The man who chronicled Gandhi

Mahadev Desai joined Gandhi at 25 as his secretary. He died, imprisoned with the Mahatma, at age 50. Throughout that time, he maintained diaries that offer a rare insight into the mind of the most secular leader India has seen.

- Nachiketa Desai*

Gandhi with Mahadev Desai, 1942

Gandhi with Mahadev Desai (right) at the All India Congress Committee meeting in Bombay, August 8, 1942, the day that the Quit India resolution was moved.

Mahadev Desai — or Mahadevbhai as he was called — could not fulfil his lifelong desire to write Mahatma Gandhi’s biography because of his untimely death on August 15, 1942, aged 50, while imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune.

His son, Narayan Desai, however, wrote a four-volume biography of Gandhi, as a tribute to his father. Titled My Life is My Message, the books drew heavily from the diaries that Mahadevbhai kept, in which he meticulously recorded letters, speeches, conversations and even the Mahatma’s thoughts during their 25 year-long association as Gandhi’s secretary. So authentic were the reports of Gandhi’s speeches, delivered extempore mostly in Gujarati and Hindustani that The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi — the 100-volume collection of Gandhi’s writings — too, relied on Mahadevbhai’s diaries.

Day-to-day with Gandhi, as the set of volumes of Mahadevbhai’s diaries, translated in English and published by Navajivan Publishing House is called, also recorded history live, as it were, in the run up to India’s independence through Gandhi’s non-violent freedom struggle. It is a specimen of reportage of epic struggles with profiles of the leading players and can be read as the diary of a war correspondent who had the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with the commander-in-chief of the national freedom struggle, and particularly of the tumultuous events leading to the last and crucial battle of the Quit India movement, with the battle cry, “Do or Die”.

Mahadevbhai began keeping a diary on November 11, 1917, a week after he joined Gandhi as his secretary, and continued writing till August 14, 1942, a day before he died. Calling it his diary is, in fact, a misnomer because this was not about him, but about Gandhi. The only time Mahadevbhai did not write was when either he or Gandhi was in jail. The volume is, nevertheless, staggering. So far, 23 of his diaries comprising over 9,500 pages have been published. The diaries for the years 1936 to 1942 are yet to be edited and published.

The unpublished diaries — all are in my possession — show that Mahadevbhai had completed as many as 25 lessons from the shorthand textbook and the foundation course of Persian grammar. To be fair, Mahadevbhai had the unique advantage of observing events of national and international importance unfold, as Gandhi’s aide and confidante, who accompanied him like a shadow. The diaries, thus, offer an insight into the Mahatma’s mind.

“The amount of material that he had piled up in his voluminous note books called for years of patient labour to work up. He had hoped to do all that. In his trunk was found a memo of talks taken down on the day previous to his final end. Probably none besides myself can today make them out, and even I do not know to what use he would have put them”, Gandhi told Sushila Nayyar, his doctor and associate, soon after Mahadevbhai’s death. [Gandhi, Kasturba and Mahadevbhai had been imprisoned soon after the Quit India resolution had been declared on August 8, 1942.]

“In the beginning he simply copied what he regarded as important letters. Then gradually he began to jot down noteworthy events and Bapu’s thoughts given out in his talks. His later diaries are naturally much more comprehensive. The copious letters noted in his diaries give us a very clear conception not only of the numerous questions that faced Gandhiji when on coming back to his country he started his public work, but also the way in which he solved these questions in accordance with the philosophy of life which he had made his own,” Narhari Parikh, a close friend and associate of Mahadevbhai, wrote in a foreword to two volumes of the diaries that he edited. These were published in 1953 in Gujarati.

Mahadevbhai’s writings begin with the Champaran satyagraha, launched for liberating the farmers of north Bihar from the exploitation of indigo planters in 1917. This was Gandhi’s first initiative in India to try his non-violent direct action strategy that had already won him wide recognition in South Africa. After the victory of the Champaran satyagraha, Gandhi began to work in the villages for people’s education, health and sanitation. At Madhuban on January 17, 1918, a school was opened and Mahadevbhai and his wife, Durgaben, were among those who worked there.

But in a very short time, Mahadevbhai was dealing with problems even wider and more exciting than those of a village school.

In an obituary published in Harijan, a paper that Mahadevbhai had edited, Pyarelal, who succeeded him as Gandhi’s secretary, wrote: “Right through the War Conference days and the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation, Mahadevbhai followed Gandhiji like a shadow, quietly watching, assimilating and rehearsing.

Then came the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements and Gandhiji was sucked into the vortex of the unprecedented storm that overswept the country. That gave Mahadevbhai his chance; he found himself. He began writing his compendious Boswellian diaries which continued without a break till practically his last day.”

It’s clear that Mahadevbhai had a photographic memory. For instance, there are detailed accounts of conversations among people in which he too was a participant. It’s unlikely he would have taken notes simultaneously, but rather that he would have recorded these conversations relying only on his memory.

Thus we have interesting behind the scene stories from the various closed-door meetings of the Congress Working Committee — who took what position on a particular issue; how the leaders rallied around and agreed to reach a consensus — that would have gone unreported had it not been for Mahadevbhai’s prodigious memory.

“So great was his passion for recording that lacking paper, I have actually seen him taking down jottings of important talks on the margin of newspapers, backs of currency notes, sometimes even on thumb and finger nails, to be transferred to the regular book at the first opportunity. He constituted himself into a living encyclopaedia of Gandhiji’s thoughts and ideas and a final court of appeal where the authenticity of a particular act or utterance ascribed to Gandhi could be checked and verified. No one dared to misquote or misrepresent Gandhi during Mahadevbhai’s lifetime without the Nasmyth hammer of the latter descending upon him with all the weight of the evidence of his contemporary notes,” Pyarelal, noted.

Mahadevbhai was also a journalist. Besides editing Harijan, he wrote in Navajivan (Gujarati), Young India and occasionally contributed to various other nationalist newspapers, including The Hindustan Times.

Perhaps Pyarelal’s obituary offers the best summation of the man: “Mahadevbhai looked after Gandhiji’s travelling kit, made his bed, cooked his food, washed his thick, heavy khadi clothes and cleaned his commode, besides rendering secretarial assistance. He was equally at home in taking on visitors who came to discuss high politics with Gandhi as in settling intricate ‘domestics’ of the Ashram. He kept accounts, drew up tour programmes for Gandhi with the help of railway maps and Bradshaw, kept dates for him, answered letters, looked after guests, often trudged from Maganwadi to Sevagram Ashram and back— a distance of over five miles either way — in the blazing hot sun, day after day and week after week, to take instructions, besides writing for Harijan with a clock work regularly.

“The late Shri Mahadev Desai was not a mere occupant of an office, he was an institution. His office began and ended with himself. He left behind him no successor.”

Courtesy: Hindustan Times, dt. 20th June 2020.

* Nachiketa Desai, a journalist and an author, is the grandson of Mahadev Desai.