Mira and the Mahatma by Sudhir Kakar
Though the title gives the impression of Mira’s story, story of a British girl who left everything at the age of 33 to be with Mahatma Gandhi and live life as per his ideology. That story sure runs through the book, but is nothing more than her longing and devotion for Gandhi just like her namesake had for Lord Krishna. But more than that the book is about the Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram and the life thereof, his experiments, his character and the way he made people live life the way he chose it for them.
Story begins with an effort to etch Mira’s character in Britain, her longing for Beethoven, her reading the Gandhi’s biography and then after a few exchanged letters, her decision to leave everything and go and live in his Ashram. As she spends more time with him, she yearns more for him and she does get more favors from him than the rest of the inmates. The story has been narrated by Navin, who was the Hindi teacher for Mira during her stay in Ashram, who had left a rich background and his literary interests for the Ashram. It talks about her learning the ways of Ashram, learning Hindi, learning spinning and growing up to become Gandhi’s personal assistant, who took care of his personal needs during their travels together in various parts of the world. She kept longing for him, kept getting rejected and most of her life used / directed by Gandhi, till she falls for another man called Prithvi Singh. He was the man who spoke one to one with Gandhi, did not hesitate in challenging him and telling him that he had failed in getting freedom for India. But at the same time while he was in Ashram, he followed all the rules and regulation of the Ashram. He knew the fact that women get attracted to him, but like a simpleton from Punjab had his own notion of the woman he wanted to marry. Irony was that he kept treating Mira as his sister, like the rest of the women at Ashram. Finally she left India and settled down in Europe, the book does not mention when did she go back.
According to the book, Ashram was Gandhi’s laboratory, where he did different types of experiments. He experimented by making people live with the bare minimum necessities taken care of, he made a lot of rich people give up all they had to come and co-exist with the less privileged. He made spinning the ‘Charkha’ as his logo or signature activity to give the message of self-reliance. He experimented various diet regimes on the Ashram residents, keenly observing the effect of each dietary component, going to the extent of examining the stool the next day. Most of the people were made to eat the raw food with minimum of cooked food. Not that people enjoyed it, but they would do so for the devotion that they had for Gandhi. What is interesting is that his wife did not really participate in the experiments, and goes to the extent of saying ‘ One Mahatma in the family is enough’. Though the book does not says so, but I am not sure if Gandhi himself followed these strict diet regimes, as he used to get himself massaged with ‘Desi ghee’ every evening. Mira used to take care of his meals, in the Ashram and while he traveled, and she used to ensure that the food is not only hygienic and clean, but also according to the Gandhi’s taste. An interesting point is when the narrator goes back home after a long stint at Ashram and eats the normal food cooked by his mother, his realization of what all had he been missing in the life and how he cherished eating that food.
The book has been brilliantly written, though it seems dry at lot of places, but I guess that has to do with the subject and not the narrative. Story is well woven between the three main characters Gandhi, Mira and Navin the narrator. All other characters make a guest appearance off an on in the story, and one of them is Premchand with whom the narrator worked in Lucknow, and of course there is a backdrop of the freedom struggle going on at that point in time. You get some not so well known perspectives of that time.
I am not sure how much Gandhi succeeded in making a difference to the lives of under privileged or Harijans as he called them, but he definitely made a lot people who had everything, live like one of them…:-)