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Reminiscences of Kasturba Gandhi
The Ba In My Heart
- G. Ramachandran

Some 35 years have rolled by since I met Ba for the first time. And yet my memories of her are as clear a, day light. When I close my eyes and recall her to my mind what is the vision that comes to me? Not only the physical image but the mental one are both equally vivid. Physically it is a vital and vibrant spark of humanity, small in size, quick-footed, big and kindly eyed, a round surface, the voice is clear and firm. The mental picture is one of gentleness but unflexibility. Ba comes back as a strong, brave woman symbolizing the truth, whether in word or deed and challenging everybody to be equal to it. This full picture of the great and beloved woman car bring inspiration to each one of us as we take our place humbly in the long and interminable queue still] marching in the foot steps of the Master. She was, neither educated, nor an intellectual, nor a genius, not specially gifted in any way and yet succeeded in rising herself and others with her to the heights of a woman's glory. Unlettered, she became wise; timid, she became valiant; humble, she became great Just because she saw the truth and then held on to it with all her heart and strength. She became thus the symbol of what every woman can become, the least among them.

A Wonderful Nurse to Bapu

I first met Ba during Bapu's Hindu-Muslim-Unity Fast in Delhi in 1924. My professor, the late C. F. Andrews had taken me with him to help him as he was playing the role of Chowkidar at the door of the fasting Mahatma. They were days of extreme anxiety and agony for Ba. I had the privilege of cooking for her or taking the food to her from time to time. I did so with awe and reverence. But Ba put me at my ease with her kind words and looks. She lived practically on fruits and milk during those days except for wheat rusks which she sometime, broke into her milk. Suddenly she would look up and say a word or two about Bapu's health as he lay fasting and then the tears would come to her eyes. She was a wonderful nurse to Bapu in his physical weakness arising from the fast. My heart went out to Ba as she endured her agony without a murmur. When Bapu broke his fast atlast Ba was smiling and shedding tears at the same time, and how everyone went and congratulated her on the occasion. Bapu took up the fiery cross again and again in his life for a cause. But Ba took up her cross simply to share in Bapu's sorrows and penance. No one can say who bore the greater burden, the great Field Marshal of non-violence as he led his people in one peaceful revolution after another and living in a continuous blaze of publicity or the meek and indomitable I woman who lived in the shadows and wept in silence. I have an idea that Ba bore greater burden throughout her life than Bapu and that without a murmur.

The Hard Taskmaster

I spent the whole of 1925 as a member of Ba's community kitchen in the Satyagraha Ashram in Sabarmati. The house was Bapu's, but his writ did not run in the kitchen. It was Ba who ruled it. There were some 20 Ashramites eating in her kitchen including some grand children. It was mostly a crowd of people from different parts of India. There was a Telugu doctor who swallowed chilies I in secret and one or two others who slipped away occasionally to eat other food in the Ahmedabad city. But Ba 'ruled the kitchen with a measure of stern discipline and a larger measure of maternal love. We were three or four of us helping Ba in cooking and serving. She was a hard taskmaster, particularly to herself. It was not as I I though Ba was simply supervising the little community kitchen. How many of us are not merely supervisors these days? But she cooked and cleaned and swept and served like the rest of us working with her. She demanded punctuality, scrupulous cleanliness, good manners and participation in some work or other from everyone eating in her kitchen. She worked with them and they saw her work and so everybody worked. Ours was thus a happy little kitchen community.

But it had its own problems. And the biggest problem was that of guests arriving without prior notice to see Bapu. The lunch would be over and everything washed up and put away and Ba would be resting and we, her cooking assistants, would be in different parts of the Ashram doing other work and then suddenly some guests would arrive. I distinctly remember the day when Pandit Motilal Nehru arrived with a number of friends unexpectedly one afternoon after lunch was over. Lunch bad to be prepared again. Bapu did not call for Ba who was lying down for her short afternoon nap. He called me and asked me to call also one of the others who was then on the kitchen staff. He asked us to start the cooking and let Ba know only when she woke up from her nap. But Ba heard the noises in the kitchen and woke up earlier and found out what was going on. She then went straight to Bapu asking why she was not called and if Bapu thought she was such a lazy old person! Bapu apologized diplomatically. Back in the kitchen Ba asked me why I had not called her earlier and I took shelter under Bapu's words. Ba's English was always very pleasant to hear and what she said on the present occasion was particularly nice. She said, "Bapu call you. Why you not call me? Why you open kitchen without permission?" I apologized humbly. The next moment Ba made herself busy and Motilalji and his friends were served a splendid hot lunch in record time. When Motilalji complimented her she beamed with delight.

My Special Education Under Ba

I have had my education in more than one place and under a few great Gurus. But my education under Ba stands out as something very special. My daily routine under Ba had in it the genuine elements of Basic Education long before Bapu expounded Nai Talim. I said my Namaste to Ba at 4-30 A. M. at the door of the little community kitchen every day. If I was late by a minute she would say, "why you late, go hurry and bring milk?" That meant I had to run with three big pots to Ashram dairy without another word and bring back the morning supply of milk. Two pots would be cow's milk and the 3rd small pot would contain Bapu's goat-milk. Then I would light two coal stoves and boil the milk. Ba would be watching and herself busy preparing part of the break- fast. Breakfast was served at 6.30 A. M. and Ba was a great one for insisting on every body eating a good break- fast. She would particularly insist that no one shirked eating a piece of red gur with the cold Chapaties left over from the previous evening. White sugar was taboo. If she saw anyone rejecting the gur she would come up quickly and see that the delinquent swallowed it without further ado. She had the good-bad habit of the Indian mother forcing more food upon the children. Lunch time and a couple of hours before would be full of work and bustle in the kitchen. Fires would be burning, vegetables boiling, Chapaties rolling with Ba presiding at the very centre of the picture. With what speed she could roll the Chapaties, roast them over the live coal and then toss them on to a plate for smearing Ghee on them. Ba's Kadhi (Curry) was a favourite item with all of us. Ba gave some work or other to every member of the kitchen community to do. The evening meal was another occasion for quick work and then cleaning up. Ba always took her food after the others had finished and it was her particular delight to make her assistants sit down with her and ply them with food. If you did not eat well her quick question would come, "You not well? Why you not eating well?" She had no respect for weak stomachs though she would be very sympathetic. She would take motherly care if anyone was ill. But she always looked happy when some one sitting with her ate a good meal. I have already mentioned her fondness for coffee and I won my first spurs with her by making good South Indian Coffee for her. She did not fully approve of Bapu coming into the kitchen and meddling with food arrangements. She would herself prepare Bapu's own food with meticulous care, but that was another matter. Bapu knew Ba's mind very well and seldom put his foot into the kitchen.

What I learnt under Ba in that little kitchen at the Satyagraha Ashram were lessons in strict punctuality, spotless cleanliness, unfailing good conduct, co-operativeness and strict obedience to rules. These lessons have helped me considerably throughout my life. Years later I was a prisoner at the Central Jail in Vellore. Rajaji once came to see me in my cell from another part of the same prison where he was in the A class. I was in the B class. He paused at the door of my cell and hesitated to come in and said, "your cell is so spotlessly clean, I do not want to come in and bring any mud or sand into it." He was being cynical and friendly at the same time. I told him, "I learnt this from Ba", and then I related how Ba would not tolerate one dirty spot or speck in her kitchen. Ba never tolerated any unnecessary argument. All work was a duty and no one should argue about duties to be performed. Her whole life was one long saga of duties performed without arguments and without hesitation.

A Radiant Legacy

Later my niece Saraswathy married Ba's grandson Kantilal. It was an inter-caste and inter-provincial marriage. She never raised any objection. She had completely given up caste and caste distinctions. I remember Bapu telling me that it pleased him very much that Ba never said a word against the marriage proposal just because it was inter-caste. From the earlier days when Ba had not given up caste, it was a long journey in her pilgrimage with Bapu when she at last gave up caste altogether.

When Ba passed away as a prisoner of the British Government on the 22nd February, 1944 I was the working Editor of the "Indian Express" in Madras and wrote a leading article entitled 'The moving finger writes' which enraged the then Governor of Madras so much that he threatened to smash the paper. My article attacked Lord Wavell who was the then Viceroy of India characterizing him almost as a coward afraid of releasing an ailing old woman on the point of death from the prison into which he had cast her. I wrote that an empire afraid of a Ba was a doomed empire.

Bapu left his indelible imprint on the history of India and the world. But inside that imprint and at its very heart will remain the image of Ba. Bapu and Ba were inseparable, each strengthened the other. Each was completed by the other. One without the other would not have reached the heights to which both climbed up atlast, leaving a radiant legacy for India and the world.

 

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Copyright 2004 Mani Bhavan