Date: 02 Feb 2008


60TH DEATH ANNIVERSARY, any takers.... Dave
Was the “father” of the Indian nation a bad father to his sons?

Some of Gandhi’s ashes will be scattered today on the Arabian Sea to commemorate his death.  
Mahatma Gandhi hailed as the “father” of the Indian nation and credited with having shaken the foundation of the British empire found his own family shaken all through. The man who achieved fame in making the unity of India an index of his militancy against British rule terribly suffered of the broken relationship with his sons, particularly the eldest, Harilal, and a bit lesser with the second, Manilal. Harilal squarely blamed the Mahatma, who “suppressed us in a sophisticated manner,” and “spoke to us with anger, not with love…” It was not that Gandhi did not love his four sons but in the “experiment with truth” he started in South Africa, he wanted to introduce Harilal and Manilal to community life from the age of 12 because “amusement only continues during the age of innocence, up to 12 years…” Both found it hard to follow in their father’s footsteps and chose what he would describe as “a path of ease and comfort”. 

The first to pay the ‘heavy price’ of being connected to Gandhi was his wife Kasturba. She had difficulty coping with him in South Africa. She used to fly in rage when her husband insisted it was her duty to clean guests’ chamber-pots. Gandhi losing his temper in his order being challenged and unwilling to “stand this nonsense” would point out to her the gate, in a way telling her to go away. At some times, Kasturba would shed “bitter” tears when Gandhi sold her gold ornaments to finance the satyagraha movement or when he returned valuable gifts given to her by well-wishers in recognition of the service rendered to the community by her husband. 

If Kasturba as a tradtional Indian woman accommodated Gandhi’s doings, his sons gradually released themselves from their father’s grip. Gandhi had warned them: “This much is clear that you are not to work as a barrister or as doctor.” That unequivocal decision of Gandhi hardly pleased Harilal. In his book Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi, son of Devadas, Gandhi’s youngest son, threw glimpses of how the Mahatma’s sons developed cold shoulder and led a sad and pathetic life while Gandhi reached the pinnacle of fame and was considered only next to God in India. 

Take Harilal and Manilal. They were of school going age in South Africa but Barrister Gandhi resented sending them to missionary schools. He himself would be the teacher at home. The “home” education became irregular owing to Gandhi’s commitment to political and social activities. When that did not work, Gandhi shifted to “street” instruction, giving the boys lessons as he walked from home to his office in the morning. That too was a failure for Gandhi would stop on the way for conversations with clients and activists. Then, he urged his sons to read newspapers, “even for a few minutes” and if they did not understand a word, to “consult the dictionary, or see me or Mr Pollack”. Evoking his failure to provide a sound education to his sons, Gandhi wrote: “Had I been able to devote at least an hour to their literary education with strict regularity, I should have given them, in my opinion, an ideal education.” 

At home, the boys learned nothing more than how to grind wheat and made to ‘develop no aversion for scavenger’s work.’ Harilal showed his penchant for football. That was the time (1901) when Gandhi stopped in Mauritius on their way to Bombay. At a reception at Taher Bagh in Port Louis given by well-to-do Muslim traders, Gandhi stressed on the importance of education as passport to political success. But what he preached, he did not practise with his sons. Education was the main reason of their conflict. “You have made us remain ignorant,” wrote Harilal. “I asked to be sent to England. For a year I cried... you did not lend me your ears.” 

The first sign of revolt was when Harilal stayed behind in India when Gandhi went again with the family to South Africa. Harilal did not write to his parents or answer their letters. An 18-year old Harilal brushed aside his father’s advice for being too young to marry but, with the blessing of Laxmidas, Gandhi’s brother, Harilal married Chanchal Gulab. 

Matters came to a head in 1910 when a rich Indian industrialist, Pranjivan Mehta, living in England offered a scholarship to Gandhi’s son to study there. Gandhi chose not his son but his nephew, Chaganlal, much to the displeasure of Kasturba and Manilal who felt that Harilal was being intentionally discarded. Chaganlal achieved nothing worthwhile in London and returned to India pretexting he could not endure the British winter. A second scholarship went to Sorabji Adajania, “a faithful follower” in South Africa, re-kindling the grievance of Harilal and Manilal. 

Meanwhile, the relationship turned so sour that a sad and isolated Harilal developed a strong liking for alcohol and gambling. He failed in his three attempts for matriculation, lived on borrowed money, never re-paid debts and kept changing jobs. He misappropriated a firm’s funds in Calcutta. His brother Manilal, having lent him money from ashram funds, was expelled from the ashram but because of respect people held for Gandhi, he was given a job as weaver and paid 25 cents a day. 

When Gandhi met Harilal long after, he saw Harilal’s body ravaged, his face emaciated and stained, his front teeth gone and his grey hair dishevelled. Gandhi invited his son to stay at his place. Both enjoyed one another’s company for a while when news reached them that Harilal’s wife, Gulab and his young child had died within one week at his in-laws’ place in Rajkot. Harilal kept paining his parents. When they learned that at 48 he had converted to Islam, Kasturba was very disturbed and felt humiliated: “ I am very unhappy but what to do? I feel very ashamed. The jewel has gone into the hands of the Muslims…” For Gandhi, it was the compulsion of money. “Every one knows my son. He has been addicted to the drink evil and has been visiting houses of ill -fame. His conversion was not sincere.” 

Harilal was several times arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, which Gandhi and Kasturba found “hard to bear in the evening of our life.” “Out of shame,” she wrote to him, “I cannot move with ease among friends and even strangers. Your father has forgiven you, but God will not tolerate your behaviour.” Harilal, a broken man living as a recluse, his children sent to live in an ashram, visited his mother on her deathbed dead-drunk. 

Harilal embraced Islam just for a while but another surprise was in store for Gandhi when, in 1926, his second son, Manilal, fell in love with Fatima Gool, a Muslim South African and wanted to marry her. At the height of Gandhi’s campaign for Hindu-Muslim unity, Manilal was dissuaded from going ahead with his project as the Mahatma’s works “could be jeopardized”. A Hindu bride was found and he “bowed to his father’s implicit order”. Hearing the assassination of Gandhi on 30th January 1948, Harilal said, “I will not spare the man who killed a saint, the Mahatma of the world, my father.” He died a few months later in June. 

Manilal who did not have any formal education helped his father in the Satyagraha movement. Gandhi hoped he would manage Tolstoy Farm and the newspaper Indian Opinion. But he was “a very weak boy,’ Gandhi wrote. The third son, Ramdas, who lit Gandhi’s funeral pyre, sold cloth and was a tailors’s assistant in Johannesburg. The youngest, Devadas, taught Hindi in Madras hoping ‘to bridge the gulf between south and north India.’ He managed the Hindustan Times until he died in 1957. 

On the one hand, Gandhi was absorbed in fashioning a new movement to conquer colonial rulers and sticking to his principles like a limpet. Reason, not emotion, mattered to him. On the other, he was a “deficient father” as Harilal saw it. The Gandhian movement left a string of casualties and the Mahatma’s sons among those deeply hurt.