Bapu’s Many Children

On 12 September 1931, Gandhi arrived in London for his fifth—and final—visit to the empire’s capital. In contrast to his earlier visits as a little-known activist from South Africa, he was a global celebrity now and representing the Indian National Congress at the Second Round Table Conference. In the numerous scholarly accounts of Gandhi’s time in London for the next three months until his departure on 5 December, virtually no attention has been paid to his interactions with children. It has been barely noted that among the first to greet him at his very first public event at Friends House on Euston Road on the day of his arrival in London was seven-year-old Nora, daughter of socialist politician Archibald Fenner Brockway, wearing a homespun khadi cap. On his daily morning walks in London’s East End where he stayed, the poor working-class children of the neighborhood often trailed him, and Gandhi would banter with them, one mischievous urchin even shouting from a distance, “Tell me, where’s your trousers?” From Muriel Lester’s important Entertaining Gandhi, we learn that the poor boys and girls of the Children’s House nursery school struck up a friendship with him, took him to visit their playground, celebrated his birthday, and corresponded with him even after his return to India. He was Uncle Gandhi to them (although they also had fun trying to learn to pronounce his name properly!). One of them, Willie Saville, penned a short essay on his impressions of the Mahatma that was widely reported in the Indian press. In a crowded and packed schedule, Gandhi took time to meet with the educationist Maria Montessori who welcomed him with the words “I bring you the greetings of children.” Three weeks later on 28 October, he gave an important speech on children’s education at the Montessori Training College where he laid out his evolving principles on the subject, also observing in the course of his remarks that “the greatest lessons in life” are learned from “the so-called ignorant children.”

Over the years, Gandhi corresponded with children from other parts of the world, including young Olive Doke whom he first met around 1908 in Johannesburg, an American boy called Fred Campbell, and the children of China. We learn from an essay published in 1959 by Paul Roche of a brief childhood encounter in Sinhagad (near Poona, where young Paul’s family was based) when the Mahatma not only taught him how to spin but also gifted the nine-year-old with a spinning wheel. The wheel was accompanied by a note: “Don’t forget India. We’ll always need good Englishmen. Your friend: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.”

Not surprisingly, it was with India’s children that Gandhi appears to have had the most sustained and intimate of contacts. These children were frequently the sons and daughters of relatives who stayed in his communal residences and ashrams, like Prabhudas, Dhiren, Navin, Kanu and Manu; but they were also the children of Gandhi’s aides and other Gandhians, such as Narayan (or “Bablo”), the son of the Mahatma’s beloved assistant and amanuensis of many years, Mahadev Desai; and Vanamala, the daughter of Narahari and Maniben Parikh, both teachers in Gandhian schools. He also parented children of his patrons, such as Ramakrishna, the son of Jamnalal Bajaj who funded his operations in Sevagram. His exchanges with these children in person and over hundreds of letters range from the mundane—did they brush their teeth properly?—to the quotidian—about their studies—to the profound. Consider a brief message he wrote from prison on 7 December 1930 to seven-year-old Ramachandra Trivedi, son of ashram resident Kashinath, “I have your letter. Write in ink and shape the letters well. Good that all have arrived at the Ashram. Tell Jiji [his mother] to give up the practice of untouchability and live in peace. There is no dharma [virtue] in untouchability.”

Filtered though they might be by the custodians of Gandhi’s memory and often presented from his point of view, these letters give us a sense of the aspirations and anxieties of (some) children of India in the first few decades of the 20th century, even as they offer us a glimpse of what the children saw in their Bapu: part-confessor, part-confidante, sometimes teacher and sometimes playmate. He in turn appears to have taken his role as their Bapu seriously—he stayed involved in their lives and affairs, sometimes long after they had left the ashram and his care. Despite his well-stated antipathy to marriage and his recommendations against reproduction, he wrote with care and concern about their wedding plans, the birth, health and well-being of their children, and so on. He also wrote to them when they faced deaths in their families: although such messages all too often downplayed the terror of human mortality, one assumes that hearing from Bapu might have brought some degree of comfort to his many children.

Gandhi’s public speeches and writings are dotted with allusions to exemplary children he met in the course of his travels, especially those who diligently spent time spinning. To readers of Navajivan on 26 June 1921, he recounted in exquisite detail a most striking encounter with Madhuri and Pushpa, two young girls, barely six or seven years of age, who not only parted with all their jewels for the Gandhian cause but managed to persuade others to do so as well. “That little girl [Madhuri] had stolen my heart. I envied her parents. ‘May all parents have such children,’ I prayed from my heart. My faith in the success of our struggle for swaraj [freedom] grew stronger.”

Another little girl who “stole” his heart was Gulnar, the youngest daughter of the well-known journalist, poet, and leader of the Khilafat Movement, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar. On 26 December 1924, he declared at the opening of a conference in Belgaum that he “doted” on the little girl. “She is today pure and innocent. She thinks everything is right. She knows nothing of hatred. She is all love. I find in her love personified. Therefore, I have been treating her as my very flesh and blood in spite of the sea that divides her from me. I am trying to unite myself with the Mussalmans [Muslims] by this means.” He went on to report on his discussions with young Gulnar about his abhorrence of cow-killing, which she thought her Quran sanctioned. As such he could not force her to think otherwise but he could try, he said, “to conquer her by preaching love.” He anointed her his “successor,” and referred to her variously as “princess” and as his “deputy.” By 1928, with marriage and motherhood, Gulnar could no longer be his anointed ambassador especially for the all-important cause of Hindu-Muslim unity, a fact he regretted even nearly two decades later in a public speech in early 1947 on the eve of the partition of British India.

At the other end of the social spectrum from Gulnar was another little girl who became the touchstone for another pet Gandhian cause, the abolition of untouchability. The name by which Gandhi referred to her was Lakshmi and she came into his life in September 1915 as a “mere toddling babe,” with her antyaj parents Dudabhai Dafda and Daniben, who took up residence in his ashram. Gandhi formally adopted her as his daughter in October 1920, describing her two years later as “dearer than his life,” even likening her to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. As the child got older, she frequently accompanied Gandhi on his travels where he would often invoke her as his antyaj daughter with pride, and use her presence to persuade caste Hindus to acknowledge the “sinful” facts of untouchability. His attitude towards Lakshmi was not all that different from his treatment of the community that he came to call Harijan, “children of god.” It was quite clearly patriarchal and paternalistic. Over the years, although he despaired over her inability to meet his exacting standards for a Gandhian child, he persevered, noting in a letter to a kinsman, “I have invited the burden.” He sought to secure her marriage to a caste Hindu, thus making her once again a part of his project of disappearing untouchability in a land where it was deeply entrenched. When she finally did marry an orphan (of unknown caste background) called Maruti in March 1933, he could not attend the wedding, but micro-managed the entire affair from his jail cell in Yeravda Central Prison. Despite disappointments, he remained in touch with her even after she became a mother, until the near-end of his own life.

Few of these children have left a mark on the visual culture that has developed around Gandhi over the decades. An exception is likely the most famous of them all—Indira, the only child of his political heir-apparent Jawaharlal. Reminiscing about ten years after Gandhi’s death, the adult Indira had no recall of her first encounter with Bapu. “He forms part of my earliest memories and as a very small child I regarded him not as a great leader but more as an elder of the family to whom I went with difficulties and problems which he treated with the grave seriousness which was due to the large-eyed and solemn child I was.” She most likely first visited his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati as a five-year-old in 1922. A well-known photograph of her perched by his bedside when he was on his grueling 21-day fast in Delhi in 1924 confirms Indira’s sense of herself as “a large eyed and solemn child.” During Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha in 1930 when he called upon all Indians, including children, to participate in acts of disobedience, she is credited with organizing the Vanar Sena, “monkey brigade,” which put up posters, took charge of mailing, etc. Subsequently, when the Mahatma was interned for 15 months in Yeravda Jail in 1932–33, she visited him in prison several times from her school near Poona. Over the years, they exchanged many letters, including when her mother Kamala died prematurely. Indira recalled later that “she disagreed with many of [Gandhi’s] ideas and had long discussions with the usual dogmatism of the very young who think that they have all the answers.” Gandhi in turn treasured a watch young Indira gave him as a gift for over 20 years until it was stolen from him. On her engagement to Feroze Gandhi (no relation of his), the Mahatma issued a strong public statement in support of the impending marriage, against those who opposed it on the grounds that the groom was not a Hindu. “The Hinduism of my conception is no narrow creed.”

The extent to which Indira Gandhi pursued a Gandhian vision when she became the Prime Minister of India is debatable. But in the eyes of at least one artist, the pioneering modernist Maqbool Fida Husain (1915–2011), Bapu’s influence on Indira was formative and long-reaching. In an untitled work dated to 1985, he melds the two of them, Gandhi’s head in profile looming large behind the child Indira, his (bony) hand on her shoulders as if in benediction (Fig. 6). In another work titled Priyadarshini, young Indira, clad in Gandhian clothes, walks out of the door of childhood to become the adult sari-clad woman who was to lead India for a number of years as its prime minister, on the face of it the most influential of Bapu’s many children who left their mark on his beloved country (Fig.7).

Select References
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 19: 151–54; 18: 338–39; 25: 469–70; 27: 216–17; 39: 316; 44: 379; 48, 128; 238–40; 75: 375.

Indira Gandhi, “My Reminiscences of Bapu.” In Indira Gandhi: Speeches and Writings, 23–25. New Delhi: Harper & Row, 1975; Muriel Lester, Entertaining Gandhi. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1932; C. Rajagopalachari and J.C. Kumarappa, eds., The Nation’s Voice, Being a Collection of Gandhiji’s Speeches in England and Sjt. Mahadev Desai’s Account of the Sojourn (September to December 1931). Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1947; and Paul Roche, “Satyagraha.” In Profiles of Gandhi: America Remembers a World Leader, edited by Norman Cousins, 175–89. Delhi: Indian Book Co., 1969.