The author lays it bare as she attempts to resurrect Kasturba in the minds of the youth, the part she had to play in India’s freedom struggle, and to tell them that Gandhi wouldn’t have been Mahatma without Kasturba.
While her first book, the international best-seller Father Dearest (2003), was a gripping biography of her father RK Dalmia, last century’s most flamboyant Indian industrialist, her second, Merchants of Death (2007), gave a scathing insight into the lives of Marwaris. Her third and most compelling narrative yet, The Secret Diary of Kasturba, comes after a decade. The book that traces Kasturba’s journey from her birth to her early marriage to Gandhi, their years in South Africa to the freedom struggle, although fictional, is the remarkable story of a woman history has forgotten to chronicle. It is the story of the challenges and ordeals she faces, dealing with the ordinariness of that extraordinary man whom she weds and watches each day through the filter of her own eyes. It is about the day-to-day demolition of her dreams as a wife and mother that are at stark variance with those of the world who view him as a messiah, a prophet of peace, a trailblazer on the path to redemption. It is the story of Mohandas the man, not Gandhi the Mahatma.
“My Kastur is a fictional character bound within the domain of documented history. She may speak and behave in a manner that may appear incongruous, but let us not forget that this is how I have chosen to paint her, through the realm of my imagination. My Kastur lives, breathes, speaks, emotes and traipses effortlessly through this chronicle as perhaps I would have if I were her. And I would want everyone, particularly young India and the youth of the rest of the world, to invade that space with me, and re-live the saga of this phenomenal woman, who for me, transcends every limitation and resurrects herself in the pages of her diary,” begins Neelima. But a book on the wife of the Father of the Nation interlaced with some candid moments — isn’t she a bit scared given today’s climate of intolerance? “I’m not trying to demonise Gandhi but rather humanise him. Moreover, I have made no transgression in my narrative that could invite the fury of the conservatives or otherwise,” explains Neelima whose book was recently launched at Starmark, Express Avenue.
Among several observations that inspired her to pen this book, the most compelling aspect was the heart-wrenching challenge for Kastur the mother, struggling to maintain the balance between a wayward son and a tyrannical father. “She blamed Gandhi (and herself by default) for the plight of Harilal and to some extent the other three boys for which she could do nothing but rant and cry. To deal with such searing bipolar currents every waking moment of the day is nothing short of an internal nuclear fission. You are bound to self-combust. A tough call for the sturdiest of humans, what to talk of a mother! I was drawn to the excruciating pain felt by the mother and the inordinate suffering of the four sons because I saw parallels in them of my mother’s pain in dealing with my father RK Dalmia’s eccentricities much like Kastur, and my own tormented childhood, much like that of Harilal and his brothers. Also, since I am deeply enticed by the odd and the bizarre, there was a gigantic, erupting volcano waiting to be captured in the pages of this diary,” recalls Neelima.
Across our history books, while Gandhi makes for huge chapters, Kasturba is a shadowy figure occupying less than a handful of pages. Therefore, Neelima had to rely heavily on Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments With Truth in which there was enough material to make a blue print of Kasturba’s life. Neelima, whose book also talks about the sexual discourse in Gandhi’s life — the need to fulfil his desire and the need to suppress it, adds, “Since Gandhi firmly believed and propagated that anything that is not secret, is not a sin, his candid confessions helped me form the outline of this portraiture. Also, Arun and Sunanda Gandhi’s biography, The Forgotten Woman, on their grandmother, although effectively hagiographic (with undue reverence) in content, provided me a whole range of data that I used for my characterisation. And being a passionate ‘people watcher’ and a student of Psychology, I found it thrilling to perforate her mind. Of course, history is not to be tampered with and I did not.
All historical dates, events and facts are accurate in this book. So, let’s just say I never wrote or rewrote history, I just played in the spaces between.” At the end of the day, Neelima’s attempt is to introduce Kasturba to a generation that knows little to nothing of her, while also opening the debate on not just Kasturba, but many such women. For the nonce though, she says, “My message to all readers and women in particular is — believe in yourself. Stand firm in the strength of your convictions. Develop a reasonable degree of tolerance but do not take abuse. Do not allow violence of any kind silence you. And above all don’t stop living. No matter what.”