'Gandhiji was harsh on son Harilal, who rebelled against him'

'Gandhiji was harsh on son Harilal, who rebelled against him'

The Inquirer

'Gandhiji was harsh on son Harilal, who rebelled against him'

She is a granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and daughter of Ram Das, the third of the four sons of Gandhiji.

“The ashram had several snakes and scorpions and we children would sleep between Ba and Bapu who were to act as shields against their bites,” says Sumitra, recalling her childhood years at Sevagram Ashram near Wardha, Maharashtra, with the Mahatma. Sumitra Kulkarni, now settled in Bangalore with her former IIM, Ahmedabad, professor-husband, G R Kulkarni, also threw her hat in the Presidential election in 1997 but withdrew after she was ‘stopped’ by the then Prime Minister I K Gujral. Deepak K Upreti of Deccan Herald caught up with her in New Delhi during the release of her book translated to Hindi.


Why a book on Gandhi now when already thousands of them have done a microscopic analysis of the mahatma’s life?

You are right. There are innumerable books on Gandhiji. But They (writers) have not known him personally. You can’t see the human side of a man who is no more. I had been with and around him until his death when I was 18 years of age. Sita Ram Kesri, a former Congress president used to say “we can’t have Gandhiji’s views (to work now) in politics.” But politics was always there (even during Gandhiji’s time).

What are your earliest memories of him?

I must have been four years old. I went to him in Vardha Mahila Ashram around Deepavali time. Bapu asked me: “Will you give me your most beautiful thing to me? Will you give me your thick beautiful hair?” I said “you take them”. And he took the clippers and shaved my head himself like they do in Tirupati!

Why did he do that?

I was developing squint eyes and he thought (fit). He did not consult anyone. There were about 100 inmates in that ashram, all having implicit faith in each other.

What was Bapu’s attitude towards children? Was he a disciplinarian?

No, never. There was no obvious discipline for younger persons. No feeling of denial, anger or deprivation. He always had that cheerful aura. No discipline but work ethics.

Gandhiji’s eldest son Harilal had rebelled against him and even converted to Islam. How was the relationship between the two?

Harilal used to visit us in our Nagpur house. He would teach us. When he would ask for a cigarette, I would pontificate about cigarette not being good (for health). He was a brilliant man and very warm. His heart broke when he lost his wife. As about his conversion, within six months he had re-converted.

Gandhiji was harsh on Harilal. In jail he (Gandhi) was a true satyagrahi but back home he would ask for ‘pakoras.’ Harilal was a sensitive man, Bapuji could not understand him.

After 2-3 days of Bapu’s death he came to Delhi, dishevelled-looking, with two-three trunks full of dirty clothes which I washed. He died shortly after Bapu’s assassination.

You have used a Sanskrit term ‘rasik’ to describe Gandhiji. Have you ever seen him in sombre mood?

There was no desire to be grim or long faced. ‘Rasik’ (romantic) is a remarkable term — it means much more than just being romantic. Lord Krishna was a ‘rasik’ — not grumbling at any thing. No inmate of the ashram complained and indulged in what now-a-days is called — bitching.

You were with the Bapu during the most happening times of modern Indian history. There must have been serious political debates?

During the meetings in the ashram, they looked grim. We (children) would walk in and out while Jawharlal Nehru and Sardar Dada would discuss issues with Bapu. All doors and windows would remain open. We were never noisy or naughty. We could tell that the meeting was over when we heard the loud laughter of Gandhiji and Sardar Dada. They would joke with each other. Nehru, very handsome, looked serious and long faced.

Was Gandhiji domineering vis-à-vis Kasturba?

No, no domination. My Dadi could not be dominated although she was ‘nirakshar’ (unlettered). Gandhiji must have tried to teach her. She knew how to read. She was the hardest working woman with a high sense of hygiene. In South Africa, she cooked for 25 persons single-handedly.

How was your interaction with Gandhiji as you grew up?

I passed matric at 16 so Bapu laughingly said, “you have become very big, I can’t beat you now! ‘putra-mitravat’.” He said you are going to go to college and why don’t you become my secretary. I said I want to be like Mahadev kaka and not keen to do menial work. I went to Banaras Hindu University where Madan Mohan Malviya and Dr Radhakrishnan were my guardians.

You had first hand knowledge of Bapuji. Do you agree with some of his portrayals in films?

I didn’t like Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhiji’ where he showed Sardar (Patel) sitting on a chair and Gandhiji on the floor. Is it possible? No junior person would be sitting on a chair. Or Gandhiji serving tea in a meeting? These are not part of reality.

You wanted to be President of India in 1997.

Yes. I withdrew as I K Gujral brought an ordinance that required instead of 10 MPs/MLAs, 50 proposing the candidature. How could have I mustered these many. Gujral brought the ordinance just to stop me. It was allowed to lapse later.