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A Son's Story

Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal edited and translated from the original Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud


commended as a sign of free-thinking. But Harilal would have hauled Mehtab over

A Son’s Story

the coals in one matter – the place Kasturba

Harilal Gandhi: A Life

Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal

edited and translated from the original Gujarati by Tridip Suhrud; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007; pp xxxii + 290, Rs 690.


here will not be a year without more than one book on Gandhi (1869-1948), nor a decade without a dramatic production based on his life. But if we had in India the equivalent of an Oberammergau where a passion play was produced on him each year, a Gandhi other than the one the world celebrates would also have been central to it – Gandhi’s eldest son, Harilal (1888-1948). Gandhi was, essentially, a passionate man. But if there was someone who inherited that passion from him, experienced both the excitement and the perils of its intensity, that was Kasturba (1869-1944) and Mohandas’ son, Harilal.

Gandhi has written, in his autobiography, about his ministrations to the dying Karamchand Gandhi (1822-1885) and how at the precise moment of his father’s last breath the dutiful son had been called away by connubial passion. “The poor mite” is the expression used by Gandhi to describe the then 17-year-old couple’s first-born which did not survive beyond a few days of its premature arrival. But the more prolonged “nowherenessess” between the brief life of the “mite” in 1886 and Harilal’s birth in 1888 remains to be fully explored.1

‘Making’ of a Rebel

A major influence was at work on the young and particularly impressionable Mohandas during this period. And that was of his elder brother’s friend, Sheikh Mehtab (1866-1937). This swashbuckling athlete and contemporary of the Gandhi siblings, Karsandas and Mohandas, at the Alfred High School, Rajkot, sought with varying success to introduce Mohandas to tobacco, to meat, to monetary wrongdoing, to marital cheating and – most significantly – to attempt all these as liberations he owed to himself as an independent human being. (Rather inexplicably, alcohol did not find a place in Mehtab’s menu for Mohandas.) Mehtab did not separate freedom from licence, masculine virility from profligacy, friendship from commitment.

Mehtab failed, ultimately and miserably, in his desire to make a convert of Gandhi. While he remained throughout his life something of a school toughey whose walk was a swagger and whose talk was bullish, he was completely overtaken by his “pupil” not in degree but in kind. Gandhi grew with an astonishing pace into everything history now knows him to have become. But Mehtab lingered in his early years awhile. Gandhi sent him remittances from England while living on a frugal budget and later, on moving to South Africa, invited him to run his house in Durban even before Kasturba joined him. Having been brought over to South Africa by a trusting Gandhi, Mehtab betrayed his host’s confidence and was struck off the Gandhi fold forever. With some credit to himself, Mehtab did not become openly hostile to Gandhi and in fact participated in the campaigns run by Gandhi, but after his own style which was through his talent for declamation in the form of versified oratory.

But Mehtab did manage one signal success, albeit unintended. He turned, without consciously trying to, Mohandas’ son Harilal into the Mohandas he was fashioning in Rajkot. Smoke filled Harilal’s lungs, alcohol addled his brain. Adultery during his marriage and regular wanderings in and out of brothels after his wife’s death were Harilal’s portion in life. Mehtab would have approved. Harilal’s flagrant independence from his father, too, Mehtab would have occupied in the Gandhi household. And, whatever be his own distance – physical and ethical – from his father, if anyone else – Mehtab included – had spoken foully of Mohandas Gandhi, the “rebel” son may well have given that person a very black eye.

Chandubhai B Dalal (1899-1980) who has immortalised himself in the world of historiography by his stupendous day-byday chronicle in Gujarati of Gandhi’s life,2 wrote this nugget of a study of Harilal Gandhi in 1977.3 Being composed in Gujarati, the book suffered the neglect that is the lot of Indian writing if it is in a language other than English. Dalalsaheb’s meticulousness which had made his Gujarati chronicle a masterpiece of authenticity was to the fore in this work as well. He cross-checked dates, matched versions of events with internal evidence and external sources, deduced data where material eluded him or contained elisions. But above all, he refrained from generalised value judgments and, admirer of the Mahatma that he was, did not write Harilal’s story to stereotypify the son as a “rebel” or even as a foil to the father. He treated Harilal as a human being and his life-story as the tragic sequence of a moth driven to the flame of self-destruction.

Harilal was known to have been good looking (by the standards of the Gandhi family),4 spontaneously loving and affectionate towards his brothers one moment and enraged by them the next, but as unvaryingly affectionate to his siblings’ children as to his own. He was known, too, for his knack of materialising all of a sudden, dusty and dishevelled, to spend unspecified time with “family”. Bathed and well swathed, he would look no different from the family’s “type”. But a point would come unpredictably, when he would disappear just as suddenly as he had appeared, lured – it was assumed – by the subconscious pull of alcohol or by the memories of someone’s ‘kohl’ in a red-light district.

I went through Dalalsaheb’s work in the early 1980s with the breathless avidity of a researcher discovering a primary source. For that is what it was, an altogether fresh

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 and factual account, apart from Harilal Gandhi’s letters. Dalalsaheb’s work struck me as remarkable for it showed a man’s happiness being crossed out by destiny, relentlessly and without relief. When a man is less than 20 years younger than his father, he sees his father differently from how he would have, had the father been older. And when he sees that father being something like what Sheikh Mehtab wanted him to be and then becoming a millennial hero with a moral dimension unheard of, something has to give. But that “something” did not give quite as pat as that. Dalalsaheb shows us how in South Africa there was a time when Harilal was not only a participant in his father’s struggles but an alternative to him, earning the sobriquet of ‘Chhote Gandhi’. The father held Harilal up for emulation and having been preceded by Harilal in gaol said he was “itching” to join him behind the prison bars.

Devadas on Harilal

I had read my father Devadas Gandhi’s moving article on his brother written for The Hindustan Times5 shortly after Harilal’s death. And the following lines

in that tribute had lingered with me: The last time I saw him was four days after the Assassination when in one of his penitent moods he turned up from somewhere at our house in Delhi to mourn with us. He was ill and had to be carefully nursed. His face was drawn and emaciated and resembled Bapu’s a lot. When he felt better, he went away, for he had come to bless us, not to interfere in the ceremonies in which the whole of Delhi was then occupied. As he boarded the train for Bombay he said with a weariness not noticed in him before ‘It is always my lot to be on the move’… Devadas had also described in the same

article his brother’s ability to be “shelterless and foodless” as his “self-chosen lot”. He had described Harilal’s living as a “perfect destitute” who had “found some of the best specimens of humanity on the lowest rungs of the social ladder”. Devadas had not intended in those comments to draw a comparison between father and son, but I could not help feel that if any of MKG’s sons had inherited the father’s ability to go without shelter and food as his “self-chosen lot” it was not Manilal (1892-1956) the brave battler against racism in South Africa, not Ramdas (18971969) the naturally ascetic householder and exemplary non-cooperator, not Devadas (1900-1957) the managing editor of The Hindustan Times, but Harilal the free-thinking, free-living and audacious “beggar in the streets”. I longed to know more about this exceptional uncle of mine who was “family” but as something of a codicil to it, whose death had relieved Gandhians in general of the intellectual and emotional challenge of understanding him, interpreting him and coming to terms with his emphatic “otherness”.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that had Harilal’s desire to study in England not been set aside in favour, first, of Chhaganlal Gandhi (1881-1970) and then of the charismatic Sorabji Adajania (1883-1918), had Harilal not left South Africa in pique for a career of uncertainty among the business sharks in early 20th century Indian metropolises, had he not lost his noble and wise wife Gulab (1881-1918) at an age when his biological passions demanded requiting, had the chance to be his father’s secretary not



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Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

been reserved by fate for the incomparable Mahadev Desai (1892-1942), and had Sheikh Mehtab’s long-distance shadow not hustled him towards the bylanes and hovels that young Mohandas had nearly “fallen” into, this biography would have been not of a son, but of a son and a comrade. It would also have shown Harilal at the head of the cortege that took the Mahatma’s mortal remains to their pyre.

Harilal’s grand daughter Nilam Parikh drew my attention to a dateless Gujarati newspaper clipping, which I translate: “When Harilal heard the news of Gandhiji’s death, he spontaneously exploded: ‘I will not rest until I have killed the man who has murdered my father and the world’s only true saint and Mahatma’.” Each of the sons had reacted to the assassination with what their father had told them was an infallible weapon: ‘Ramanama’. If that clipping is to be believed, Harilal reacted with the one arrow he always carried in his quiver, rage, followed by simple, shattering grief.

Around that time, the chance of conversations brought to me a story of Harilal on January 30, 1948. It emanated from H Y Sharada Prasad. I asked Sharadaji to write it out for me. And he did, in May 2004:

Let me …tell you what I remember of the single encounter on the night of January 30, 1948. I worked in The National Standard in Bombay then... I was on the afternoon shift which would have ended at 8 pm. When the shattering news came, obviously all hands had to be summoned to the deck. Pothan Joseph was the editor. He told me to take charge of the edition, because there was no knowing when the night chief sub would be able turn up. To a young journalist not yet 24 this was a big opportunity. It was quite a task to keep track of the flow of news... The night chief sub, who was senior to me, came in well after 8. But I continued to function as chief sub of the night shift as well. We had a very enterprising chief reporter called B S V Rao. His reporters were busy phoning up people and preparing reports of the city’s reactions. It must have been 9.30 or

10. A frail elderly figure approached the news desk with a sheet of paper in hand. I looked up and asked “What is it?” He replied “My tribute to Bapuji”. In my youthful arrogance I said “Today, everyone is issuing their tribute to Bapuji”. The man said “But I am his son”. I should have left aside everything I was doing and attended to him…But I was more concerned with coping with the flow of copy. I just called to B S V Rao to handle him.

I have a recollection that we published the statement but if I am asked what it contained I would not be able to say. In fact there are moments when I have even wondered whether it happened at all…

Somewhere, in some archive, that issue of The National Standard is bound to be available, waiting for the researcher’s hand to move the dust off its surface. Other “primary sources” also await the digger’s pickaxe – letters and diaries – which Dalalsaheb did not have access to. (Even the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi were under preparation when Dalalsaheb wrote Harilal...).

Notwithstanding its constricted “base”, Dalalsaheb’s book answered most of my questions and curiosities. But more significantly, it generated even more. For instance, I found him coy about the place of women in Harilal’s life, not surprising in a writer of Dalalsaheb’s generation. I would have liked him to have explored (no great difficulty there!) the underworld with which Harilal connected, particularly the world after nightfall. I would have liked to know more about Margarete Spiegel, (or Amala as she came to be known), the German school teacher who wanted to marry Harilal in 1935. I would have liked to know the politics behind the flurry that led to Harilal’s brief entry into and exit from Islam. These are touched by Dalalsaheb, not explored.

Inevitably, creativity of differing calibre and motivation have filled the interstices of facts. Novels and plays have appeared in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English on Harilal. Notable among these were Dinkar Joshi’s Prakash no Padchhayo (The Light’s Shadow) in 1988 which portrayed Harilal as a victim and pedestalled victimhood. Based on that novel, came Jabbar Patel’s play, Gandhi versus Gandhi, which was grist to the sensationalist’s mill and incidentally to the no less active one of Gandhibaiters. I saw and was greatly moved by Feroz Khan’s sensitive rendering of Harilal’s life (Mahatma versus Gandhi), with Kay Kay Menon performing brilliantly in the lead role. But I was dismayed when I found it drawing from the audience enormous applause whenever the script was at the father’s expense – something Feroz Khan himself had not anticipated. I told Feroz that there were serious changes he needed to make in the script, not to reinstate the father’s image or proportionately diminish the son’s, but to be , simply, true to the storyline which contained enough of trauma and tragedy to move audiences and help understand the contrary alchemies in the mortal son of one who was more than mortal. All these writers and producers owe more to Dalalsaheb than has been acknowledged. But their overdramatisations they owe to their thespian imaginings alone.

A film is being made of Feroz Khan’s play, in English. I hope he has acted on my suggestions and rectified misconceptions like an ostracised Harilal having been thrown around at Rajghat during the cremation on January 31, 1948 (which “visual” was most notably introduced into Gandhiana by Robert Payne6 and by the best-selling book, Freedom At Midnight7) and of his having died unrecognised and unattended in a hospital in Bombay of some form of a STD. The first of these is unsupported by any evidence and the second is quite simply, untrue.

Interpretations of a Life

Harilal’s life was dramatic enough and even a conservative rendering would have been impactful. But footlights work their own magic. The risks of a playwright’s exuberance prompted Harilal’s grand daughter Nilam Parikh to respond by a book (again in Gujarati) with a beautiful title Gandhiji Nun Khovailun Dhan8 (Gandhi’s Lost Jewel). The book contains many unpublished letters between father and son. Tridip Suhrud’s translation into English of Dalalsaheb’s book, coming as it does 30 years after the original appeared, would have been welcome in any case. It unlocks for the larger world interested in Gandhi and his times, a work that had remained confined to the Gujarati reading public. But it becomes particularly valuable for it includes in its appendices, new material which did not find place in the original such as the letters brought to light by Nilam Parikh. The translation is sensitively done and has the benefit of a particularly apposite introduction by the translator. One wishes some consultation with informed individuals had been attempted, for Suhrud has taken the unnecessary trouble of rendering into English the Hindi or Gujarati version of Devadas Gandhi’s 1948 piece on Harilal, when the original itself was available – written in the most moving English. That would also have prevented simple errors like “abated” for “abetted” from distorting an important sentence.

Another translator’s hazard has also taken its toll from this effort. Place

Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007 names in a language when translated by their sound can lead to simple errors. Harilal and Gulab Gandhi lived in Pollock Street in Calcutta. A simple cross-checking with a Kolkata resident today could have prevented that street name becoming Polak Street in the book, the mis-spelling being doubtless “blessed” by the memory of Gandhi’s South Africa associate H S L Polak (1882-1959). But these are not errors really, much less blemishes; they symbolise the “E&OE” sign which used to be exhibited on shop receipts until not long ago – Errors And Omissions Excepted. The translation brings with it the gift of a special bonus: an absolutely scintillating Foreword by Ramachandra Gandhi, reading which I hallucinated Harilal Gandhi telling his biographer, his translator, the foreword-writer (his nephew) and this reviewer (also his nephew), “Now

  • and this is not to be told to my father
  • but shall we go somewhere and raise a toast to this book?” But I pictured him changing his mind at once and sighing, “No, let us not… Let me go my way…There are people, things, work, waiting for all of you…I am alone…That is my fate,
  • boys… No company…no joy… except that which I can buy, if I happen to have some cash in my pocket…”

    Mohandas and Harilal were log-jammed but they were logs from the same treetrunk, that of Karanchand Uttamchand Gandhi. Their DNAs matched, if their minds did not. Mehtab could be struck off from the fold, not Harilal. Mohandas would not want to. Kasturba would never allow it. Harilal was the stardust from an asterism which was creating stellar beings, launching them on their orbits to the world’s acclaim. But in the planetarium of celestial successes, where even meteorites and comets have a place, stardust does not. It subsides to the ground over which no footlight is trained.

    A fuller biography of this figure of extraordinarily human passions waits to be written, in the genre of the tragic biography that is one step ahead of fiction, of drama. Tridip Suhrud will perhaps attempt that, reaching out to Harilal Gandhi’s immediate family for more facts and “inhouse” interpretations.

    Harilal Gandhi: A Life by C B Dalal in Tridip Suhrud’s fine English rendering of it is the story of a son, a husband, a brother and a father who saw and acknowledged the superiority of those he belonged to, but not their authority. A quality not to be underestimated. Not in a world where the opposite is what generally works.




    1 Martin Green attempted to do so in his Gandhi, Voice of a New Age Revolution (Continuum, New York, 1993). Rajmohan Gandhi has carried the exploration forward in his Mohandas (Penguin/Viking, 2006).

    2 Gandhiji ni Dinavari (Government of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, 1970).

    3 Harilal Gandhi (Sabarmati Ashram and Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad, 1977).

    4 Devadas Gandhi writes “He used to be handsome and parted his hair in the middle with beautiful curls over his forehead” (The Hindustan Times, July 22/23, 1948).

    5 Ibid. 6 The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (Smithmark, 1969). 7 Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (Avon, 1979). 8 Published by Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1998.

    Economic and Political Weekly April 28, 2007

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