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The rebel in the Gandhi family - The Hindustan Times

Posted By Krishnakant Udavant (kkant@bom2.vsnl.net.in)
July 19, 1998

Title: The rebel in the Gandhi family
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: July 19, 1998

(Devadas Gandhi former editor of The Hindustan Times in the
article "My Brother" published in 1948, talks of Harilal who
never took to Bapu's brand of selflessness, of placing countrymen
above the family)

The hand of death has brought deliverance to a restless soul. My
eldest brother, Harilal (not Hirilal) never knew mental or
physical peace in his 60 years of life.

The last time I saw him wag four lays after the assassination
when n one of his penitent moods he turned up from somewhere at
our house in Delhi to mourn with us. He was ill and had to be
carefully nursed. His face was drawn and emaciated and, as my
wife remarked and our little Gopu showed by his behaviour,
resembled Bapu's a lot. When he felt better he went away, for he
had come to bless us, not to interfere in the ceremonies in which
the whole of Delhi was then occupied. As he boarded the train for
Bombay he said with a weariness not noticed in him before. "It
is always my lot to he on the move!" That was his last long
journey on earth. The news of his death in Bombay reached us in
London on our return from the Continent.

Although he had forsaken the family - as the family had forsaken
him - and wandered under Conditions of great discomfort
throughout the length and breadth of the country, at times of
distress, he would always make a point of putting in an
appearance. He was there when Ba died at Poona in the Aga Khan
Palace prison, during many of Bapu's perilous fasts, and when his
son, Rasik, died in my arms in the Jamia Milha Islamia in Delhi
where I was in 1928. He grieved bitterly, but with no corn plaint
against any one, over his son's death. In the prime of life the
boy was studying under my care, and fell victim to typhoid. It is
dangerous to have typhoid at or about the age of 17. He used to
teach spinning to the boys in the Jamia and was himself an adept
in the art. He would himself turn out more than his own quota and
had kept on spinning even after the onset of fever.

Dr Ansari, who was also Chancellor of the Jamia, wore himself
down for Rasik. But the toxins were too strong and the heart gave
way just when the corner was about to be turned. A factor against
us was the December cold of Delhi. My brother was located and
contacted with difficulty and came just in time to see life
ebbing away. It was his wont to quarrel with his brothers, but
not on an occasion like this. He reproached himself, was gentle
with us all, thanked the good doctor and his friends, and left
for one of his unknown destinations.

A scene during my childhood which I vividly remember was that of
my brother carrying on his shoulder a huge leather bag and
engaged in deep conversation with Bapu as they walked together
from Phoenix railway station, near Durban, to our home. I walked
behind. For me it was just one of those innumerable walks I
enjoyed having with Bapu between station and home. I hardly
followed the conversation. My brother had rebelled against Bapu's
life of "experiments" and fled in secrecy with only a few
personal belongings. His disappearance caused alarm, but before
things became unbearable, particularly for Ba, a friend in whom
he had confided informed Bapu that he was on his way to India.
Bapu sent a telegram to the port in East Africa where he was to
embark, asking him to come back to talk the matter over in person
and promising him full ultimate liberty of action.

He had on several occasions wished to go to Europe and to study
for the Bar. Bapu had a little money to spare, even after he had
renounced worldly fife in South Africa, but he had decided to
spend it for the community and not on his family. When a young
Parsi lad, Sorabji Adajania, was chosen to be sent to London for
higher education my brother's sense of injury was complete. That
Sorabji was to dedicate his future services to the cause of
Indians in South Africa made no difference to him. It was the
final signal for departure. The talk during the walk, as I learnt
years later, was infructuous and my brother kept to his
programme. This must have been near about 1910. He never returned
to Bapu after that in any sense of the term. He has now followed
him in death.

When we met years later in India, he was a changed man. He had
broken completely, both physically and mentally, from Bapu. Upon
his return to India, after Bapu had failed to persuade him to
stay in South Africa, he had written a long "Open Letter to Bapu"
which he had intended but could never summon the necessary
hardihood to publish. He had, however, circulated it privately
among a fairly wide circle and Bapu had received his copy. It was
an indictment of sorts centering round Bapu's supposed neglect of
his own children to the benefit of the sons and daughters of
relatives and friends. It, however, gave his case away in many
respects and I am sure that it was a sense of the weakness of his
thesis that prevailed with my brother in the decision not to
proceed any further with the "Letter". But it was a landmark in
his life and in his connection with the family.

He always obstinately clung to his own ideas. He respected Bapu
and defended him vigorously outside the circle of family and
friends. He had tender regard for Ba and liked his brothers. But
he enjoyed remaining perpetual opposition. We, his brothers and
cousins and others he moved with, were affectionately termed
"hypocrites" who pretended to but did not really serve or follow

When his wife died in the influenza epidemic of 1920 he became
even more thoroughly independent and irresponsible. It was a
perfectly nomadic fife he led from then onwards. His alcoholism
had by now become chronic. He cooperated honestly when on
numerous occasions Bapu tried to cure him. But the results were
always disappointing. The efforts of others never had any chance.
He had a strong mind and could never bring himself to suffer
those who talked virtue to him. He repelled all precept as
sanctimonious and generally saw motives of personal gain behind
the good conduct of others. My chances with him were nil. But
only for the sake of Ba. I like my brothers, tried my hand at
reclamation. Our one misfortune in his case was that he was the
eldest. He was therefore naturally superior and had even brought
us up or watched us grow.

The last 20 years of his life were the most tragic. Excessive
drink had dulled the conscience. If not the intellect, and he
would give his parents, brothers and children and friends shock
after shock. One of his well-known escapades was the mock
conversion to Islam. He meant it as a stunt. But it had its
inevitable complications and brought great discredit to those who
sponsored and glorified the event and sought to make all manner
of capital out of it. Simultaneously came unseemly stories of his
life as a "Muslim." The strain and agony of the humiliation of it
all was too much for Ba. She gave vent to her feelings one
morning in Delhi as she soliloquised in my presence. It was so
pathetic and piercing that later in the day, I reduced it to
writing and the result was the famous. "Open Letter from a
brother to her Son" which found publicity in nearly every daily
and weekly in the country. As a spontaneous expression of the
heart it was the most telling of anything of the kind I have ever
known. To the handful of Muslims who were exploiting the
situation it brought a consciousness of their folly and guilt and
the contempt they were bringing their own religion into. My
brother quickly retraced his step.

In the number of miles travelled by railway trains in India, his
record could touch Bapu's. He kept flitting from place to Place
and everywhere was looked after by friends. In spite of his
familiar vagaries they never ceased to love him. He had that
something in him which drew people to him and enabled them to
overlook his failings. He always held his head high and never
sought seriously to injure anyone.

But a remarkable trait in him was his audacious readiness to
suffer the consequences of his ways and what he called his free
thinking. How can people survive even a few years of the
shelterless and foodless existence that was his self-chosen lot.
He would be penniless and in tatters for days together and would
five literally like a beggar in the streets. And although it is
true that evil people sought him out and used him for their own
ends, it was while he lived as a perfect destitute that he found
some of the best specimens of humanity on the lowest rungs of the
social ladder, who succoured and comforted him.

My brother to read little, but always chose what he read with
fastidious care. One book he always spoke of with reverence and
great satisfaction was Lokamanya Tilak's famous treatise on the
Bhagwat Gita. He carried a copy with him everywhere and even when
he did not have even a shirt to, wear, he would still have with
him that copy of the Gita Rahasya. If I can at all find the
particular copy which he used, I shall keep it with other
treasures of the kind.

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