Sarla Devi: A Forgotten Feminist
Review of the book ‘Gandhi Aur Sarla Devi Chaudharani: Baraha Adhyay’ (Gandhi and Sarla Devi Chaudharani: Twelve Chapters) authored by Alka Saraogi
Besides love story of Gandhi and Sarla Devi, the book is mainly about Sarla Devi who has not been given due recognition in history and literature. She comes out as a very brave and talented woman who worked for nationalist and feminist causes.
By T Vijayendra
[Alka Saraogi (1960) is a well-known modern Hindi author. She received the Sahitya Akademi award for her first novel, ‘Kalikatha via Bypass‘, in 2001. Since then it has been translated in many Indian and European languages. She has also published six other novels and two collections of short stories.]
‘Gandhi Aur Sarla devi’ – The book under review is a fiction based on a stormy love affair between Gandhi and Sarla Devi for a year and half during October 1919 to June 1921. With hindsight one can say it was doomed from the beginning. The two were very different people. In 1919 Gandhi was 50 year old and Sarla Devi was 47 year old. Gandhi was full of confidence because of his success in South Africa and wanted to lead India’s independence movement. He came from a small town in Gujarat and had a deeply Hindu religious background. He studied Law in England and had a successful political career in South Africa. On the other hand Sarla Devi was from Calcutta, and Rabindranath Tagore’s sister’s daughter. They had a Hindu reformist background of Brahmo Samaj. Her mother was Bengal’s first woman novelist. Sarla lived in music and literature. She was politically influenced by the 1905 ‘Bang Bhang’ movement and was very heavily involved in training Bengali youth in sports and martial arts.
The book under review is a fiction based on a stormy love affair between Gandhi and Sarla Devi for a year and half during October 1919 to June 1921.
Gandhi had taken a vow of celibacy several years before and so he could not accept the situation as it really was. He called it a ‘spiritual love’ and at one stage called her his ‘spiritual wife’. Sarla Devi was married to a Panjabi Arya Samaji prominent lawyer and editor of a nationalist Urdu newspaper ‘Hindustan’ and they had a child. Her own marriage came under heavy strain due to this relationship.
Alka portrays the development of love in a very sensitive and credible manner. However, the relationship soon came under strain when Gandhi began to put pressure on her to mould her in his image of a political activist. In the end it was Rajagopalachari who wrote to Gandhi that he (Gandhi) was calling his repressed sexuality as spiritual love and he (Gandhi) was making a terrible mistake. Rajagopalachari also expressed a very low and insulting opinion about Sarla, which hurt terribly.
The book also locates all these events in the political events of those years. It was the aftermath of Jalianwala massacre by the British. It was a period of Gandhi was supporting the Khilafat movement in return of their support to the Non Cooperation movement he launched. In all this Gandhi did not listen to saner voices within the Congress and other important citizens. He was driven by his inner conviction and followed the ‘populist’ path which mobilized millions of people. In the end both Khilafat and the Non Cooperation movement failed.
Gandhi’s style and decisions in politics deepened the rift between him and Sarla Devi and Gandhi was relieved to let go. Sarla Devi suffered heavily. For a while she remained active in Punjab politics but then her marriage practically broke down and she became a sanyasi in 1922. Then her husband died in 1923 and she went back to Calcutta to resume her activities as a feminist and editor of a Bengali journal. She died in 1945.
The book is mainly about Sarla Devi who has not been given due recognition in history and literature. She comes out as a very brave and talented woman who worked for nationalist and feminist causes. Gandhi comes out as an arrogant person who wanted Sarla Devi as a political activist in his mould.
Apart from the ‘love story’ the book is both a window to those times and a celebration of a forgotten feminist.
About the Book Reviewer
T. Vijayendra (b.1943) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. He exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving license nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle.
[Book review was originally posted on an Indian website on February 18, 2023 and Shared by Syed Ehtisham through email in a Google Group on February 25, 2023]