The Mahatma and his Harijan Family – Tushar Butt

Interview : Gandhiji’s adopted daughter (20-10-1968)

Way back in 1915, Gandhiji invited a Harijan family at his Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad to literally start what today is known as the movement eradicate untouchablity.Gandhi asked a  Harijan teacher,Dudabhai, and his family to come to stay in the Ashram.

The admission of Dudabhai , his wife Daniben and their daughter Lakshmi, “then a mere toddling babe”, to quote Gandhiji , “created a flutter amongst the friends who had been helping the Ashram”. In his autobiography Gandhiji has devoted a full chapter to this event which was to shake the very foundations of the orthodox Hindu society in years to come. Lakshmi became Gandhiji’s daughter.

Much water has flown in Sabarmati river since, Today, Lakshmi, who was only one and half years old when her family went to Kochrab, is 54. Though Gandhiji mentioned her in his autobiography, the story of her life has remained largely unknown.

Mrs.Lakshmiben Sharma now lives in a two-room tenement in a middle-class chawl in the heart of Ahmedabad. When one talks about Gandhiji, a sense of joy and nostalgia lightens her wrinkled face.

Do you remember the day when your parents first went to meet Gandhiji ?

I was very young then. But my father in later years told me of the visit. My father was a teacher in Bombay. Thakkar bapa (a prominent social worker among Adivasis) sent us to Gandhiji. Our family stayed for some days in the Kochrab ashram. Bapu had very strict rules in the ashram life. He used to grind food grains and draw water from well. There were 50 people in the ashram and Gandhiji would cook for them. He would not put any salt in the Dal and Vegetables. The day we went there, my father told me, Gandhiji insisted on his eating with him. After the meal was over, he called for Rama to take away the used dishes. My father thought   Rama might be a household servant. My father went with him to the place where the utensils were cleaned.There he asked details about Gandhiji’s family and to his astonishment learnt that the person when Gandhiji called Rama to carry away the dishes was no one but his son Ramadas.

Was there any oppositions to your entry into the Ashram ?

Some inmates did not like it. Kastruba and some other women, brought up in strict orthodoxy did not seem to relish our entry. But Gandhiji was very firm. Besides, there was trouble from outside also. Monetary help to the ashram was stopped. There were rumors of a social boycott, too. One day matters came to a crisis, Gandhiji was told there was no money left in the Ashram. Gandhiji quietly said that they would close the Ashram and go to the Harijan quarters to live. However , one morning , shortly after this , a wealthy man drove to the Ashram and donated a handsome sum even without giving his name. The Ashram was saved.

What happened then, did you stay in the Ashram ?

As I said earlier I was only a small babe. Gandhiji told my parents that he would adopt me when I was little grown up. We went back to Bombay. My mother was reluctant to part with me but my father persuaded her into agreeing. He told her that “If Lakshmi could be of any help in removing the curse of untouchability. We should  give her as daughter to Gandhiji.

This means that your father was a forward looking man.How did he come to be in Bombay ?

My father hailed from Amreli in Saurashtra. Amreli was then under the rule of the Gaekwars of Baroda. My father had Studied and was well ahead of his time. In fact my parents were married in the presence of the benevolent ruler of Baroda, the late Maharaja Sayajiram .

So in 1915 your family returned to Bomby from Kochrab. Then ?

Around 1920-21, When I was five, Gandhiji had come to Bombay. He called my parents and told them he would now take me with him to the Sabarmati Ashram. When I came to Ashram I did not know anybody. But I remember that Devadas used to take care of me. Kasturba also was very kind.  She would bathe me and comb my hair. I became Gandhiji’s Harijan daughter.

Did you stay in the Ashram for many years ? How did you leave it ?

I stayed in the Ashram for nearly 14 years. Then my marriage was arranged with a worker in the Swarajya Ashram at Bardoli. He was a south Indian Brahmin named Marulayya. However everybody called him Marutidas in Gujarat. When the marriage ceremony was to take place Gandhiji was in Jail. Pandit Narayanrao Khare an inmate in the Ashram and a prominent exponent of classical music performed the ceremony. The marriage ceremony was held in a place called Lal Bunglow near the Ashram. In those days it was a rule of Gandhiji that no marriages would be held in the Ashram premises. Another rule was that no unmarried girl would be allowed to attend a marriage ceremony.

Your husband was a Brahmin and you a harijan. Did it ever cause any embarrassment ?

No. We had no troubles. Even society did not give any. After my marriage, I went to stay with my husband at Bardoli Ashram which was to be wounded up in a few months. Thereafter we returned to Ahmedabad. He passed away in 1946. I took up a job as nurse in a city textile mill and worked till recently. I had to give it up as I fell from a staircase and had a compound fracture. I was successfully operated upon but since then I cannot take up heavy work. My son Haribhai, works as a stenographer in Khadi Board office.

After your marriage what was Gandhiji’s attitude towards you ? 

Oh, He continued to be “My affectionate Bapu”. Every year like any other parents, Gandhiji and Kasturba would write to me to come and stay with them. Bapu used to play for a long time with my son when I stayed with them. When I returned to my husband’s house  from Bapu’s camp. Kasturba would always give me something in the traditional fashion of mothers giving something to daughters. Gandhiji insisted that. I should write to him regularly. If there was no letter from me in eight or ten days, he would scold me. He would write “Are you so busy that you cannot even write to your father about your health”

When Gandhiji died what was your reaction ?

That day I just had returned from work and I was lying in bed, somebody came and said “Bapu was no more” . I did not believe it.  I was dazed. Ultimately a worker from the Congress Bhavan sent word confirming the sad news. I wanted to rush to Delhi by air, but could not afford it. I had severe attacks of hysteria for three days-nearly 100 times a day. On the fourth day I went to Delhi and to Allahabad where Gandhiji’s ashes were immersed in the Sangam.

 

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