Published On : Wed, Oct 2nd, 2013

The Mother in the ‘Father of the Nation’


Most Indians have an invariable image of Gandhi in their minds. This is the Bapu of Dandi March. Here we see a man in loin cloth with a walking stick striding forward. But if we go beyond this picture, various images of Gandhi begin to flicker –each contradictoryto one another. He seems to be an embodiment of the mystical and the practical, the urban man who became the voice of the peasant masses, a Hindu at the centre of his allegiance yet deeply Christianized, simple as well as shrewd and many more. To these contradictory images may be added another image – that of Bapu as the mother. We adore and admire him as the father of the Nation as we consider him as the architect of the Indian nation. But few know that Gandhi considered himself to be a mother to many girls and specially to his grandniece- Manu Gandhi.

Motherhood has a distinct place in Indian civilization since times immemorial. According to Manu the mother should be revered thousand times more than the Father. She is an embodiment of non-violence, love, patience, Care, self-sacrifice and renunciation. She is beyond sexuality and sensuality and has been elevated to the status of the divine. Gandhi who was deeply attached to his mother Putlibai since childhood admired women’s quiet strength and their resistance to injustice without resorting to violence. Throughout his life he attempted to incorporate the feminine qualities of non-violence, patience ,self-sacrifice and renunciation within his personality. Being a mother was the highest stage that a woman could reach as she is the symbol of a de-sexualised woman – neither the victim of men’s sexual exploitation nor the temptress. Throughout his life Gandhi aimed to reach this stage of being by making motherhood as his model of liberation of India and of his own life.

Personally Gandhi acquired something of a reputation for nursing not only his wife Kasturba but his friends and acquaintance and the animals in his ashram. He increasingly felt that if he wanted to reform Indian society of various evils he had to cultivate a mother’s heart. Many of his close associates  especially women colleagues recall how Bapu lulled them to sleep at times when they were ill. RajkumariAmrit Kaur who was a very close associate of Gandhi recalled , “ Those of us who had the rare privilege of coming close to him found in him not only a wise father but what was more precious a mother before whose all- embracing and understanding love all fear and restraint always vanished”. When Sarojini Naidu went abroad she entrusted her suffering daughter Padmaja to Gandhi. Her letter to Gandhi in 1928 from Geneva is significant. She wrote , ‘ No one can give her just that healing and helping love that she needs at the moment save you or I and I think just now you could do it even better than I could. You represent to her sensitive, delicate, yearning and self-crucifying spirit, light and love and I believe that if she could be near you for a little time it could help to restore her sense of normal perspective”.  Raihana Tyabji recalled her experiences when she was a guest at Sabarmati ashram, “Bapu was just near the door of entry (of dining hall) and on his left was Acharya Kripalini and he made me sit on his right . And he was talking to Acharya ji with concentrated attention .Something came along and it looked rather attractive and I wanted to take it, and without turning his head, Bapu said, ‘Raihana I wouldn’t if I were you. It’s rather heavy. I know you have a weak digestion .Better be careful. I said,‘But Bapu I’d like to have some. But by that time he had said to the person who was serving,“No not for Raihana. Give her Kigeree. So I had to have Kigeree. Then something else came along which looked rather nice.. ‘No’ said Bapu, not this for you’ ‘no’ for so and so, he’s got a cough. ‘No’ for so and so, he’s digestion is out of order. No rice for so and so.He suffers from asthma. And it was astonishing!” Gandhi considered himself to be a mother to Manu, hisgrandniece. Manu herself authored a book ‘Bapu-My Mother’in which she wrote“SoBapu, mothered me. He had, no doubt brought up quite a number of girls but to me he often said, ‘have I not become your mother? I have been a father to many but only to you I am mother’.

Gandhi believed in the enormous potential of the mother-child relationship as an instrument of social change. In fact his experiments with celibacy was primarily to acquire a mother’s heart and become absolutely passionless. He once said,‘I found myself enjoying the confidence s of many sisters, European and Indian, in South Africa and when I invited the Indian sisters in SouthAfrica to join the civil resistance movement, I found myself one of them. I discovered that I was specially fitted to serve womankind. To cut the story short, my return to India found me in no time with India’s women. The easy access I had to their hearts was an agreeable revelation to me. Muslim sisters never kept purdah before me even as they did not in South Africa. I sleep in the ashram surrounded by women for they feel safe with me in every respect”.

Ever since his days in South Africa Gandhi had realised the inherent strength in   womenfolk. He not only upheld feminine values but he also consistently tried to internalize women’s experiences ,women’s values and women’s emotional intelligence into his personality. That he was successful inhis endeavour is clearly revealed in the comment made by Mrs Polak, a close associate of Gandhi in South Africa, “ Most women love men for such attributes as are usually considered masculine, yet Mahatma Gandhi has been given the love of many women   because of his womanliness for all those qualities that are associated with women….women would sense that in him they have a fellow traveller one who had passed ahead along the road they were travelling and could give him affection deep ,pure and untouched by play of sex emotion. They could be sure that some light could be thrown upon their difficulties and the path made to look less arduous to travel”.  He wanted men to theemulate the superior qualities of women and dissociate themselves from the colonial perceptions of masculinity and femininity which equated  masculinity with aggressiveness and femininity with submissiveness.

In today’s India, there is an urgent need of this ‘new men’ which Bapu tried to create. He always said if India needed ‘new women’ who could free herself from the shackles of the past, she also needed ‘new men’ who would reject all notions of brahmanical patriarchy and emerge as effective companion to women.  On the occasion of Bapu‘s Birth anniversary this article is a small tribute to this illustrious mother.

…. By JayatiChakraborty