The Sacred Secretary

Posted: June 21, 2011 in Icons, The NamoLeague Times
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While many know him as Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary and translator of his autobiography, few have a real sense of the role Mahadev Desai played in the Mahatma’s life. Also other attributes include him being an Indian freedom fighter and a nationalist writer of high regard.

Mahadev Desai was born on 1 January 1892 in a village named Saras in Surat district of Gujarat. His father Haribhai Desai was a teacher in a primary school. Mahadev’s mother Jamnaben belonged to Dihen, the ancestral place of this Desai clan. The family belonged to the Anavil Brahmin caste, one of the leading communities of the district. Mahadev lost his mother when he was only seven years of age.

Mahadev was educated in a manner befitting a brilliant son of a poor but cultured father. He got married to Durgaben in 1905, at the age of 13. He received his primary and secondary education at different places. He matriculated from Surat in 1906, at the age of 14, winning a scholarship for higher education. He then moved to Bombay in January, 1907 and joined the Elphinstone College and graduated from there after passing B.A Degree examination in 1910. Mahadev joined the Law College thereafter and got his LL.B in 1913.

Mahadev had many qualities imbibed in him that endeared him to all. He overlooked defects in others, but was always ready to see and acquire their virtues. He may be labeled a man of serious temperament but was warm hearted, jovial in nature, and possessed the art of combining fun and humor in a natural and easy way in the midst of serious and important work, so much so that there was always around him an atmosphere of playfulness, mirth and enthusiasm.

After completing his education, while working for his livelihood, Mahadev translated Lord Morley’s ‘On Compromise’ into Gujarati and won the handsome prize of a thousand rupees. This work was later published in 1925. He tried to practice law in courts but was not successful, and through his friend Vaikunth Mehta secured a job in the Central Co-operative Bank of Bombay. But Mahadev soon got tired of the irregularities being practiced there as well as a lot of traveling involved in the job, and left it. Also his destiny was fast drawing him into the folds of Gandhi.

Mahadev Desai joined Gandhiji in 1917 along with Narhari Parikh, Mohanlal Pandya and Ravi Shankar Vyas, and became his most devoted secretary for over 25 years, from 1917 to 1942. The four were the earliest supporters of Gandhi. That was the beginning of a relationship destined to last for a quarter of a century and Mahadev not only remained with Gandhi but also merged himself completely with his master. He began writing his diary, called ‘Day to day with Gandhi’ from 13 November 1917 and continued writing it until 14 August 1942 the day before he died.

After Mahadev Desai joined Gandhiji, three important events took place in their life as well as that of the country. These were the Champaran Satyagraha (1917), the Bardoli Satyagraha (1930), and in all these Mahadev actively participated and courted arrest. In 1921 Gandhiji sent him to edit Motilal Nehru’s periodical, the Independent, Allahabad, and there too he was arrested and jailed. After his release in January 1923, he returned to Ahemdabad and looked after the editorial work of the Navajivan. His sharp editorials on the hollowness of 1919 constitutional reforms and his outburst against the British Government kept up the tempo of the freedom struggle. Desai created a sensation by bringing out a hand-written cyclostyled newspaper after the printing press was confiscated by the British government. In 1924 he took over as editor of Navajivan and also saw his home blessed with a son, Narayan Desai, who is also a non-violent activist. Mahadev toured the country with Gandhiji, explaining the salient features of the freedom struggle. He accompanied Gandhiji in 1931 to the Round Table Conference in London. The chief period of interest is the time Gandhiji was imprisoned in the Yeravda Jail near Pune from 1931 to 1934. Desai wrote most of his important works on Gandhi during this period. In the Quit India Movement of 1942, he along with Gandhiji was arrested and sent to the Aga Khan Palace for imprisonment. Mahadev knew that to live with Gandhi was never an easy task; one would always feel being on the mouth of a volcano. Yet he adjusted his bearing so well that he became indispensable to Gandhi.

On August 15, 1942, Mahadev Desai died of a massive heart-attack at the age of 50. It was unacceptable for Gandhiji and the entire country mourned his death. Mahadev had become what he could. Gandhiji used to visit his Samadhi daily and had said: “Remaining the disciple, Mahadev became my Guru. I visit his Samadhi to remember and emulate his worthy example. Pray God; let us walk in his foot-steps. ”

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