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Kasturba Gandhi was the wife of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence is his greatest contribution to mankind, and in this he gave credit to the example of his wife. As he commented to John S. Hoyland, ‘I learnt the lesson of non-violence from my wife when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering of all [that] my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her; and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.’ Gandhi’s mother, Putlibai, a highly pious woman, influenced the young Gandhi with her austere ways. And in spite of the immense intellectual gap between them, Gandhiji had to learn to respect Kasturba’s opinion.

Born at Porbandar in 1869, Kasturba (Kasturi) was one of four children. Her father Gokuldass Makanji was an affluent merchant. She was illiterate when she was married to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at the age of 13. He taught her to read and write and she was a willing learner. In 1896, she went with him to Natal, South Africa. In 1901, after consulting her, Gandhiji took the vow of brahmacharya. She was his companion in all his experiments in India and in South Africa. To her, all his disciples were like her own children, like her sons Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. At the Sabarmati Ashram she looked after the numerous guests and regularly spun khadi. On one occasion, she was asked either to give up her notion of untouchability or to leave the Ashram; she was enlightened enough to choose to give up untouchability. Later she renounced all caste distinctions and adopted a Harijan girl as her own daughter. During Gandhi’s experiment in village upliftment in Champaran, Kasturba immersed herself completely in the movement.

She went to prison several times, first in South Africa, later during India’s non-violent fight for freedom. Whenever Gandhiji was arrested Kasturba plunged into the struggle, addressing meetings, collecting funds and boosting the morale of the people. In 1930 and 1932 she courted arrest by picketing shops selling liquor and foreign cloth. In 1939 she participated in the Rajkot satyagraha for political reforms and was detained at Tramba. In 1942 she was arrested while going to address a meeting and was held at the Aga Khan Palace detention camp in Puné. Her health deteriorated; she suffered from chronic bronchitis and contracted terminal pneumonia. As a mark of protest she gave up all food and drink except water from the river Ganga. On 22 February 1944, she passed away in the lap of her husband saying, ‘I am going now, we have known many joys and many sorrows.’ In accordance with her last wish, she was cremated in a khadi sari spun by her husband.

Kasturba’s disappointment in life was Harilal, her eldest rebel son. Gandhi disowned him but she could not give him up. Prior to her death he came to meet her quite drunk, and realising that he was beyond reform, she grieved for him. She learnt to dress like a Parsi and eat with a knife and fork as her husband wanted her to acquire English manners. Later, when he wished her to lead an austere life at the Ashram, she did that too, without fuss. A small yet elegant woman, she was straightforward and methodical. The Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust was established by Gandhi and the nation, and collected Rs 125 lakhs for the benefit of women living in the villages. She and Gandhi were indeed an extraordinary team. To sum up in his words: ‘We were a couple outside the ordinary.’
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