Kasturba passed away on the 22nd of February, 1944 in Bapu's lap. She had been ailing for months. She was a patient of chronic bronchitis with asthma. It had weakened her heart. In Aga Khan palace detention camp at Poona, she started getting attacks of paroxysmal tachycardia. A terminal bronchopneumonia and failing of kidney function put out the flame of life in her frail body. She had been her husband's constant companion for more than sixty years. The two, while they were still children, had been married and had grown up together to become man and wife, had produced and reared four sons and had taken a vow of celibacy by the age of thirty, when many young men and women today have still to chose their life's partners.
Bapu had seen many deaths. But I think Kasturba's death hit him the hardest.
He had been, on that fateful day, delayed for his evening walk because. of an argument whether Ba should be given penicillin injections or not. He decided against it and went for a wash before going down for a stroll in the compound of the detention camp. Just then Ba called out to him. He came and sat down on her bed. She was restless. He asked her to lie down, She laid her head on his lap and her breathing changed. In less than five minutes, she passed into eternal peace. A tear stood on his cheek as he gently laid her head on the pillow.
He kept the vigil for hours sitting by her side, reading the Gita. The next morning the body was bathed, decked with bangles and Kumkum and taken out for cremation on the ground of the detention camp. The Government were afraid to let the cremation take place outside. Her body had become water logged due to cardiac and renal failure and it took a long time for the flames to consume it. Solicitous friends:. asked Bapu to retire. He was not very strong physically and at 74 having taken his due share of night-nursing-during her illness, he was physically and emotionally quite exhausted. But he refused to budge from the- cremation ground till the whole thing was over.
Late that night as he lay down to sleep, his pent up agony was expressed in one sentence: "After sixty years of constant companionship, I cannot imagine life without her".
The vacuum created by her death was painful not only for him but also for all of us the inmates of the Ashram and even to the casual visitors who used to-find solace in meeting her when they could not see Bapu.
Kasturba was an ideal Hindu wife. She had tried to lose herself in him and his work. And yet she was not without a will of her own. She had a powerful personality and a strong will which could be neither bent nor broken. Bapu called her his teacher in Satyagraha. She refused to do what her heart and head did not accept. In the early days of their married life, it caused many a quarrel. The young husband soon learnt that he could not just order her about. He had to- convince her of the correctness of a particular step, but once that was done, she would go with him whole hog. This was Satyagraha. To try to touch the opponent's heart and convince him of the correctness of your own thinking, of your own step. It required a bond of love, absence of anger or ill-will towards the opponent. If the opponent would not give you even an opportunity to convince him, you tried to get it by touching his heart through self-suffering. You never thought in terms of defeating your opponent. Your only thought of converting him to your way of thinking and you went as far as possible to meet his point of view so long as there was no compromise on principles.
Thus out of an experience which must have come the way of most husbands, Bapu discovered the mighty weapon of Satyagraha which led India to freedom.
Kasturba was his constant companion in his quest. After his return from England, he tried to Westernise her and in South Africa barrister Gandhi and his family lived in the style of English aristocracy. Later, when the policies of racial discrimination practiced by the white rulers of South Africa made him stand up against the injustice of racial discrimination, he decided to change his way of life. The circle of his family began to expand. He took the vow of Brahmacharya so that the sex could be sublimated into the powerful force of creative altruism or Ahimsa which could overcome hatred and bring about a change of heart in the opponent.
His wife faithfully followed him and became the mother to his ever-widening family. She looked after all those who came to live with him and work with him. Their personal and private family life came to an end. Everything that she did was before the public eye and she could not give more affection or care to her own children in preference to other children in the Ashram without being exposed to criticism.
It was difficult for her to give up untouchability, Bapu told us once during an evening walk in the Aga Khan Palace Detention Camp. To mix with untouchables was against the orthodox Hindu practice, and when in India Bapu admitted a Harijan family to come and live in the Ashram, almost all the women inmates prepared to leave the Ashram. But on further reflection, they realized that the same Hindu tradition, which regarded it as sin to touch an untouchable, had also enjoined upon the wife the duty to follow her husband and held that in so doing no sin could attach to her. So they all stayed. Not only Kasturba mixed with the Harijan family, but she even adopted their daughter and brought her up by the hand as her own child. Years later when I started visiting Gandhiji's Ashram during my vacations, I met this girl and several other children. I never could tell whether there were any 'untouchable' among them. All were equal in the Ashram. They were allotted duties according to their aptitude and each one took just what he or she needed. A friend of mine, communistically minded in later years once remarked: "The Communists would call it a commune and make it a complex structure. Bapu just calls it the common kitchen. It works much more simply and is more efficient".
Bapu was able to run the common' kitchen with Ba's help. She took part in all the Ashram activities besides-such as cleaning grain, cutting vegetables, making Chapatis, etc. She and other ladies in the Ashram cooked with care and affection. The food was simple but Bapu saw to it that it was nutritious and well-balanced.
Ba had a little kitchen of her own in Sabarmati where she made a cup of coffee for herself and such guests who stayed with Bapu. It was the last word in neatness and cleanliness. My brother Pyarelalji told me how he was posted to help her in the kitchen soon after he joined the Ashram. He found her a hard taskmaster and he learnt many things from her which he taught me and which I have always found most useful.
Later when I joined the Sevagram Ashram, I saw how she managed to keep her own belongings tidily and those of her little grandsons and several girls like myself in one small room without overcrowding.
She was a regular spinner. In Aga Khan Palace, after she started getting heart attacks, I thought the exertion of spinning was not good for her. I had a hard time in dissuading her from spinning her full quota.
She was deeply religious woman. She would read Ramayana and Gita regularly in the Ashram or in the jail. In Aga Khan Palace detention camp, Bapu started marking selected passages of Tulsi Ramayana for her reading and asked my brother to translate them in Gujarati, I wished that work had been, "completed. But alas, other things intervened and interrupted the work.
She was always keen on learning new things. In Aga Khan Palace she took to regular studies. She tried to learn to play badminton and ping-pong. She became an expert in carrom.
With all her activities and interests, the centre of all her thoughts was Bapu. She saw to his smallest needs. She knew several girls and boys were anxious to serve Bapu. So she took their help. But she supervised them when they cleaned his utensils, cooked his food or made his bed.
In Bapu's fasts she always had fruit diet and that too once a day only. She wanted to remain fit to serve him and yet share his penance. She was proud of her husband and she was convinced that he was right and that he would win.
She participated in all the Satyagraha movements and ultimately passed away in detention. Mahadev Desai had passed away on the 15th of August, 1942, less than a week after the mass arrests on the 9th of August, Ba was very upset. He was cremated within the compound of detention camp under her very eyes. Thereafter she went to the cremation ground regularly so long as her health permitted it to offer homage to the memory of a faithful follower of her husband who had served him with his last breath and whom Ba and Bapu had come to regard as more than a son.
She began to call it Mahadev's temple. One day as I was lighting candles on Diwali day, she called out to me! "Sushila, Shankar's temple?" I was puzzled. Then it dawned on me, "You mean Mahadevbhai's Samadhi, Ba?" I asked. "Yes", she replied and handed me a light to be placed there.
In the end her ashes also rested there by the side of Mahadevbhai's. An ideal mother, she could not, as it were, bear the thought of leaving Mahadev all by himself. An ideal wife, she served her husband till the end and breathed her last with her head on his lap. An ideal patriot, she laid down her life on the altar of freedom. Her death in detention inspired man to better their best in the service of the motherland and her memory will continue to inspire the youth of our country for generations to come.