As we arrive at the Malabar Hills residence where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934 during his visits to Bombay, I couldn’t help thinking about all the things I’ve read over the years about western women’s attraction to Gandhi, particularly one American woman–whose name completely escapes me now–who would likely have lived in my grandmother’s generation. I could hardly imagine my mother, and certainly not my grandmother (!) traveling alone to India to live and work with a little brown man–prophet or not–and I wondered if I would see any allusion to her now.
The house belonged to Shri Revashankar Jhaveri, Gandhi’s friend. This is what the neighborhood looks like now. (That’s the museum grounds behind the concrete wall on the right.) In the series to come of other tourist attractions in the Malabar Hills, it will become very evident that this part of Bombay is a very exclusive area with property values of more than $1200 per square ft, which only the wealthiest Bombay citizens can afford.
Gandhi’s lifetime spanned October 2, 1869 when he was born, to January 30, 1948 when he was assassinated. Everything commonly known about him casts him as a very simple man dedicated to equality and justice, but a closer look reveals a much more complex man. I knew from my reading, for instance, that as his father lay dying, a 16-year-old Gandhi was having sex with his wife Kasturba (whom he had married at age 13) in a nearby room. When a servant came to inform him of his father’s death, the guilt he felt was overwhelming. Indeed, at age 39, while still married to Kasturba, he made the decision to become celibate until he learned to truly love, not just lust. I don’t know what is true, nor what is untrue, but like any man of great notoriety, many things have been written about the Mahatma. In fact a book published just this spring alleges that actually he forsook his wife for a relationship with another man–and was indeed bisexual. In terms of what he accomplished during his lifetime, I don’t think it much matters at this point. Gandhi himself said once that truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away in the tide of times.
Be that as it may, these things were much on my mind as I entered the museum, and I confess I wished that (1) I were psychic or at least truly believed in it, and (2) that I would be able to sense what was real and what wasn’t. I came out knowing very little more than when I entered, but still thinking of the Mahatma as a very interesting man. There were absolutely no references to any feminine relationships, western women or otherwise.
In the library, because these are the things I like to know about people, I checked to see what kinds of books he’d collected and read. I noted a lot of Tolstoy–even a collection of short stories.
There were also copies of letters to he’d written to famous people like Roosevelt and Einstein–as well as Tolstoy–but the one that drew my attention most firmly was the one he wrote to Hitler, in which he addresses the recipient as “Dear Friend.” The letter goes on to say “Friends have been encouraging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my account for whatever it may be worth.” The next paragraph continues with “It is quite clear that you are the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has seliberately [sic] shunned the method of war not without considerable success. Any way I appreciate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.” Signed M.K. Gandhi and addressed to Herr Hitler of Berlin, Germany.
I’ve always been obsessed by all things in miniature, so naturally the dioramas depicting important civil disobedience protests Gandhi led during his lifetime became my immediate focus. This one demonstrates boycotting of foreign cloth that resulted in an immense bonfire in Bombay that kindled India’s economic emancipation in 1921.
This is the bedroom with a portrait of Gandhi on the wall, and various antiquated spinning wheels lining the walls. The simple cot, on which we assume he slept while staying here, seems almost an afterthought . . . and–try as I might–I couldn’t, and can’t, see a single ghost or spirit to tell me who the real Gandhi was, can you?
Next post: continuation of Malabar tour with stories from the Towers of Silence.