Neelima Adhaar has written a fictional account of India’s 'first first lady', the wife of the Father of the Nation, Kasturba Gandhi, in what is the subversive equivalent of flipping the chalkboard to read the other side. She talks here about her inspiration and how she got into Kasturba’s mind, her life in the shadow of the country’s first citizen and her relationship with her sons.
What gave you the idea for the book? How did you narrow down on its structure, of how you would want to go about it?
I wanted to write about of a strong woman character set in the era of pre/post-Independence. Kastur (as suggested by Namita Gokhale) fitted the bill to some degree. The book actually evolved after two years of extensive research and internal churning that led me to give the elusive shadow-wife of the Mahatma, a voice and structure. And the more she came alive in my mindscape, the more I began to tune-in to the deliberations of a forgotten woman, whose story needed to be heard. So rather than give it the shape of a boring linear narrative that chronicled her life, of which there is little information and a whole lot of mis-information, I made that quantum leap into the unknown to create this portraiture, in the form of her diary.
Describe your research for us. There isn’t much that has been documented about Kasturba’s life. How does a writer then enter her mind?
As you rightly said, there is hardly anything substantial written about Kastur, so I had to rely heavily on Gandhi’s autobiography ‘My Experiments With Truth’ in which I found enough material to ready a blue print of her life. And since Gandhi firmly believed and propagated that anything that is not secret, is not a sin, his candid confessions helped me form the outline of my portraiture of her. Also, Arun and Sunanda Gandhi’s biography The Forgotten Woman on their grandmother, although in my opinion essentially hagiographic in content, did provide me with a whole range of data that I used for my characterisation.
Being a passionate ‘people watcher’ and a student of Psychology, I found it thrilling to enter Kastur’s mind; to live, feel, emote, breathe, cry, laugh, scream and then curl up and die, with my protagonist; to sculpt her and perhaps immortalise her in those 390 odd pages.
When you are writing fiction born out of history, is there a dilemma, as in which to lead with? Do you stick to a lot of the history, which may limit your imagination or just reinvent the bottom line?
Indeed, history is not to be tampered with and I did not.All historical dates, events and facts are accurate in the book. With the available apparatus, my creative license has allowed me to craft a multi-dimensional being as the character began to evolve in my mind. So let’s just say I never wrote or rewrote history, I just played the spaces between.
We know little of Kasturba’s life. What is then lost when we fail to see history through the eyes of our women? Just how many other women do we know of, who are missing for no fault of theirs, as part of the success stories most men write (or we would have had a mother of the nation as well)?
I don’t know if I want to say that. Every mother is the omniscient Mother of the cosmos who is far more grandiose than just ‘Mother of a nation’.
My Kasturba is not aspiring to find a place in the hallowed hall of fame that her husband inhabits. She merely attempts to ‘humanise’ him and earn her ‘slice of the sky’ denied to her by providence and the conquerors who wrote history. However, the need to illumine those scores of women who have outshone their male counterparts in every space of the universe, and earned their places in the highest echelons of those supernova brigades, endures.
But for me, Kasturba is the quintessential Indian woman, who transcends time; the tender loving mother, the devoted wife of an extraordinary man, the ferocious protector of all she holds sacred the eternal feminine Shakti that was never created, nor can ever be destroyed.
How have you handled the personal aspects of the couple’s life? Much has been said, some of it not too long ago, by parties and politicians about the sexuality and personal life of Gandhi. Is it at all easy to put that narrative line in a safe cask that we may enjoy over, say a weekend? And in doing so are we simply escaping? What would you rather do?
I have never shied away from candid descriptions of close encounters between men and women; my two earlier books bear ample testimony to that. The treatment of the utterly beautiful and natural sexual exchange that is wired into the genetics of all living species features quite liberally in my writings. In Kastur’s diary the handling is no different. For me, both Gandhi (who by his own admission was driven by a heightened libido or the desperate need to suppress it) and Kastur, are primarily human, and I don’t feel the need to couch it in a ‘safe cask’.
The word Gandhi has become synonymous with India in itself. Is then therefore a need to, sort of, separate the history from the man, so we can come to accept things about him, our textbooks won’t allow our conscience to? Do you think that is where fiction can help us?
Yes indeed. Gandhi evokes India and vice-versa. But despite the great debate about liberty and freedom of speech that has now assumed huge proportions in our country we must not forget that this has been our age-old tradition, long before other civilisations took root. We argue and debate freely; even our Gods do! So, no one is wholly untainted or downright evil. It is just our own perspective.
And this book is not the story of the Mahatma, whom we all deeply revere; it is the story of Kastur. It is her subjective narration. In the pages of her imaginary diary, she often feels hemmed in, even as she whole-heartedly participates in his mission, as the gentle prophet of peace.
Does the book touch upon the often-contested facts about the relationship between Gandhi and Sarala Devi and how it may or may not have affected Kasturba?
The Sarala Devi episode, which I have touched upon in the diary, did have a poignant effect on Kastur. Much as she was accustomed to her husband’s numerous relationships with both men and women — not necessarily sexual — she did feel completely cordoned off here. Sarala Devi did manage to unnerve the normally tolerant woman in Kastur, but she handled it with so much panache that their equanimity was soon restored and life carried on like before.
How did you see Kasturba’s role as a mother and her relationship with her troubled son Harilal? Would she have at some point seen binary opposites in her husband and son? What does that do to a woman?
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching challenge for Kastur, the mother, was maintaining the balance between a wayward son and a tyrannical father. She blamed Gandhi (and herself by default) for the plight of Harilal and to some extent the other three boys for which she could do nothing but rant and cry. To deal with such searing bipolar currents every waking moment of the day is nothing short of an internal nuclear fission. You are bound to self-combust. A tough call for the sturdiest of humans, what to talk of a mother!
You would be well aware that the book might court controversy quite easily. What do you think is the problem there and how do you plan to handle it?
This is a work of fiction, as is clearly stated on the copyright page and I don’t see why there should be any controversy. My Kastur is a fictional character bound within the domain of documented history. She may speak and behave in a manner that may appear out of place, but let us not forget that this is how I have chosen to paint her, through the realm of my imagination.
My Kastur lives and breathes and speaks and emotes and traipses effortlessly through this chronicle as perhaps I would if I were her. And I would want everyone, particularly ‘young India’ and the youth of the rest of the world, to invade that space with me, and re-live the saga of this phenomenal woman who for me, transcends every limitation and resurrects herself in the pages of her diary.
'The Secret Diary of Kasturba' is published by Westland