Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc
Monday, July 2, 2007
The Father of Harilal
THE SUNDAY TIMES OF INDIA, JULY 01
As Akshaye Khanna plays Gandhi’s prodigal son, Harilal in Feroz Khan’s Gandhi — My Father, Nina Martyris delves into one of history’s most tragic characters
Harilal was Mahatma Gandhi’s most inconvenient truth. The universal story of father and son as adversaries is only as old and tired as the institution of the family itself, but in the case of the Gandhi-Harilal contretemps it was clearly an unequal fight, with the odds quite hopelessly stacked against the son. It was one thing to buck an authoritarian father figure, quite another to be up against a political saint whose cast-iron devotion to principle and truth had a whole country in thrall.
With his stubborn morality, sexual abstinence, and faddish lifestyle, Gandhi was a difficult parent. He is perhaps the only upper-middle-class Indian father ever to have sat his four sons down and pointed them to a range of glorious career choices, from farmer and cobbler to weaver and scavenger, and to be deeply disappointed by their bourgeoisie desire to be lawyers and journalists.
The younger sons, Ramdas and Devdas, were indulged chiefly because by the time they had come of age, Gandhi is said to have learned from his earlier mistakes and scaled down the unrealistic levels of expectation. The two older boys, Harilal and Manilal, were in a sense the guinea pigs of his radical world view and this affected them deeply. All his life Harilal struggled against his father’s magnificent impartiality and refusal to favour his own children above anyone else’s in the settlement. And so a scholarship to study abroad, which might have changed the young man’s life, was passed on to a distant nephew. It was a hard blow and the early seeds of discord were sown.
The ill-starred Harilal is back in the news as a result of the soon-to-bereleased film, Gandhi — My Father. Director Feroz Khan, who is revisiting a subject that he first tackled with remarkable sensitivity in his play Mahatma Vs Gandhi, once more interrogates this vexed relationship.
The film is based on Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal’s fine book Harilal Gandhi: A Life (Orient Longman), acknowledged as the most authentic documentation of the Mahatma-Harilal relationship. Khan calls it “the Gangotri”. The film opens with Harilal’s death, him being scraped off the streets in Mumbai and carried to Sion Hospital. He is so far gone that he can barely say his name, and when asked for his father’s, can only manage “Bapu”. Impatient with his delirium, the doctors tell him Bapu is the whole of India’s father. What is your father’s name? Ironies of this kind strafe the film. If khadi was an article of faith for Gandhi, his son hawked foreign cloth. If non-violence was the touchstone of his father’s philosophy, Harilal’s business at one point depended on the continuance of World War II. Peace brought with it ruination.
Unable to bear that his essentially good-hearted son had fallen among thieves, Gandhi publicly cut ties with him. And when Harilal, whose insolvency made him a prime candidate for being appropriated, crossed briefly to Islam and became Abdullah, his father struck back with an editorial in Harijan, accusing him of converting on specious grounds, of being addicted to the bottle, and of visiting houses of ill-repute. The conversion is said to have broken Kasturba’s heart.
That there was some sort of unspoken blacking out of Harilal from Gandhi’s daily world is evident from the fact that his faithful secretary Mahadev Desai, meticulous in all else, is almost completely silent on Harilal. Gandhi, too, chose to tear up the letters written to him by his son. Fortunately for us, Harilal preserved his father’s numerous missives, which, along with his own letters to his wife Gulab and sister-in-law Balibehn, remain the most valid route to understanding him.
But it is thanks to the first-person account by Mahadev’s son Narayan Desai that we are privy to the most gutting encounter between Gandhi, Kasturba and Harilal at Katni station. Harilal has begged for an orange and brought one for his mother. When asked by his Bapu if there is one for him too, he replies, “No, nothing for you. All the greatness you have achieved is only because of Ba. Never forget that.” And as the crowd shouts slogans in praise of Gandhi, a quavering, defiant voice is heard above the din, “Kasturba ki jai.”