The frail man with the battle-hardened eyes has been the pivot of all of Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee’s life. The 79-year-old becomes a sprightly child of 10 when she speaks about her experiences as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s grand-daughter. And her eyes sparkle as the culture activist and Gandhian scholar revels in the stories of his achievements and way of life.
In a new avatar of her book, Reflections of an Extraordinary Era, published by Harper Collins-India and translated from Hindi, Bhattacharjee has distilled memories of her childhood under his gaze and the tumultuous milieu of an India in transition – a memoir that she claims is meant for the “English-speaking Generation Next of the Gandhi-Bhattacharjee filial clan rather than the official archives and scores of Gandhi chroniclers and researchers”.
“It is an intimate account for my family – my grandchildren and the young ones in the brood. It is not a historical treatise bur rather my personal journey,” she says.
“If I detach myself from the experiences that created the soul and substance of Mahatma Gandhi in my life, I would first say every time I entered his room at Sevagram, my thoughts would turn pure. He exuded this purity that always caught up with me. I feel the same way about my maternal grandfather C. Rajagopalachari or Rajaji. But Mahatma somehow stood out. I felt this was a man who is against violence. He inspires people not to think of gory means,” she recalls.
Her grandfather, says she, was the only “individual in her life without a mean streak”. “Somehow we have all been mean. But with him, it was as if he was touching the soul of every animate and inanimate object, purifying it”.
“My first conscious memory is of what was then known as Kingsway Camp in North Delhi. Almost 75 years ago, situated in the sprawling village centre, was an ashram complex called the Harijan Colony. It is etched in my mind for its simplicity. In that ashram, we had a lovely small house. Those were the extraordinary days when the nation was fighting for independence. I watched the country in transition. Sometime ‘ba’ (as Kasturba) was known as, would come to stay with us without ‘Bapu-ji’,” she recalls fondly.
The children would jump with joy upon the news of her arrival. “You know, there was a heavenly purity about her in her essence of sandalwood and sunshine..And in the white sari with the coloured border.”
A makeshift “khadi” fan, a strange contraption engineered from khadi cloth tied to the ceiling like a curtain with rope, was installed by Tara’s father, a journalist at The Hindustan Times, to serve ‘Ba’. “It was the family’s real traditional luxury in the absence of tap water and electricity,” she says, laughing gently.
“My grandfather was a social scientist. He was experimenting in every area of life – whether it was political, social, cultural or in food. When I saw him towards the end of his life, he was eating from a wooden bowl and a wooden spoon like a ‘sadhu (seer) on a spiritual search. His attire was one of man who was destined to work on the field of India forever… He practiced his experiments first and then preached it…[and] he had a sharp sense of humour,” recalls Gandhi-Bhattacharjee.
Delhi brought Tara in proximity to the Mahatma, imbuing her life-long zeal to serve his inheritance. Tara recalled meeting “Bapuji” at Sevagram when he was out of prison. And whenever it was possible, Tara’s parents met him at the Aga Khan Palace, the prison where he was incarcerated; and at railway stations whenever he was passing through Delhi.
Tara would massage her grandfather’s aching feet during his visits to Delhi – little gestures that she felt tied “inextricable knots between [myself] and the father of the nation”.
“Today, when I think about it, I wonder what was the significance of pressing Mahatma Gandhi’s feet and have him surrender to my ministrations and fall asleep. Maybe, this was Bapu-ji’s way of acknowledging filial bonds — two minutes of talking to his son, a bit of advice, a bit of fun and them allowing his grand-daughter to press his feet. These were moments of filial intimacy for Bapu-ji,” Tara mused waving her bangle-laden hands back and forth as she reminisced.
She recalls there was a marked change in him after he lost his lifelong companion, Kasturba in 1944. “I saw a conflict in my paternal grandfather when he stayed at the Birla House post- independence. The man who was so full of enthusiasm and brimming with his gospel of non-violence, was somehow subdued, she says. “There was a kind of doubt and sorrow in him as if he was fighting with himself. He realised that violence was not over – the ‘kranti (revolution) was still on. He was looking for the right path — a kind of spiritual quest. The passing away of Kasturba had taken its toll on him as well,” Tara syas, moving beyond the book to analyse the towering persona in her paternal lineage.
For Tara, who studied at Miranda House, New Delhi Shantiniketan, near Kolkata, and then abroad, the Mahatma and his doctrines were her bridge to the reality of the common man’s India.
When she went with him to his prayer meetings, she says, she saw the plural and secular India. It was he who instructed her in social etiquettes. Even now, she says, his relevance has not changed. “The world today celebrates ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Satyagraha’- truth and non-violence as experienced, experimented and lived by Gandhi. I wonder if at any time in human history, the philosophical and moral concepts of truth and compassion have been a subject of such collective and conscious celebrations throughout the world,” Tara said.
The world has understood Gandhi only partially. “We just follow him. And under no circumstances can we put a price tag on Gandhi or exploit his legacy,” she warns, referring to the surging interest in the market to acquire slices of Mahatma’s life.
Gandhi belongs to all of humanity, she says. Perhaps that’s why, “there is a new search for Gandhi everywhere.”
(Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee is the vice-chairperson of the Gandhi Smriti, Gandhi Darshan. She is also integral to the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust that works for the uplift of rural women and children.)