in India, wrote:

I have four women working with me. They are doing good work. They go about among the village women, teach them the laws of cleanliness and get hold of their girls. We have opened one girls’ school... I know you would love this kind of work. But your time is not yet. I have my eyes upon you. When Waldo and Leon [her children] are able to take care of themselves and after you have had a few years of peaceful life together, I should not wonder if you do not feel the call to work among the villagers here.

When Gandhi had become world renowned as a Mahatma, many in England requested Millie to write on her close association with Gandhi. But she did not take up the task and humble enough to admit that the “sacredness of the intimate talk of friendship would it seemed to me, have been violated by publication”.28 But when Gandhi wrote his candid Autobiography in 1927, recalling his association with the Polaks, Mille decided to put on record her relationship with Gandhi in the form of a book in 1931. Even after three decades later, an elderly Millie, lovingly recapitulated her early association with Gandhi when she was interviewed in the year 1960.

The findings of this inquiry leads us to the conclusion that Millie Polak was the earliest of the western women to be closely associated with Gandhi at a time when he had been experimenting with his philosophy of life. He helped to wean away the child and had a special place of affection for her eldest son Waldo.29 Gandhi addressed most of his letters to her as ‘My dear Millie’, and ended up signing as ‘brother’. According to Millie when Kasturba desired something for her children, she would often tell her to plead with Gandhi on her behalf. She was independent in her opinion and judgement and Gandhi appreciated the same.

  1. Very little information is available on the early life of Millie Polak. For a brief introduction to the Polaks see Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (London, 1992), pp. 31, 52, 53, 74, 79-80, 105, 162 and 164.
  2. For information on the London Ethical Society, see James D. Hunt, Gandhi in London, (New Delhi, 1978), pp. 94, 124, 135, 142 and 227
  3. Millie Graham Polak, Mr. Gandhi, The Man, with a foreword by C.F. Andrews, (Bombay, 1949), p. 11 and Gandhi to Millie Polak, 3rd July 1905, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, (hereafter CWMG), Vol. XCVI, pp. 1-2.
  4. Josiah Oldfield (1863-1953), editor of the Vegetarian, a journal of the London Vegetarian Society, who remained a steadfast friend of Gandhi since their meeting in London during Gandhi’s student days.
  5. CWMG, Vol. XCVI, pp. 1-2
  6. Millie Polak, op. cit., p. 11.
  7. Ibid., p. 12.
  8. Ibid., p. 14.
  9. Ibid., pp. 70-72.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., pp. 40-1
  12. Ibid., Also see for Millie’s fond recollections of Gandhi in John C. Vine, Interview with Mrs. Millie Graham Polak’, on 2nd May 1960, in S.Durai Raja Singham, ‘They were Ready to Talk About Gandhi’ unpublished manuscript, (n.d), pp. 16-30.
  13. Ibid., p. 18. Also see S.Durai Raja Singham, ‘The Polaks and Gandhiji’, in Indian Review, May and June, (Madras, 1964), p. 175.
  14. Gandhi to Mllie Polak, 31st December 1909, CWMG, Vol. XVI, p. 41.
  15. Indian Opinion, 7th November 1912.
  16. Millie Polak, op. cit., pp. 18-19.  
  17. Many women disciples of Gandhi in India too found Gandhi to be unique and full of tenderness and could converse him freely. For a study of Gandhi’s attitude to women see M.K. Gandhi, To The Women, Anand Hingorani (Karachi, 1941) and Gandhi on Women, compiled by Pushpa Joshi, (Ahmedabad, 1988). Also see Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s ‘Foreword’ to M. K. Gandhi, Women and Social Injustice (Ahmedabad, 1942), p. iii. 
  18. Millie Polak, ‘Gandhi and Women’, in Chandrashanker Shukla (ed.) Gandhiji as We Know Him By Seventeen Contributors, (Bombay, 1945), p. 47. Thomas Weber argues that Millie was his equal and Polak was not simply an uncritical follower of Gandhi, see Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 63-64.
  19. Ibid. Also see Millie Graham Polak, ‘In the South African Days’, Chandrashanker Shukla, (ed), Incidents of Gandhi’s Life. (Bombay, 1949), pp. 247-251.

  20. Millie Polak ‘Women and the Struggle’, in Golden Number of Indian Opinion Souvenir of the Passive Ressistance Movement, pp. 23-24.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Millie Polak, Mr.Gandhi, The Man, pp.133-134.   
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., p. 135.
  25. Ibid., p. 136.
  26. Ibid., p.144.
  27. Ibid., p. 146.
  28. See her preface, Mr.Gandhi, The Man,p.9.
  29. For an insight into Gandhi’s warmth and tenderness towards her eldest son Waldo see Millie Polak, Mr.Gandhi: The  Man, pp. 134-135.
Courtesy: This article has been reproduced from the Indian Historial Studies, A Biannual Research Journal, Vol. IX, No. 1, October 2012.

* Dr. Prabha Ravi Shankar is Associate Professor of History at S.N.D.T. Women's University, Mumbai.