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MIRA BEHN (1892–1982)

Mira Behn was a freedom fighter. Born Madeleine Slade, the daughter of Admiral Sir Edmund Slade and the scion of an aristocratic family. Her mother had a trace of gypsy ancestry, which Madeleine always claimed gave her the wanderlust. She was an untypical child of her class, fond of music yet preferring nature to society balls; Beethoven especially fascinated her. She read Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, a book based on Beethoven’s life, and his book on Gandhi as well, which changed her life. She became a vegetarian, gave up alcohol and studied the Gita.

In 1924 she wrote to Gandhiji, asking to join him, which she did the following year. Life was hard at Sabarmati Ashram, but she bore it well, adopting Indian dress and learning to card and spin. She took the vow of brahmacharya, shaved her head and wore saffron in later years, though Gandhiji dissuaded her from converting to Hinduism. She had to serve a long apprenticeship before Gandhi would allow her to enter the political struggle, but at last she proved her sincerity. He gave her the name Mira in recognition of her devotion to him and to the cause. She toured India, gathering information for him to use to direct his campaigns, and helped him draft the Quit India agenda. After Gandhiji’s death her attachment to India grew thin, and in 1959 she moved to a village near Vienna, where she lived in retirement with Beethoven’s music.

Daughter of a British Admiral Madeleine Slade renounced the life of luxury and worked in the service of India. She accompanied Gandhi to England in 1931 and undertook a tour of America and Britain in 1934 to enlist sympathy for the Indian cause. She suffered imprisonment in 1932-33 and 1942-44 for the cause of India’s Independence.

Rita Dalmiya
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