Mahatma & Manuben
Mahatma & Manuben: Newly discovered diaries of Gandhi's personal attendant reveal how his experiments with celibacy changed her life
She is one of the most recognised faces in Indian history, always by Mahatma Gandhi's side as his "walking stick" in his last two years. Yet, she remains a mystery. Just 17 when she rejoined the Mahatma as one of his personal assistants in 1946, she was the great man's constant companion till his assassination. Yet, Mridula Gandhi, or Manuben as she is widely known, died a lonely spinster at the age of 40 in Delhi.
Manuben was portrayed by Supriya Pathak in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982). More than four decades after her death, India Today has got access to 10 of her diaries, written in Gujarati and running into 2,000 pages. Studied in detail by Gujarati academic Rizwan Kadri, the diaries, which begin from April 11, 1943, reveal the psychological impact of Gandhi's experiment with his sexuality on Manuben. They also throw light on the jealousy and anger rife at the heart of Gandhi's entourage, many of them young women. The diaries begin when Manuben, a grandniece of Gandhi, came to Aga Khan Palace in Pune to look after Gandhi's wife Kasturba during the couple's internment starting from 1942 following the Quit India movement. Manuben nursed Kasturba in her final months of illness. The diary entries end 22 days after January 30, 1948, the day Nathuram Godse pushed aside Manuben to fire three shots at Gandhi from a 9mm Beretta.
The diaries, in which Gandhi often signed on the margins, reveal a girl devoted to him. In an entry on December 28, 1946, at Srirampur, Bihar, nine days after joining the then 77-year-old Gandhi who was on a walkthrough of troubled villages after massacres in Noakhali in then East Bengal, she writes: "Bapu is a mother to me. He is initiating me to a higher human plane through the Brahmacharya experiments, part of his Mahayagna of character-building. Any loose talk about the experiment is most condemnable." Pyarelal, Gandhi's secretary, endorsed this view in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, "He did for her everything that a mother usually does for her daughter. He supervised her education, her food, dress, rest, and sleep. For closer supervision and guidance, he made her sleep in the same bed with him. Now a girl, if her mind is innocent, never feels embarrassment in sleeping with her mother." She, in turn, was his primary personal attendant-massaging and bathing him as well as cooking for him.