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FAQ 2: Gandhi's Children

Q

I also wish to ask you whether it is possible for one to learn about Gandhi's children (& grandchildren).

 

 

A

It is possible to learn about Gandhi's children and grandchildren, (and even great-grandchildren).

 


As is the case with Mirabehn, any good biography of Gandhi will not only mention his children, but discuss Gandhi's relationships with his children. This is partly because these relationships shed some interesting light on the main subject.
Gandhi and Kasturba had four sons - Harilal (1888-1948) who was born in India, Manilal (1892-1956) born in India, Ramdas (1897-1969) born in South Africa, and Devdas (1900-1957) born in South Africa. Harilal and his wife Chanchal produced four children, Manilal and his wife Sushila three, Ramdas and his wife Nirmala two and Devdas and his wife Lakshmi four. Thus Gandhi had thirteen grandchildren. The family name is well and truly alive today.
 
The story of Gandhi and his children is itself a long and involved one. The main theme seems to be that whilst the second, third and fourth sons coped fairly well with all that came with being a son of the Mahatma, the eldest Harilal did not cope well. You will notice that he was born when Gandhi was still a very young man, and he died in the same year. (He died in a tuberculosis hospital in June 1948.) The main theme with Harilal seems to be that in Gandhi's drive to see that his wife and sons
were integral parts of his many experiments with simple living, dietetics and so on, Gandhi deprived Harilal of things that a son from a normal middle-class marriage could have expected - a normal education, for example. Harilal apparently resented his father's treatment of him (he argued that his father had had a university education), and even his father's treatment of his mother. The record shows that Harilal at one stage converted to Islam and became an alcoholic. It seems also that
 when Harilal's wife died in 1918 and his father would not approve a re-marriage, he broke down. It is undoubtedly a sad story.
 
There seemed to be a paradox in Gandhi's treatment of his wife and children and his behaviour towards others. He was exceptionally demanding of himself, and demanding of those closest to him. Whereas he displayed loving kindness to virtually everyone, with his family he could be quite severe. One of Gandhi's best known biographers, Louis Fischer, in "The Life of Mahatma Gandhi", put it beautifully when he wrote to the effect that Gandhi thought his sons could be chips off the old block (an English-language expression) but the block did not chip. Gandhi's relationships with his other three sons seem to have mellowed in Gandhi's later life.
 
As for the grandchildren, I do not know all of their activities. I really only know of three. Arun - son of Manilal - is today Founder Director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee. Ramchandra - son of Devdas - I believe is an academic, and Rajmohan - also son of Devdas - has been a journalist, academic,
politician and activist. He is also a high quality author. In 1995 he published a biography of his grandfather, "The Good Boatman", (Viking, New Delhi). In the preface of this book, Rajmohan describes Gandhi as being to him personally "both a wonder and a weight".
 
There are people who know more of the other grandchildren's activities. If you really want to know I could put you in touch. Of course one can try to contact the grandchildren directly. Of course, the "grandchildren" are now middle-aged adults.
As for the great-grand children I know even less. A son of Arun has been active in Indian political affairs in recent years, while Rajmohan has a talented daughter. I am not sure how much you want to know.
 
The Gandhi film does deal with the children sparingly. I think Attenborough felt they were not central to the story of the man he wished to tell, which was a dramatic story. Although he did make a point of including one scene depicting an argument between Gandhi and Kasturba. For simple reasons of length, the film had to omit a very
great deal. Aspects of his life that were important to a rounded picture of the man nevertheless had to be limited to a very brief reference. But this was probably unavoidable.
 
Growing up with civil activism in their family was, as you say, a strong childhood influence. My understanding is that two or three of the sons played significant roles in their father's work, in South Africa and in India. But it was clearly a strain to be a son of the Mahatma and to live in his gigantic shadow. There was never any chance of a completely normal life. Even today, members of the Gandhi family have an incredible
legacy to shoulder.

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