Kasturba Gandhi, known affectionately as Ba, was married to Mohandas Gandhi in 1882 when she was but ten years old. When Gandhi left for London in 1888, she did not accompany him: she was already a mother since Harilal had been born earlier that year.
Manilal was born to them in 1892; Ramdas followed in 1897, and Devadas, the last of their four sons, was born in 1900. In 1906, Gandhi decided to observe brahmacharya, or observe the vow of chastity: and thereafter Mohandas and Kasturba never had any sexual relations.
Gandhi himself wrote that Kasturba eagerly assented to his decision to take a vow, but we do not have this from her own mouth, and some modern feminist readings have taken this an instance of Gandhi’s overbearing attitudes.
It is unequivocally clear, however, that Kasturba worked alongside her husband. When Gandhi became involved in the agitation to improve working conditions for Indians in South Africa and give them the power to represent themselves, Kasturba eventually decided to join the struggle. In September 1913, she was arrested, and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment at hard labor.
On numerous subsequent occasions in India, she took Gandhi’s place when he was under arrest and was always closely associated with the struggle in India, giving encouragement to women volunteers.
Kasturba was to develop into a very considerable figure in her own right, but sadly she has scarcely received the attention she deserves. She showed an independence of spirit, and Gandhi’s autobiography records an incident when he was almost tempted, in a moment of acute anger, to throw her out of the home. He had asked that she should contribute, as did everyone else at their ashram, to menial tasks; and though she agreed, size balked at having to clean the toilets, and flatly refused to do so.
There were also disagreements between them on the care of their sons, whom Kasturba (like some others) was inclined to believe had been neglected by their father. Gandhi, on the other hand, took the view that as his sons, they were entitled to no special privileges. Harilal, in particular, caused her great sorrow, and when he once arrived at her bedside during her last illness, she burst into tears.
Mohandas and Kasturba remained married for sixty-two years, but it is one of the marriages about which we’ll know very little, though Gandhi’s own life has been recorded in excruciatingly minute detail.
We do not really know, for example, how she received the presence of other women who were to become Gandhi’s followers and devotees, to the point where they, rather than Kasturba, attended to his daily needs. Yet this very question presumes the centrality of the husband-wife nexus over all others, and this may be a way of approaching questions that have had little resonance in Indian culture.
Contemporary witnesses have testified to the extraordinary bonds of affection between them. Following the ‘Quit India’ movement, Kasturba joined her husband in detention at the Aga Khan’s Palace in Poona. It is there that she died in 1944; Gandhi was at her bedside, and a picture was taken just after her death shows Gandhi huddled in a corner, a pale shadow of himself.