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Mahatma Gandhi and Mira behn…by suparna bannerji.


Mirabehn would reflect on the tension between submission to Bapu’s will and her independent nature

Apparently, Beloved Bapu is one more book on the Mahatma, a subject that has attracted researchers and writers since Independence. But the book distinguishes itself by being the first volume bringing out the correspondence between Gandhi and Madeleine Slade (‘Mirabehn’), who was one of the chief among his Western women disciples. The book justifies its choice of Mira from among a host of Occidental women followers of Gandhi by explaining to us that Ms. Slade was quite the only one among these women who were attracted primarily to Gandhi the man rather than to his ideals or his politics.

While the other Western women, Esther Faering included, came to India first and met Gandhi by the way, Mirabehn came to our country with the sole motive of devoting herself to Gandhi: while the others were focussed on working on their own along Gandhian lines Mirabehn was devoted principally to Gandhi himself. Indeed, the book emerges as a study in personal devotion, tracing as it does the origins, the development and the outcome of Mira’s extraordinary, incredible attachment to Gandhi the person.

Madeleine Slade’s coming to Gandhi through Beethoven’s music and Romain Rolland and her initial struggles to fit herself into the Gandhian way of life — the process that made Madeleine into Mira — forms the first chapter after the ‘Introduction’. One highlight of the chapter is the description of Ms. Slade’s discovery of Gandhi through Rolland’s biography and the epiphanic impact it had on her: “as I read … the pure Light of Truth broke in upon my troubled soul and led me to my destination”, she writes. Already, the unique quality of her attachment to Gandhi — which seemed to blend worship with yearning, devotion with (platonic) desire — is apparent. The chapter concludes with an editorial reflection on what might have been Gandhi’s motives in accepting Ms. Slade in particular and Western women disciples in general.


The discussion touches upon a host of possible motives, among them being Gandhi’s interest in these women as models for India of liberated womanhood, gratification of vanity at being worshipped by the daughters of ‘superior’ races, ‘the propaganda value’ of having Western women of powerful families in his fold and even the motive of ‘latent or repressed sexuality’.

The second chapter strikes another keynote of the Bapu-Mirabehn connection in introducing us to the tension and the complexity that were germane to it. This tension arose because of a conflict between what Mira wanted of Gandhi and what Gandhi wished Mira to be and do. Mira ‘lived for the moments when [she] could set eyes on Bapu’ and was the happiest when she was ‘deputed to do all Bapu’s personal service’. Bapu himself, on the other hand, wished Mira to be primarily a useful worker and resented her obsessive personal attachment to him. We are given a glimpse of how Gandhi sought to ‘discipline’ Mira through periods of separation that were either generated in the course of his travels or were imposed on her wilfully by him. While Gandhi justified this as a preparation for the ultimate separation that his death would bring, Mira’s heart ‘failed’ her and made her suffer not only in spirit but also in the body. Years later, after Gandhi’s death, Mira would reflect on her relationship with Gandhi in terms of an abiding tension — that between her willing submission to Bapu’s will and the ‘natural independence of [her] nature’ — a conflict that subsumed the one between her clinging love for Bapu and his diktat of renunciation and communal work.

The third chapter elaborates further on the troubled nature of the Gandhi-Mira bond and presents it in terms of a ‘Catch 22 relationship’ — one that found Gandhi chafing at Mira’s emotional clinging to him at the same time as he resents signs of independence in her. Indeed, Gandhi’s letters to Mira that are gathered in this chapter suggest that he amply reciprocated her love while also trying to keep himself untouched by idolatry.

In one letter dated April 4, 1927, Gandhi admits to ‘the joy of writing to [Mira] every Monday’ and declares that ‘writing love letters is a recreation’. The nature of his ‘love’, however, emerges as being preeminently parental and nowhere in his letters to ‘Chi Mira’ does anything more than a solicitous affection and a strong liking betrayed.

Chapter four collects letters that depict the increasing spells of separation between Gandhi and Mira consequent upon their being sucked into the vortex of the civil disobedience movement and Gandhi’s frequent imprisonment. The reader would be struck by the intensity of Mira’s suffering caused by these bouts of separation: “If only I could see you once more in your bodily form, … [and] hear your voice — somehow without that human mercy, I feel as if the mind will crack’.

The pain of separation was not wholly unfelt by Gandhi, who would admit to her being ‘on [his] brain’. But while admitting to missing her he also explained to her that her ‘squandering’ her love on him made him feel as if he were ‘guilty of misappropriation’. To atone for this guilt, and wishing to see her ‘perfect,’ he would be harsh with her and then repent. This pattern of interchange made Gandhi realise ‘the presence of violence’ in him and made him try to ‘reform himself’.

The next chapter covers Mira’s sojourn to Europe to disseminate Gandhi’s ideals — during the course of which she meets Romain Rolland for the second time and realises that in her self-effacing devotion to ‘Bapu’ ‘something was wrong’, in that she was ‘crushing’ the native independence of her nature. Chapter six describes Mira’s time spent working for sanitary improvements in the villages of Segaon and Sindi, and her deputation to the Frontier Province at the end of 1938. Letters from this period reveal significant discussions between Gandhi and Mira on fundamental Gandhian ideals, like ahimsa, brahmacharya and vegetarianism. Chapter seven delineates ‘the growing distance’ between the master and the disciple over financial matters as also over the issue of Prithvi Singh — a communist fugitive turned Gandhian worker, with whom Mira fell in love but whom Gandhi came to regard as a lecher and a fraudster. The final chapter spans Mira’s life in India after Gandhi’s assassination — her passage from anguished bereavement to the acceptance of Gandhi’s loss, her environmental and animal husbandry work at her ashram between Haridwar and Roorkee and her ultimate return to Europe after a rediscovery of her spiritual bond with Beethoven through Rolland.

The book is a significant addition to the repertoire of Gandhi Studies and would be valued both for the light it throws on the nature of an intense and complex relationship between two extraordinary individuals and for the little known facets of Gandhi’s life and personality that it reveals. It qualifies, for instance, the standard image of Gandhi as an idealist by bringing out the pragmatism and rationality that were equally Gandhian.

And the wealth of information that it provides on Gandhi the private man and on his private struggles would be a treat to lovers of ‘Bapu’. More letters from Mirabehn to Gandhi would have made the book better balanced and an Index would have been useful.

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