TO STATE THAT THREE GENERATIONS of Indian school students have grown up on the trite diet of Gandhi’s austerity is to state the obvious. The austerity was real but the razzmatazz that ballooned it up to global proportions was the orchestra that went into the Gandhian myth-making. The “real” Gandhi became a mythical figure in his own lifetime, and the martyrdom that he so desperately sought because he was so cruelly emasculated by his own party on the eve of the Indian independence, finally came to him. The same party, now led by Nawab Nehru, lost no time to use this martyrdom as an ornament that gave indisputability to the preexisting myth.
Thus, for the longest time, the nation was clubbed into a sort of amnesiac submission, which in turn meant that we were kept in the dark about Sarojini Naidu’s famous statement that it cost the nation a lot to keep Gandhi poor and austere. She gave us the sparsest information of this cost.
Those details are available elsewhere, sprawled across many timelines and geographies and people. One such detail is available in a rather delightful and caustic, first-person narrative written by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. It is an eye-witness account of his first-ever face-to-face meeting with the…ummm…Mahatma. Nirad Chaudhuri’s observations are sharp and reflect his grasp over several fundamental aspects of human nature and present us with several insights about the political and social climate of the period and about Gandhi himself. A one-word description of his account: eye-opening.
The details speak for themselves.
In 1932, the Congress Party decided to hold its Working Committee meeting in the affluent Calcutta home of Sri Sarat Chandra Bose, sibling of the more renowned Subash Chandra Bose.
On the explicit orders of Sarat Babu, Nirad Chaudhuri promptly pressed himself into the service of this Working Committee meeting.
It was no ordinary meeting. The Mahatma had himself condescended to attend.
Naturally, the preparations for his reception and stay had to be immaculate and faultless, and they began days before the great saint would arrive. It was not easy being a Gandhian especially when the Gandhian was Gandhi himself. This is how Nirad describes the pre-arrangements:
Gandhi was to have one of the principal bedrooms on the first floor, which was made Gandhian, that is, as bare as possible. The meetings of the Working Committee were to be held in the drawing-room on the same floor in order to spare Gandhi the strain of having to climb stairs.
ACCOMMODATION WAS THE LEAST of Sarat Bose’s problems. The Gandhian diet was a different monster altogether. Woe befall any host who erred even to the slightest degree in this regard. Needless, Sarat Bose was fully acquainted with this Gandhian intransigence and went about the job with an attitude bordering almost on fear. This is how it looked.
Gandhi’s dietary prescriptions were not only rigid and numerous, but also odd. SINCE THEY WERE NOT IDENTICAL WITH THE WELL-KNOWN HINDU DIETARY RULES but somewhat esoteric, Sarat Babu asked an orthodox disciple of Gandhi in Calcutta to let him have a list of the vegetables Gandhi ate. The list I saw was formidably long…Of course, Gandhi did not eat the full range of vegetables at one meal or even on one single day, BUT HE OR HIS SECRETARY IN CHARGE MIGHT DEMAND ONE OR OTHER OF THEM ON A PARTICULAR DAY OR FOR A PARTICULAR MEAL IN ORDER TO TEST THE RESOURCES AND LOYALTY OF HIS HOST.
The capitalized words are self-explanatory to say the least, and are highly reflective of the real ghosts within Gandhi that impelled this Mahatma-like behaviour. Without sounding blunter, this much can be said: Gandhi’s behaviour vis a vis his hosts was an absolute inversion of the ancient noble dictum of Atithi Devobhava.
But the ruthless nature of this loyalty test went even further.
The secretary would not specify the herb or vegetable for that day before ten in the morning, and Mahatma Gandhi wanted his meal at about midday. Therefore, no time would be available to buy a particular vegetable if demanded, and all had to be ready in the kitchen, so that the particular one called for would be at hand.
Oh! And the secretary in question was the fabled Mahadev Desai.
But the worst was yet to come. Perhaps the central-most ingredient of the formidable Gandhian diet was milk. In the annals of all the great world-leaders since the dawn of human civilisation, only Gandhi elevated goat milk to Nobel-laureate status. Since his demise, the poor goat has had to reconcile itself with its age-old fate as being a dish on the human plate. But Gandhi’s bigoted fondness for goat’s milk had a direct, libidinous link. The ever-alert “Brahmachari” within him lived in the constant dread of drinking cow’s milk lest it excite his sexual passions. And so, wherever he went, other people had to make elaborate arrangements to fulfil his goat-milk austerity.
Nirad Chaudhuri treats us to a rather detailed picture of the Gandhian ordeal that Sarat Bose had to undergo.
The supply of milk for Mahatma Gandhi presented no less difficult a problem, for he took only goat’s milk… BUT, BEFORE BEING PERMITTED TO SERVE GANDHI, THE SHE-GOATS HAD TO BE SCREENED BY HIS PRINCIPAL PRIVATE SECRETARY, MAHADEV DESAI, and therefore no goat’s milk could be bought or stored in advance. Thus the she-goat had to be brought to Sarat Babu’s house and milked there…on the morning of the second day, when I arrived at about seven, I found a row of up to fifteen she-goats in the outer courtyard munching leaves and bleating away for all they were worth. Behind them, the goatherds were standing to attention as though on parade…The she-goats got a secular and hygienic inspection, but over and above that they might have got moral inspection as well. I WAS TOLD THAT MAHADEV DESAI HIMSELF WOULD COME DOWN TO EXAMINE THE SHE-GOATS, AND CHOOSE THE ONE WHICH WAS TO HAVE THE PRIVILEGE OF SERVING GANDHI AS FOSTER-MOTHER… I went about telling everybody frivolously that he was trying to find out which she-goat was the chastest among the lot.
Mohandas Gandhi stayed in Sarat Bose’s home for about four weeks and demanded and got the aforementioned hospitality, custom-made to suit his austerity. About a month into his stay, Nirad Chaudhuri approached Sarat Bose’s accounting clerk and asked him the cost of funding this Gandhian austerity. This was the answer:
It was well-known that Gandhi with his vow of poverty would only allow three annas a day to be spent on his food. But Sarat Bose’s clerk told me four weeks later that ALREADY ABOUT THREE THOUSAND RUPEES HAD BEEN SPENT, WHICH WAS SIX HUNDRED TIMES THE AMOUNT ALLOWED BY GANDHI HIMSELF.
In retrospect, the whole thing seems incredible to people endowed with basic common sense, decency and propriety. With rare exceptions, even Prime Ministers and Presidents do not throw tantrums on this scale and at this level of detail in matters of food and drink. And here, Mohandas Gandhi completely got away with this sort of whimsical, petty and obtrusive behavior throughout his political career…in what capacity? He was neither President nor Prime Minister…he was not even the President of the Congress Party which he tyrannized with his non-violence and infantile fasting.
An interesting sidelight of Gandhi’s stay in Sarat Bose’s home was the eruption of an ugly factional war in the Bengal Congress unit initiated by its chief Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, who passionately hated Sarat and Subhash Chandra Bose. But that is a story for another day.
However, the ugliest epilogue to Sarat Bose’s good-hearted hospitality offered to Gandhi came six years later. The Bose family had opened their homes and hearts and had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Gandhi happy. In return, this apostle of truth and non-violence backstabbed Subash Chandra Bose—who had been overwhelmingly elected as Congress President in 1938—using tactics that can only be described as unscrupulous. Indeed, Bose’s forced ouster from the Congress is another classic illustration of that patented Gandhian phenomenon: the scale and brutality of the violence that Gandhi inflicted at the level of the spirit pales in comparison with the questionable victories he notched up by adopting non-violence at the physical level.
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