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Mainstream, VOL L, No 50, December 1, 2012

Pilgrimage to Ahmedabad

Monday 3 December 2012, by Sagari Chhabra

Just recently I took yet another trip to Ahmedabad, but this time I had a special purpose. It was to introduce my six-year-old daughter, Sachi, to two living treasures. These living symbols of our heritage had featured in my documentary film, ‘Asli Azaadi’ and I wanted my child to meet them, before they signed the vivid air with their honour and were gone.

We met Nirmalaben Desai, lovingly known as Nimuben, who, at the age of 98, has an astonishingly lively mind. Her house is full of sculptures, paintings and photographs of her equally illustrious freedom fighter husband, Nirubhai Desai. Nimuben was born in 1914 and came to Surat in 1921. She first heard Mahatma Gandhi when he came to a Sahitya Parishad meeting. She stated: “At that time Gandhiji’s influence was very strong and I started studying at a rashtrashala, wearing khadi and attending ‘prabhat pheris’. I gave all my jewellery to my mother and said I will not wear anything. When I completed my 6th standard, a lot of proposals for marriage started coming for me, but I said I do not want to marry, I want to do Gandhian work. They said, just get engaged, you can get married later. But I wanted to join the freedom struggle.” Nirmalaben says: “I broke my engagement and began working at Jyoti Sangh which had been started by Mridulaben Sarabhai. Gandhi wanted women to be self-reliant so we taught them typing, cycling, grooming and ardhashastra—politics or how to join the freedom struggle.” An incongruous combination ‘grooming and politics’ I wonder, but those were different times, with beauty under the overriding arch of ethics. Jyoti Sangh is a gorgeous haveli, intricately carved with filigree work while the sun filters through in dappled patterns on the mosaic floor. It is here that Gandhi and Tagore’s dialogue on truth and beauty is enshrined in stone.

In 1942, Nimuben was arrested for taking part in a ‘sargas’—procession. She recounts: “The police hit a man who was carrying the flag and since he was bleeding I cleaned him up with my sari. I was rounded up with four other women and kept in jail for six months.” She also harboured a man who was wanted by the police, in her home. “In jail I taught other women. Many women who were in rashtrashala were in jail at that time. When I came out I rejoined Jyoti Sangh and met Nirubhai who had been to jail four times. His engagement to another girl had got broken, as he was working in the freedom struggle, but the girl could not wait. Nirubhai and I got married in 1945.” After marriage, Nimuben had seven children, but she continued her work at Jyoti Sangh with some help, where she continues to serve as a trustee. On women today, she said: “They all want to look beautiful and have fallen prey to consumer goods, this is not what Gandhiji taught.”

WE went on to meet Sarlaben Shah who, at 90 years, looks not a day above 60! When I asked her, her secret of everlasting youth, she said: “The love I get from my family and friends. That is my nectar.” Sarlaben was influenced by Ramalbhai Desai’s novel Gramlakshmi about working in the villages. Her family was also a part of the freedom struggle. During the 1942 movement she was hit by a lathi during a procession at Gujarat College and later was an eye-witness to the shooting of a young student, Vinod Kinariwala. She recalls: “ He kept shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and never moved even when the police started firing. He was shot at thrice and died on the spot. After that my mother asked me to go to my grandmother’s house in Surat. Some people asked me to carry a lithograph machines and a packet of bombs. They sent a postcard ‘Sarlaben is coming with 12 ladoos’. I carried the packet and someone came and collected it. But after a few days the police came and arrested me.” I ask her how did she reconcile being a Gandhian and carrying bombs, but she was quite nonchalant about it. “Sardar Patel told us ‘you can do whatever you like now’. I took them, I was never attached to these things. I didn’t know anyone who made the bombs. I just took it, because I was asked to. I was only 20 years old and in college.” Did you regret being in jail, I ask. “No, they were the best years of my life,” says Sarlaben. I was in love with Vimabhai Shah who was from another caste. We got excommunicated from our families when we married, but had always wanted to work in the villages and left for Bhuvail village. We started an Agricultural Co-operative Society and stayed there for over ten years. My children were born and raised there and later our families accepted us too.” She blesses my daughter with a handicraft of Gujarat, an embroidered purse and feeds us ‘puchkas’.

From there we go to Kocharab ashram where Gandhiji set up a satyagraha ashram in 1915 on his return from South Africa. Given to Gandhi by Jivanlal Desai, Kocharab ashram had an untouchable couple, Dudabhai Dafda, to which Kasturba objected. Gandhi said to Ba: ‘We can part amicably as friends, but the couple will remain.’ Ba relented, but not Santokh, Maganlal’s wife, who was dispatched to Madras. Later as the plague broke out, Sabarmati ashram was built with the gift of Rs 13,000 from Ambalal Sarabhai.

A visit to Sabarmati always evokes strong emotions as one sees the three monkeys, charkha and the simplicity of Gandhi’s room—Hriday Kunj. It was from here that Virbalaben Nagarwadia recalls in ‘Asli Azaadi’ the night of the Dandi march. “Gandhiji said: ‘Until swaraj is reached, I will not return.’ Everyone cried knowing he would not return.” Virbalaben Nagarwadia is now no more. I recall also that I had been an eyewitness to Gandhi words against the atom bomb being taken off and put away after Pokhran II at the Sabarmati museum. If swaraj is self-rule as envisaged in Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and I quote the last passage “Real home rule is self-rule. The way to it is passive resistance that is soul force or love force. In order to exert this force, Swadeshi in every sense is necessary.” Gandhi also goes on to write: “I bear no enmity towards the English but I do towards their civilisation.” I was left wondering if this was really swaraj and what was the legacy, our generation would bequeath to our children.

Sagari Chhabra is an independent film-maker and Director of the documentary film ‘Asli Azaadi’. Also a poet and a writer, she is the author of forthcoming In Search of Freedom.

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