From a ‘babu’ to being the Mahatma’s man

By Papri Sri Raman, IANS

Chennai : We walked into his house with the image in our mind of a frail old man carrying a stick; but before us stood a spry 85-year-young man with a twinkle in his eyes and a memory as sharp as a needle. Born on Aug 15, 1922, V. Kalyanam was personal secretary to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

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A reluctant secretary to the Mahatma, the sprightly Kalyanam has often hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, more recently for facilitating some of Gandhi’s writings to reach a London auction house and earlier for saying, “…ever since, Gandhi misused me”.

One would suspect Kalyanam came from a family of freedom fighters. “No”, he said.

“My father was a government servant. I was brought up in Delhi and Simla (now Shimla) . We lived in two houses, moving from city to city according to the season. Our houses had all modern facilities and we lived well. I was my father’s only son.

“As I grew up, I noticed that the British in Simla were very industrious. They painted their houses and carpentered their windows themselves, they tended their gardens. I was an outdoor type, and soon I took to gardening and doing all sorts of odd jobs myself.

“In those days in Delhi, the south Indian community (Tamils and Malayalis mostly) was about 2,000 strong. We had a club and helped each other and gathered during civil functions. Soon I became known as a young man interested in social work.

“We all knew Gandhi had called for independence, but we left it at that. We read about the freedom struggle in the newspapers. I often wondered, why we needed freedom. The cities were spotlessly clean; we had everything we needed.

“I joined government service when I was 22, at a princely salary of Rs.200 per month, and began working for a Englishman called Dwelly.

“He, like many Englishmen of the time, was very sympathetic to Gandhi’s cause. He told me, ‘India must have freedom’ and that ‘Gandhi’s struggle was right’.

“I still did not understand fully and happily cycled to office every day, surrounded by cycling Englishmen. One day, a basket of thorns arrived on the office table, to be used instead of pins. Envelopes had to be reused!”

The World War had begun.

In 1942, Gandhi gave the ‘Quit India’ call and was imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace Aug 9. From that day, Kalyanam’s destiny changed.

“One day, some friends talked of helping Gandhi’s cause. They gave me some pamphlets printed in English and told me to insert then quietly under the doors of Indians in my neighbourhood. I did not even read what was written on them. As luck would have it, I was spotted doing this by a hawk-eyed Anglo-Indian policeman.

“He caught me by the scruff of my collar and took me to the Connaught Place police station. It was teeming with Congress workers, there for disrupting train traffic, cutting electricity. There was no place for me there.

“So, in a few days, I was sent to the jail in Lahore. It was the best thing that happened to me. I had never before made friends with the Punjabis. It was a new world… Oh! The smell of Basmati pulao (pilaf), I had never had pulao before!”

Kalyanam was let off in about eight months and returned to his job in Delhi. One day Devdas Gandhi asked him if he would like to go to the ‘ashram’.

“I did not know who Devdas was, except that he was editor of The Hindustan Times. He was married to Rajaji’s daughter and someone must have told him about me.

“I did not know what the ashram was. I asked my English boss. He said he would mark my presence, but I should take the offer and visit Gandhi’s ashram at Seva Gram, near Wardha.

“I went for two months. The toilets were a trench, sheltered by rows of thatches, and a heap of mud in a corner, which we had to spread over, after use. It was so novel, so clean, not a whiff of stench! And good manure.”

Kalyanam spent his time tending the fields, and sorting letters that came for Gandhi, who was still interned. Two things had happened meanwhile.

“Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s assistant, who was also at the Aga Khan Palace, died of a massive heart attack Aug 15, 1942, within a week of Gandhi being arrested. He was Gandhi’s right hand, his counsellor, Desai was as great a strategist as Nehru and Gandhi. I was a mere clerk compared to Desai,” said Kalyanam.

Soon, Kasturba Gandhi too died. Gandhi was ill.

“The British never wanted him to die in their jail. They released him unconditionally in 1944. He spent some time after that in Mumbai, at shipping magnet Shanti Morarji’s bungalow. I went to see Gandhi for the first time.

“He was in his traditional loin cloth. I thought I had come to meet him at the wrong time, even then I did not know that was his usual attire.

“He asked me several questions in a low voice. And one of them was: could I type? I still did not understand what he wanted. But soon, I was taking dictations from him… though I hated desk work. That is why I say, Gandhi began ‘mis’using me! Till his dying day.”