A month ago, I got an email from Nachiketa Desai. He said he was the grandson of Mahadev Desai. That name I knew. My maternal grandparents were both Gandhians and my bed-time stories during the summer break with them were all about Gandhi and the freedom struggle. Of the many names that popped up often in the stories, one was Mahadevbhai.
In my later years, I read that much of what we know about Gandhi was thanks to his personal secretary, frontline reporter and confidant Mahadev Desai. He shadowed Gandhi, writing a daily report in his diary, translating Gandhi’s Hindi and Gujarati speeches into English and editing all his writings. Not a day went by without this in the 25 years Mahadev Desai was with Gandhi, till his untimely demise at age 50, on the August 15, 1942.
So when that email came inviting my mother and me as guests of honour to release Nachiketa Desai’s book at the Sabarmati Ashram, we both said yes. It also seemed like the perfect place to start the new year. The last time I was at the Gandhi ashram was in 2005 when Shekhar Kapur and I released an audio book of My Experiments with Truth for Karadi Tales. Eighteen years later, it was to release Mahadev Desai – Mahatma Gandhi’s Frontline Reporter, about the man who had translated and edited Gandhi’s autobiography.
According to anthropologist Verrier Elwin, Desai made Gandhi perhaps the best-known man in the world – certainly the best loved.
The scholar and grandson of Gandhi, Rajmohan Gandhi, described Mahadev Desai as someone who lived Gandhiji’s day thrice over – first in an attempt to anticipate it, next in spending it alongside Gandhiji, and finally in recording it in his diary. He said, “This ‘correct’ description excludes the independent mind, conscience and pen that Desai supplied and Gandhi relied upon.”
When Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Gandhi’s and Rajgopalachari’s grandson was told about this book, he said, “The independent personality of Mahadevbhai got overshadowed in the reflected glory of Gandhiji. Imagine what a great writer and a journalist he would have been if he had not dedicated his life in the service of Gandhiji.”
All this and more inspired Nachiketa Desai to write the book. But it was only in his 70s that he took up the task of rediscovering his grandfather as an independent mind and a committed journalist. He has chosen to keep the tone personal by calling him Dadaji throughout the book. In the preface, he writes, “Mahadevbhai’s diaries were also not of much help as they were not his but Gandhiji’s. The key to his life was to be found in Gandhiji’s writings, in which he figures in hundreds of places.” This may seem ironic but it reveals that their relationship was completely symbiotic.
Let me come back to the morning of January 1. When my mother and I walked towards the Gandhi ashram, all we could hear was a blaring loudspeaker with a religious song set to a Bollywood tune. Everybody slowly began to gather in the open area next to the Sabarmati river. The long-time secretary of the ashram, Sudarshan Iyengar, invited a singer to begin the programme. He set the tone by singing Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re, a favorite of Gandhi’s. Slowly the words and the soulful singing drowned all other noise.
Then all of us, including Bhikhu Parekh, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, spoke about the importance of such a book. As I listened to speaker after speaker, I realised how little we know about the many courageous and dedicated people who shaped the history of our country. The author excitedly narrated the joys and challenges of writing his first book. It made me think about the vanishing generation that valued simplicity, ethics, commitment to a greater cause, with a clear moral compass, so much more than we find today.
It is becoming more and more difficult to hold on to that faith and idealism to overcome our polarities, divisions, and prejudices. However, there are still many who are a part of peaceful resistance movements that draw inspiration from the freedom struggle. Sitting on the banks of the Sabarmati, at the site of Gandhi’s movement, seemed like an oasis in the chaos we otherwise exist in. It was truly a special morning and I couldn’t have wished for a more reflective and inspirational start to 2023.
Nandita Das is the director most recently of Zwigato.