The Mahatma - and the Indian Independence movement - lost two determined and courageous women on February 22: Valliamma in 1913 and Kasturba in 1944
Gopalkrishna Gandhi*
‘How can I forget her?’
Mohandas K Gandhi has not said that of any woman. ‘Woman’? ‘Girl’, really, from a Tamil family of indentured labourers working in the Transvaal, South Africa, where MKG had turned, with the turn of the 19th century, from lawyer to protester for the rights of the Indian community, from a barrister clutching a rail ticket no one around honoured to a statesman no one could ignore.
Let me give the reader Gandhi’s own description of the woman he was writing about: “Valliamma R Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only 16 years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl, her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold. ‘Valliamma, you do not repent of your having gone to jail?’ I asked. ‘Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again, if I am arrested’, said Valliamma. ‘But what if it results in your death?’, I pursued. ‘I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?’ was the reply.”
Valliamma Crossing Over on February 22, 1913.
Gandhi said hers was “an immortal name”. It means virtually nothing to most of us in this generation, certainly to most of us outside of Tamil Nadu and, I should add, South Africa. There, the name conjures a legend. There is something wisp-like about her that kindles awe but eludes knowledge, even understanding. No longer a child, not yet a woman, what made her join Gandhi’s first satyagraha, his first mass march, that year, 100 years ago?
As Gandhi was preparing for the march from his ashram in Phoenix, outside Durban, Kastur took her husband to task.
“I am sorry that you are not telling me about this. What defect is there in me which disqualifies me for jail? You are inviting others… I also wish to go…” “… it should not appear… as if you went at my instance…’ “If you can endure hardships, and so can my boys, why cannot I?... I am bound to join” “… In that case I am bound to admit you…” Even as Valli turned from ‘an ordinary girl’ to an extraordinary revolutionary, Kastur turned from an ‘an ordinary housewife’ to one who led a leader to the road where leadership began.
The other women like 44 years old Kastur, on the march — and they were a minority among the men — were all much older than Valli, mostly married, most of them mothers stung into action by a new law that disrecognised Indian marriages.
Valli joined them, regardless, on the long dusty march down the fields, down the roads, eating little, sleeping less. We can picture her, jumping over the runnels of water, doe-stepped, with the light of youth in her eyes, bringing cheer to the older marchers. I can imagine her, very specifically, comforting the Tamil mother who lost her babe in one gushing stream. I can imagine Valli being the very life of the determined group of marchers, the ‘Transvaal party’ as they were called.
There is no record to tell us if they sang as they marched, Tamil songs, perhaps, with Hindi ones added or, some in the language, Gujarati, of their leader they called ‘Gandhibhai’.
Indian Tamil, Valli was an Indian South African. She had never been to India, her motherland. She never was to. She may have pictured, though, her ancestral village, Thillaiyadi, with its little temple, its paddy fields. But there where she was, Valli was South African, of South African earth, knowing only that country’s sugar cane fields and the mines of gold she and her people worked in.
Just as she could not have pictured India in any detail, she could not have, not at her age, thought of death. I wonder if she thought of consequences, death included, when during the march at one point, the SA police arrived in jeeps, raising arrogant dust, when it took the marchers in, when they entered the jail gates, when the iron clangs shut behind her in the dank and dark of Pietermaritzburg’s jail.
And I wonder, in particular, what one woman said to Valli and in what language. Kastur was among the women marchers arrested with Valli. Did Kastur tell Valli ‘ So… Valliamma… this is it! We have chosen to suffer, so here we are…. but tell me… I have done what I have because that man… your Gandhibhai… I have known him… Moniya… as his parents used to call him…. now for some 30 years… he is like that only…. he lifts you up and you just get carried away… and then asks ‘why are you getting carried away?’ but you… why did you, child, have to join….’
But Kastur may not have had to wait for an answer. She saw Valli was not thinking of herself but of something beyond. And that beyond was: did any doctor come to Valli when she took ill in that jail? Perhaps an indifferent jail doctor did and perhaps — who knows? — Valli did not care to be examined by some strange man who did not seem to keen to examine her. The fact is Valli, given like the others including Kastur hard labour and food unfit to be eaten, was grievously ill already. Having traipsed through the march, entered the prison gates like a bird, by the time they opened to let her out, she was too ill to walk. Kastur - thirty years later, another jail, another country — her ‘own’. The Mahatma as he is now known and Ba as she is called by millions, are in The Aga Khan Palace detention Camp, Poona. She is grievously ill, pneumonia has been diagnosed. A handful of members of the family and family friends as ‘attendants’, have been permitted access. MKG writes to the home secretary, government of Bombay: “The patient is no better. The attendants are about to break down. Four only can work — two at a time on alternate nights. All four have to work during the day. The patient herself is getting restive, and inquires: ‘When will Dr Dinshaw come?’… I hope it may not have to be said that the relief came too late…”.
Their youngest son Devadas asks his father if penicillin, the latest drug on the block, should not be tried. Kastur herself is too weak to say anything upon it. “Why don’t you trust God?”, the father tells his agonised son. “Why do you wish to drug your mother even on her death bed?”
He knows, the Mahatma does. It is her death bed. The end comes on the same date, marked earlier by the same Visitor. February 22. Only the year is different. Gandhi’s remote jailer, the Viceroy writes to his prisoner to condole. Only the British can manage something as bizarre. Gandhi thanks him and Lady Wavell for their “kind condolences” and says, “I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony… (but) I feel the loss more than I had thought I would… We were a couple outside the ordinary”.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.