The love affair that left man of chastity exposed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

In December 1920, when he was 51 years old, Mahatma Gandhi sat down and composed a love letter. 'I have been analysing my love for you,' he wrote. 'I have reached a definition of spiritual marriage. It is a partnership between two persons of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent.'

The letter, to a beautiful writer called Saraladevi, marked the end of a significant love affair in the life of the Indian freedom movement leader. Though the relationship was never physical, it threatened his marriage and his work - and it left Saraladevi heartbroken.

Gandhi's love affair is revealed in a new biography written by his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi. Mohandas: a True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire, was published in India last week but has yet to be released in Hong Kong.

'I wanted to capture the real man in my book, so I couldn't leave this episode of my grandfather's life out,' says Rajmohan, whose father, Devadas, was Gandhi's youngest son.

'Though a popular metaphor - 60 years after his death - for innocence, ingenuity or courage, he is not clearly known as a person,' Rajmohan writes of his grandfather in the introduction to his book. Using diary jottings, letters, articles, memoirs and his family's archives, Rajmohan, who is a lecturer at the University of Illinois in the US, has set out to demystify the man who helped to end three centuries of British colonial rule in India.

'Previous biographies have tended to focus on particular aspects of his life,' says Rajmohan. 'I think that this book tells the whole story, and I hope that in some way, it captures the man.'

The book describes Gandhi's face-offs with the British Empire and his own bitterly divided country. It shows how 'this metaphor for innocence was an exceedingly shrewd tactician and strategist'. But it also describes his relationships - with his family, his friends, his enemies, and with Saraladevi.

Saraladevi was a niece of the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Brilliant, driven, and charming, she cut quite a dash herself. When Gandhi first saw her, in 1901, she was conducting an orchestra in a song she had written for the opening of a meeting of the Calcutta chapter of Congress, the party that half a century later led India to independence.

At the time, Saraladevi was 29, unmarried and strikingly pretty. But it was not until she was 47 and married to Rambhuj Dutt Chaudhuri, editor of the Hindustan journal, that Gandhi, a married father of four and champion of chastity, fell for her.

Gandhi and Saraladevi were first drawn to one another in October 1919, when Gandhi stayed at Chaudhuri's house in Lahore, although his host was in jail for his part in the struggle against the British in the Punjab.

'Saraladevi's company is very endearing,' Gandhi wrote in a letter soon after he arrived. 'She looks after me very well.' Within months, he was speaking of making a 'spiritual marriage' with her. Rajmohan Gandhi says he does not know quite what he meant, for Mahatma Gandhi, like Saraladevi, was already married.

At the age of 12, he had married Kastur Makhanji Kapadia, who was only a few months older. The difficulties in their marriage have been well documented. As a young man, Gandhi wanted a wife who was his intellectual equal. Although independent, courageous, and later to prove a sterling ally to her husband, Kastur, known affectionately as Kasturba, was illiterate, and as a young woman, uninterested in being educated by her husband. Gandhi was greatly frustrated by her.

'Though their marriage developed into a profoundly deep relationship, I'm quite sure that those difficulties played a big part in his feelings for Saraladevi,' Rajmohan Gandhi says. 'It was that, more than erotic appeal, I think.'

Indeed, years later, talking to a friend about his wife's illiteracy, Gandhi mentioned that he 'nearly slipped' after meeting 'a woman with a broad, cultural education'.

Between October 1919 and February 1920, Gandhi spent much of his time in the Punjab, staying in Chaudhuri's house and travelling around with Saraladevi. In March, when Saraladevi visited Sabarmati, Gandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, his followers were critical of the amount of time he spent talking to her.

'Gandhi was clearly dazzled by her personality and seemed to fantasise that providence desired them to shape India to a new design,' Rajmohan writes in his book. Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Saraladevi, saying he often dreamt of her. And he echoed her husband's compliment that she was a 'great shakti', or goddess.

Not everyone appreciated the spiritual benefits of Gandhi's close relationship with a woman who was not his wife. His son, Devadas, and other relations, pressed him to think of the consequences for his wife if his relationship with Saraladevi continued.

'We must assume also that the relationship shocked and wounded Kastur while it lasted', Rajmohan writes. Years later, Gandhi wrote in a letter that he had been prevented from 'rushing into hellfire' by his family's interventions.

Friends, too, warned Gandhi that he was only a man, and subject to human temptations. 'The encasement of the divinest soul is yet flesh,' Rajagopalachari, a close friend and leading member of the Congress party, wrote to Gandhi in June, 1920. 'It is not the Christ but the shell that I presume to warn and criticise. Come back and give us life ... pray disengage yourself at once completely.'

By the time that this letter was written, Gandhi appears to have come to the same conclusion. When he told Saraladevi that their relationship could not continue as he had intended it to, she was heartbroken. She had, she said, 'put in one pan all the joys and pleasures of the world, and in the other Bapu and his laws, and committed the folly of choosing the latter'.

In response to her demand for a proper explanation, Gandhi wrote his letter about the impossibility of a 'spiritual marriage' with her. He signed it with 'dearest love'.

Though there were intermittent exchanges between Gandhi and Saraladevi in the years that followed, neither mentioned the other in their autobiographies. 'Though she was shattered, she had the nobility of spirit not to write about it,' says Rajmohan. Gandhi, for his part, did not want to hurt Saraladevi further by mentioning their relationship.

Rajmohan was 12 years old when his grandfather died. He has vivid memories, he says, of walking to prayer meetings with the frail old man, who spent the final years of his life in New Delhi, where Rajmohan went to school.

'I remember bantering with him on the way to prayers and bantering on the way back,' he says. 'Despite the pain he felt at that time over partition, he had an incredible sense of humour.'

Throughout his childhood, Rajmohan heard his family talking about Gandhi's affair with Saraladevi. 'They would refer to it from behind closed doors,' he says. 'It was referred to as 'an old man being saved from a disaster' kind of thing.'

But today, Rajmohan has a rather different view of his grandfather's tryst with Saraladevi. 'Looking back, it was rather a wonderful episode,' he says. 'He was looking for alternative ways of living life, as we all do from time to time, and struggling, and finding his way. I think this story helps us know him a little better.'