In this episode, Nirad C Chaudhuri provides a vivid and detailed description of the sort of women who inhabited the inner circle of the Congress and declared themselves as the “Mahatma’s” ardent followers. Nirad Chaudhuri’s account not only reveals the innate motivations of these women but throws an even more revealing light on the nature of Gandhi himself.
The women followers of Gandhi, I had heard, were even more remarkable. His women were different in that they were not all young dévotes. Some of them were elderly and some young. Like the two mistresses of George I, one could have been called Maypole and the other Elephant and Castle. However, they were all feline although some were catty and others pussyish. The only one I saw on that occasion was of the second kind, and she was more like a Persian cat than a Siamese. She corresponded to the type of female votaries of saints, being voluptuous and prudish at the same time. The severity was like a coat of rime, but the sensuality oozed through it like melting frost. She was short, but full, exhibiting a continuous throbbing of person in all her movements. She looked strong, but never walked firmly, and seemed always to be half-toddling. The end of the sari which rests on the shoulder of an unmarried Hindu girl was always slipping off a shapely slope. The vision of this single ancilla domini of Gandhi’s gave me a better idea of the absurdity of his sexual attitudes and rules than all the prurient gossip I heard in Calcutta.
One afternoon I saw a young Bengali woman sitting with bowed head and dejected expression in the hall. I went up to her and asked her: ‘Is anything the matter with you?’ She raised her face to me and said in a weak voice: ‘I wish to see Mahatma Gandhi. I have been coming here these three days, but they would not let me go up. I have not taken any food these days, and I shall not till I have seen him!’ I was aghast and said to her: ‘I shall take you up and you will see him.’ I left the woman at the open door and came down. At that time Gandhi was sleeping and no one was about. After a little while the woman came down and when I asked her if she was satisfied she replied sadly: ‘Yes in a way, for I have seen him. But I have not seen his eyes. Nonetheless, since I can get nothing more, I shall make that do.’
Men and women of fashion went up as they pleased without even asking for an appointment. One day I saw Leela Desai, the famous film actress, going up with a male star of Bengali society. No one barred the approach of such persons.
After seeing all this, I realized that social classes, class consciousness, and class affinities are not created solely by birth, tradition, or money, but also by newspaper publicity. All those who were publicized by the Press formed a brotherhood, club, or class. Otherwise, I could not explain the failure of Gandhi to say to this film star: ‘Woman! What is there between thee and me?’
Along with the men who ran the Congress, I also saw their women counterparts. The most eminent among them was Mrs Sarojini Naidu. She was fifty-eight at that time, being exactly midway in age between Gandhi and Nehru. She was deeply respected and valued as the prima donna of the nationalist movement. She was spoilt since her youth for her lively mind and literary talent and, though never a beauty, for her extraordinary personal attraction.
She was a Bengali, and though brought up in Hyderabad, she possessed to the full a particular charm. She had acquired the reputation of being a femme galante and had outlived it. But she had also lost her outward attractiveness, due to an operation, the cruelty of which she must have felt deeply.
Nonetheless, Mrs Naidu retained her youthful coquettish spirit as even I found. One day I was passing through the large waiting hall of Sarat Babu’s house and was checked by a sudden pull at the tail of my tunic. Turning round, I saw to my utter surprise Mrs Naidu holding it and feeling the material. ‘Bhagalpur silk?’ she asked most graciously. With a low bow I replied: ‘Yes, madam.’ I was not worth looking at for the figure or features I was born with, but the silk tunic had gained her notice for me.
She believed in the saying: ‘Apparel oft proclaims the man’, emending ‘oft’ to ‘always’. Men of far greater worth than I was, were avoided by her simply on the score of being plainly dressed, even if they had natural handsomeness. This happened to my esteemed friend Pandit Benarsidas Chaturvedi, of whom even Gandhi spoke well. He was an authority on the Indian settlers in Africa, and was nominated to be an adviser to Mrs Naidu when she was going on behalf of the Congress to Kenya to investigate their condition. But unfortunately, he wore nothing but a simple dhoti with only a scarf around his neck. So, Mrs Naidu would not have him.
Her whole life had fostered in her a far stronger notion of what was due to her than what was due from her. That sort of egoism broke out in small as well as big things.
One day, wishing to write a note, she borrowed a Parker pen, a very expensive model, from Sarat Babu’s business manager, but did not return it. When asked very humbly about it, she said very curtly that she had left it on the table at which she had been sitting, which, she should never have done. The pen was never recovered.
This recalled to my mind the story I had read about her in 1930. She was lending her presence to the demonstration staged by Congress volunteers against the salt depot of Dharsana. She asked one of them: ‘Could you imagine that a lady who stays at the Taj Mahal Hotel would spend a night at a place like this?’ But the volunteer replied: ‘This place is much better than the Taj Mahal Hotel.’
To be continued
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