Nachiketa Desai

| @ | September 28,2019

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]AHATMA Gandhi’s weekly ‘Harijan’, which had ceased publication after its editor Mahadev Desai’s arrest on August 9, 1942, brought out a special issue on Mahadevbhai in February, 1946 in which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu, Sushila Nayyar and other leaders had paid their tributes to him.

We present here his obituary written by Pyarelal, who succeeded Mahadevbhai as Gandhiji’s secretary. “Late Shri Mahadev Desai was not a mere occupant of an office, he was an institution. His office began and ended with himself. He left behind him no successor,” wrote Pyarelal.


Pyarelal’s tributes to Mahadevbhai


The term ‘Private Secretary’ in connection with Gandhiji is somewhat of a misnomer as he has nothing private nor secret from which indeed the word ‘Secretary’ is derived. Private secretaryship under him is, in a sense, sui generis.  In the popular imagination ‘Private Secretary’, especially in its political association, carries with it a glamour, a suggestion of prestige and influence. Permanent under-secretaries of departments, for instance, are known to wield power which makes them a force to be reckoned with, while secretaryship to powerful political chiefs is often coveted as a stepping stone to a public career and office, maybe in succession to the chief himself. In the case of Gandhiji, however, all this is reversed. His ideal secretary must have no interest save how best to serve his master’s ideals. He must turn his back on name and fame and all those glittering prizes of life which the average man covets. He must efface himself completely, merge himself in the master without, however, losing his personality. He must become, in short, his alter ego – autonomous but in perfect unison with him. This is the central requirement; all others flow from it as corollaries.

During the Second Round Table Conference in London a young secretary in India Office, who had come very close to us, once assured us in a confiding mood of his good offices with the then Under Secretary of  State Lord Peel whenever necessary. “You know the influence private secretaries wield,” he added with a wink. We told him that we were an exception, we were only hammals (coolies). “I am another”, he quickly parried, and we all had a hearty laugh.

Gandhijis has variously described himself as a scavenger, spinner, weaver and agriculturist. His secretary has therefore to be an understudy in all these. Gandhijis claims to be only the first servant of the nation. He expects his secretary to consider himself to be servant of the least. Mere intellectual brilliance counts for very little in his eyes,  but passion for truth , rectitude and a sincere striving for the ideals for which he stands means everything to him. Work of any kind under him is a discipline and apprenticeship in life and secretaryship is no exception. His secretary must be ready to perform the meanest task that may come his way with as much willingness, diligence, concentration and care as the biggest. The task may  range from cooking, washing clothes, cleaning of latrines or tending the sick  to running a big daily newspaper, answering awkward questions from none too friendly and persistent correspondents, reproducing from memory notes of an important conversations or interview or negotiating an interview with the Viceroy or his officials. The late Shri Desai acquitted himself equally creditably in each and all of them. But it was in the former that his apprenticeship with Gandhiji really began and Gandhiji used often to remark in later years that his brilliant success in the latter was due to his schooling in the former.

The first thing that a secretary of Gandhiji has to learn is the importance of being punctilious and exact in little things. Nothing must be done in a slipshod or slovenly manner, be it ever so insignificant. Even in hastily scribbled note all the t’s must be crossed and i’s dotted. To post even an ordinary postcard without revision he regards as inexcusable. To try to excuse yourself on the score of pressure of work or lack of time is only to accuse yourself, and heaven help the unfortunate who lands himself in that unenviable position! He insists upon thoroughness and precision in everything. Even a short reply to a casual correspondent must show a close study and grasp of the matter dealt with.

His secretary must not await instructions, he must be able to anticipate them. In other words, he must be able to think and act independently of him, and in a measure to replace him. In 1921, the late Pt. Motilal Nehru asked Gandhiji to send someone, preferably Shri Desai, to take charge of the ‘Independent’ after the late Shri George Joseph whose arrest was expected. It was a great wrench for Shri Desai to be away from Gandhiji. “Why can’t you send P. (Pyarelal)?”, he pleaded. “Don’t you see , I can’t deprive Lalaji  (Lala Lajpatrai ) of P.’s services ? He is his right hand man”, replied Gandhiji. “and I?”, protested Desai. “You, I want to cultivate as my brain”, rejoined Gandhiji and worthily did Shri Desai answer that expectation.

Assisting in correspondence or other desk work, as I have already remarked, occupies a very small space in Gandhiji’s conception of secretarial work. His secretary must be able to interpret him and propagate his ideals and this demands that he should have realized those ideals in his own person. Take for instance, the multitude of activities which Gandhiji is conducting e.g Khadi, Village Industries, Harijan Service, basic education, cow service and, last but not the least, the Ashram. In Order to be of real help to him, his secretary must not only have theoretical knowledge of all these but must in a measure identify himself with these in practice. Thus, the late Shri Mahadev Desai had a passion for spinning , particularly spinning on takli and the stamp of his interests could be seen in the columns of ‘Young India’ and ‘Harijan‘. Those who saw him issue forth at the head of the bucket-and-broom brigade from Maganwadi, day after day and week after week, in the midst of heavy pressure of work, could understand his passionate advocacy of the cause of Harijans and village uplift in Gandhiji’s weeklies. Not only did it enable him to present Gandhiji’s ideas on these subjects with force and conviction through this writings, but his personal example fired workers with a passion for these branches of Gandhiji’s activities.

Gandhiji is a very exacting task master. “Therein fail not” is his motto. Whenever he has assigned a task to you, difficulties in the way are never accepted as an excuse for failing to perform it. You have to foresee and be prepared for all emergencies. Thus , the late Shri Desai often carried candles with him during railway journeys to enable him to work at night in case there were no lights in the compartment (as at times it happened in those early days in Bihar), or the lights failed. Once he actually had to do the writing for ‘Young India’ by getting into the lavatory of Gandhiji’s second class compartment. Lights in Gandhiji’s compartment had to be put out at bed time to enable Gandhiji to go to sleep and the balance of the matter had to be made up and posted by a particular time. When Gandhiji visited the lavatory in the middle of the night, he was surprised to find the two of us already in possession- our papers spread out on the floor. We got a scolding but the writing was finished and posted at the right station so as to reach Ahmedabad in time for the next weekly issue of ‘Young India’. During the twenty-three years that he was associated with Gandhiji in conducting his various weeklies (and this included visits to Burma, Ceylon, and England), I do not remember a single occasion when publication of any of them was held up or delayed owing to late arrival of matter.

The late Shri Mahadev Desai was the beau ideal of a secretary of Gandhiji’s conception. Gandhiji once described him as son, secretary and lover rolled into one.  On another occasion he described the latter’s relationship with him as that of a ‘Hindu wife’ mutually complementary and indissoluble; it was a “marriage of true souls”. It would not be therefore out of place to give here an epitome of his career with Gandhiji.

After his university career and a varied experience, first as a clerk in the Oriental Translator’s Office during which he was much in request as a friend in need not only by his colleagues but his superiors also, then as a lawyer and as an Inspector of Cooperatives Societies, followed by a short spell of private secretaryship to a well-known Bombay Home-Rule Leaguer. He came to Gandhiji in 1917 at Kochrab Ashram and immediately realized that he had found the master. His first experience here was as a copyist and amanuensis. He not only won Gandhiji’s admiration by producing faultless copies in his elegant, print-like hand at an incredible speed but brought to bear his intelligence and critical faculty on his work, suggesting alterations and improvements in the original wherever necessary. When, sometime later, he held back from publication, on his own initiative article that Gandhiji had sent, as it seemed to contain a statement or an argument of doubtful character, Gandhiji on his part felt that he had found his ideal secretary.

In those early days, before the Mahatmic handicap forced upon Gandhiji the irony of traveling in third-class reserved bogies, he used to travel often in the ordinary third-class all by himself. After Shri Desai joined him he accompanied him on these journeys and acted as his (Gandhiji’s) hammal. He looked after Gandhiji’s travelling kit, made his bed , cooked his food, washed his thick, heavy khadi clothes and cleaned his commode, besides rendering secretarial assistance. After the successful Champaran Satyagraha campaign, he settled down with Gandhiji in Motihari, where with his wife and other co-workers he taught the three R’s to the village children. It was also during this period that he had his real schooling in those values and norms that have come to be associated with Gandhiji’s name, e.g. simplicity coupled with elegance, meticulous regard for neatness and cleanliness, capacity for concentration in the midst of turmoil and chaos, preference for manual skill over mechanical perfection and a passionate love of the mother tongue. “He would insist on my writing the most important dispatches on the crudest hand-made paper that too with a reed pen!”, he once told me. “He was proud of my hand-writing, said it was good enough for any Viceroy, no matter how and on what paper I wrote. Sometimes, he even snatched away the steel pen from my hand and flung it out of the railway carriage window. “ In the use of Gujarati the disciple soon learnt to excel the master and in later years often claimed for himself the role of Gandhiji’s instructor in Gujarati, a claim which Gandhiji has since often admitted.

Right through the War Conference days (1917) and the Anti-Rowlatt act Agitation, he followed Gandhiji like a shadow, quietly watching, assimilating, rehearsing. Then came the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements and Gandhiji was sucked into the vortex of the unprecedented storm that over swept the country. That gave Shri Desai his chance; he found himself. He began writing his compendious Boswellian diaries which continued without a break still practically his last day. The last entry, I think, is dated august 14th 1942. On the morning of the 15th he was no more. Wisdom was gleaned and garnered in these tomes straight from the master’s lips. So great was his passion for recording that lacking paper, I have actually seen him taking down jottings of important talks on the margin of newspapers, backs of currency notes, sometimes even on thumb and finger nails, to be transferred to the regular note book at the first opportunity. He constituted himself into a living encyclopedia of Gandhiji’s thoughts and ideas and a final court of appeal where the authenticity of a particular act or utterance ascribed to Gandhiji could be checked and verified. No one dared to misquote or misrepresent Gandhiji during Shri Desai’s lifetime without the Nasmyth hammer of the latter descending upon him with all the weight of the evidence of his contemporary notes.

It would be difficult to enumerate all the varied assignments, some of them of a highly confidential and even unbelievable nature (alas! they cannot be divulged), which he fulfilled for Gandhiji with a D’Artagnan like unfailing fidelity and success. Throughout his career I do not remember a single occasion when he failed Gandhiji in an emergency  or left him in the lurch. As co-editor with the late George Joseph of the ‘Independent’ of Allahabad and later,  on the latter’s arrest , as the sole editor of that daily won warm encomiums from the fastidious and exacting late Pandit Motilal Nehru by his personal charm and highly specialized knowledge of Gandhiji and his non-cooperation technique, no less than by his trenchant and versatile pen. When security was demanded of that paper he closed it and under Gandhiji’s instructions brought it out in manuscript form. Some of his colleagues on the staff, new to Gandhiji’s ways, could not appreciate the new venture and felt it to be a bit infra dig to cooperate in it. I happened to be there at the time, having been sent by Gandhiji to “keep the flag flying” in the event of Shri Desai’s arrest which was considered imminent. Nothing daunted by the non-cooperation of his colleagues, Shri Desai told them that he had not served apprenticeship under Gandhiji in vain and would bring out the paper unassisted, if it came to that; and brought out it was, that very evening, the first copy being all in Shri Desai’s own beautiful hand. I think it fetched a fancy price of Rs. 250/- (In fact, it fetched Rs. 300).

After the Bardoli Satyagraha of 1928 he was sent by Gandhiji to assist Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the collection and marshalling of evidence before the Broomfield inquiry committee. Such was the impression he created by his ability and integrity that before the end of the inquiry both Judge Broomfield and Sir Reginald Maxwell claimed him as a ‘friend’. That each expressed his ‘friendship in his own typical way, the one by writing him “love letters“, the other by issuing orders for his rigorous isolation, almost amounting to solitary confinement in Belgaum prison, is a different story.

By nature Shri Desai was rather of the contemplative and scholarly type. Action was not his forte. Taking orders, rather than issuing them was chief delight. “I am more accustomed to stand behind a chair than in front of one”, he once wittily remarked when called by the chairman to come alongside of him and address a public meeting. But when occasion demanded it he plunged into the fray with the same wholeheartedness and sense of devotion as characterized him in other fields. A typical illustration of this was afforded in 1930 at the time of the Dandi March, when in the absence of the Sardar, he set the whole of Gujarat from one end to the other ablaze with Satyagraha.

As he progressed from apprenticeship to maturity he showed more initiative and capacity for handling  important missions all by himself. But to the last he remained like Arjuna, with all his marvelous bowman ship, essentially a virtuoso, a faithful instrument in the hand of the master, the inspirer.

At the time of the Rajkot fast he was at New Delhi undergoing treatment for an illness from which he really never recovered. But as soon as he got the news, he left his sick bed without a moment’s thought and set to work contacting the highest officials, including Lord Linlithgow. It was his faithful and able presentation of Gandhiji’s viewpoint before those concerned that contributed not a little to the settlement in favor of Gandhiji and the Sardar. After the Gwyer Award , he accompanied Gandhiji to Rajkot, where even Darbar Veerwalla found it impossible to resist him after the glowing account he had of him from the cynical, hard-boiled Sir Bertrand Glancy, whom Shri Desai had met at new Delhi as the head of the political department of the Government of India.

During the individual Satyagarha of 1940, he denied himself of jail-going as he did not want to leave Gandhiji short-handed. But soldier-like he set out later to collect the 5 lakhs fund for the Gujarat Flood Relief work in the absence of the Sardar and completed it by working even when he was laid on his back with double pneumonia. Again, he set out to organize peace brigades in Ahemdabad at the time of the Hindu-Muslim riots, leaving his wife on what was believed by the doctors to be her death bed, with the same unfailing devotion to duty as he had shown on a previous occasion, when with streaming eyes, he finished his writing for Navajivan before setting out for his village home on receiving the news of his father’s death.

In the intervals there was of course the killing daily grind of office routine which sometimes made him complain of what he humorously used to call his “dog’s life”. His versatility was equal to his industry. He was equally at home in taking on visitors who came to discuss high politics with Gandhiji as in settling intricate “domestics” of the Asharam . He kept accounts, drew up tour programs for Gandhiji with the help of railway maps and Bradshaw, kept dates for him, answered letters, looked after guests, often trudged from Maganwadi to Sevagarm ashram and back a distance of over five miles either way in the blazing hot sun, day after day and week after week, to take instructions, besides writing for Harijan with a clock-work regularity. This last was a marvel, considering that his work had often to be done in the caravanserai that his office was or in over-crowded third-class railway compartments with undisciplined, shouting crowds struggling at the carriage windows at every station. The wonder of it was that in the midst of it all he was able to do all the encyclopaedic reading, hard thinking and research which went into his writings.

He was not merely an interpreter of Gandhiji’s ideas, he was a “fisher of men” and brought scores of enthusiastic, idealistic workers to his fold by the charm of his magnetic personality. Wherever, under whatever circumstances he was, that place became a centre and citadel of the master. And who could go forth on a ‘goodwill mission’ on behalf of Gandhiji better than Shri Desai? The late Deshabandhu Das doted on him, his sister having constituted herself into his adoptive mother, Dr.Jayakar could not do less than respond to his appeal by raising his subscription to the Tiak Swaraj Fund from Rs. 5000/- to Rs. 25,000/- whilst the Rt. Hon. Shastri welcomed his visits as a ‘spiritual exercise’.

In Gandhiji’s  ‘family’ of workers he was the cementing bond , the shock absorber, the activizer. He smoothed differences, soothed frayed tempers, solved personal problems, resolved doubts, pulled people out of trouble when they landed themselves in it and negotiated delicate points with Gandhiji when it called for extraordinary tact and his ‘masterly manner’, for which he had become famous. He was extremely popular owing to his over flowing kindness, goodness of heart, broad sympathy and understanding and his willingness and capacity to serve and lend a helping hand whenever there was a chance, to all and sundry.

For instance, Gandhiji could give only limited time to his visitors who came for consultation.  He could speak to them in sutras only. But Shri Desai made up for Gandhiji’s “ Be quick, be brief, be gone “ motto that hangs on the wall of his hut above his head, and the visitors as a rule did not feel satisfied unless they could round off their interview with Gandhiji with a good heart-to-heart talk with his secretary. It was also his unpleasant duty to keep off undesirable visitors. And what a motley crowd he had to deal with, ranging from dyspeptics and food faddists to dilettantes, litterateurs, blue stockings, tourists, pressmen and politicians, seekers after metaphysical knowledge, sometimes even lunatics! All this required a Job’s patience. No wonder sometimes when a particularly sticky customer claimed him, even his suavity could not keep down a persecuted and martyred look on his face which was pathetic to behold. Friends discreetly avoided his gaze on such occasions lest they might betray a smile on the wrong side of the face! But he was happy in the knowledge that it meant saving thousands of precious hours of master for the service of the country and humanity.

Let no one, however, imagine that he was merely a “faithful echo” of the master. When occasion demanded he could also speak up to him, since Gandhiji expects his secretary, and in fact anyone who is closely associated with him, to be his conscience keeper too. He was often prized as a tower of strength by those who brought to Gandhiji a different viewpoint from his own, and he himself was able on one occasion to avert an unconditional fast unto death on the part of Gandhiji when everyone else had failed. It is the only instance of its kind in Gandhiji’s entire life within my knowledge.

On occasions, but very rare occasions, there were brushes. These were invariably of the nature of “lovers’ quarrels”. Once Shri Desai likened his association with Gandhiji to sitting on the top of a volcano which might erupt at any moment.  At Delang the “quarrel” even found its way into the weekly letter when, in a moment of desperation, the devoted secretary exclaimed with Dr. Halliday Sutherland (Arches of the Years) that “to live with saints in heaven was a bliss and a glory”, but “to live with a saint on earth” was  “a different story”. The article itself was a piece of quotation. With characteristics coolness, Gandhiji blue-penciled portions of the truant disciple’s outpourings to “save him against himself”, suitably corrected the rest and published the whole in Harijan! On another occasion, when exasperated by the heavy demands made by rules of Ashram life , he tendered his resignation, Gandhiji tore it up saying that it did not bear evidence of “coherent thinking” and therefore could not be accepted as an indication of “Mahadev’s real mind”. The ending was equally characteristic. Before many hours the “blues” had completely worn off and the ardent secretary was explaining to the appreciative  master the beauties of a gorgeous sunset. But it reduced the sensitive Shri Desai to tears when Gandhiji once gently rebuked him (it was reproach more than rebuke) for an inadvertent error in description by remarking, “Is it thus you are going to interpret me after my death?”

It has become the fashion these days to compare the late Shri Desai with Boswell. The comparison might hold good so far as passion for gathering and recording biographical material of their respective masters was concerned. But there the comparison ends. In moral and intellectual stature they were as poles asunder. Shri Desai was great in his own right. Boswell’s attitude towards his master was that of an ardent hero-worshiper and a cheap and vulgar one at that at times. Shri Desai’s attitude towards Gandhiji was that of a spiritual devotee to his guru and a lover of the motherland towards the promised deliverer.

Shri Desai’s was a consecrated life characterized by as rare single minded devotion to Gandhiji and his ideals. Gandhiji lived for the world but Shri Desai lived for Gandhiji. In one of Goethe’s plays every one who gazes into the face of heroine sees in it the countenance of his beloved. In the case of the late Shri Desai, it was the reverse; he lived only to read the lineaments of his master in every celebrated characters of history or legend that he contemplated whether it was Asquith or William of Orange, Ruskin or Tolstoy, Marx, Lenin or Masaryk, Fenelon or St. Francis of Assisi. In the immortal line of Moore:

“The moon looks into many brooks

The brook can see no moon but this”.

I have been asked to set down as addenda the experience of Shri Mahadev Desai’s successor in office. The truth of the matter is that the late Shri Mahadev Desai was not a mere occupant of an office , he was an institution. His office began and ended with himself. He left behind him no successor.

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