Unusual kinships: Foreign women in Gandhi’s life

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Mahatma Gandhi and foreign women shared a complex relationship. His innate sensitivity drew several women from the West to the icon of non-violence who felt at home with them, says Melbourne-based Gandhian scholar Thomas Weber.

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“Western women were first mentioned in his life as part of his vow to his mother – before he was given permission to read law abroad – along with alcohol and meat which were not to be touched. But during his South Africa sojourn, Western women became important supporters,” Weber says in a new book “Going Native” (Roli Books) that probes Gandhi’s relationship with white women and his outlook to the role of women in society.

The list of Gandhi’s women disciples and friends from the West is long and formidable. The book chronicles his interactions with at least 12 of them.

The reasons for Western women’s fascination for Gandhi stems from the fact that many Western women at that time had strong religious faith and socialist principles that drove them to work for peace and with the poor, Weber analyses.

“They became interested in Gandhi’s philosophy and campaigns, paid visits to India, and added his cause for Independence to theirs. Many women travelled to India to meet the saintly Gandhi they were starting to hear about, stayed for a lengthy period and went native,” Weber says.

Gandhi’s respect for women, whom he regarded as founts of courage, strength and sexless beings equal to men in social status, struck a chord among Western feminists and drew several women to him.

Gandhi’s closest friend in his early political and legal career in South Africa was Millie Graham Polak.

In late October and November 1906, when Gandhi was in London as part of an Indian delegation to discuss discrimination in South Africa, he also came into close contact with Millie’s sisters-in-law, Maud and Sally.

Gandhi was received with such warmth by the family that he jokingly wrote to Millie’s husband, Henry Polak, that if he were unmarried, or young or believed in mixed marriage, “you know what I would have done”, Weber says in his book.

Noted South African liberal and feminist Olive Schreiner was another of Gandhi’s high-profile woman supporters. Born to a large South African missionary family, Schreiner married a farmer in 1894 and made inroads into South African politics.

Schreiner was inspired by the Satyagraha movement which brought her close to Gandhi.
A moved Gandhi noted that Schreiner’s “love for all mankind was unbounded; love was written in her eyes and she knew no difference between her Negro servants and herself”, Weber says.

Mischievous and impetuous Sonja Schlesin of South African origin met Gandhi in 1906 when she was 16, Weber says.

Sonja was introduced to Gandhi by his close friend Harman Kallenbach, a German, who said, “Sonja was very clever and honest, but she is very mischievous and impetuous; perhaps she is even insolent; I do not place her with you for mere pay”.

A fiery critic of Gandhi and his literary works, Sonja corresponded with Gandhi through letters all his life.

Mahatma Gandhi knew noted Indian theosophist and home rule votary of British origin, Annie Besant, as a student in London. In 1889, he heard Besant deliver a lecture on “Why I Became a Theosophist” and was so captivated that he followed her career for the next 30 years.

However, he differed with her ideology. While Besant worked with the “Indian elite for the uplift of India”, Gandhi preferred to work with the downtrodden, Weber says in his book.

Gandhi’s legal office in Johannesburg contained three framed photographs – of Tolstoy, Christ and Annie Besant.

Of all Gandhi’s Western disciples, Madeleine Slade, a Briton whom he later named Mirabehn, was the foremost among contenders for his trust and affection.

Her love for Gandhi shone in her private letters to him.

“I could not, even if I tried, be anything else but what I am before you and that is why, however ashamed I am of my weakness, I have to lay my heart before my ‘bapu’ (father)- you are indeed my father and mother and what is more than all, you are bapu, my bapu in whom I live and in whom I have utter confidence that only boundless love can inspire,” she wrote to Gandhi.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])