There were two ways of dealing with this new problem of the nationalist times. One was the sensible, modern way—Motilal Nehru’s way. As one of the richest and most successful lawyers in the country, he did not believe in the old, orthodox Hindu tradition of not dining or accepting even a glass of water in a Muslim friend’s home, not even a paan, unless it was offered by a Hindu servant. Although raised as a conservative Kashmiri Brahmin and married to an orthodox woman from his own community, he had embraced the modern lifestyle with a vengeance. His sprawling home in Allahabad, Anand Bhavan, was divided into an Indian and Western side, with the latter run by an Anglo-Indian housekeeper assisted by Christian and Muslim servants. In keeping with the times, he hired an English governess for his two daughters, took them to the ‘hill stations’ for three or four months in summer where they could enjoy the pleasures and company that the English-style resorts offered, encouraged them to go riding, mingle with his guests, and laughed at those who predicted a dire future for raising his daughters ‘in the uncouth manner of the English’. He had always been fond of entertaining on a lavish scale, but while his children were still young, he had turned to politics and since then, Anand Bhavan had also become a hub of national politics. Guests, mostly political leaders, came and went but there was one among them living there more or less permanently—Syud Hossain, the personable young editor of his newly established newspaper, Independent.
Syud was one of those ‘fiery progressives’ that Ruttie and her friends often referred to—Oxford-educated, clean-shaven young Muslim men who spoke English with an accent that did not betray their provincial roots and dressed fashionably in the English style. They were not just embarrassed by the old style of Muslim leadership—the spade beard and caps, and religious bigotry—but militantly nationalist. It was Hossain’s patriotic fervour that first caught Motilal’s attention; and when he was looking for an editor to launch his newspaper, he readily took on the young journalist so highly recommended by his friend, B.G. Horniman, the pro-Indian Englishman and founding editor of the Bombay Chronicle. But Syud, being delicately raised, found it difficult to rough it out in bachelor digs in Allahabad, and after a bout of illness, was invited by his employer to shift into Anand Bhavan.
Also Read | Book review: Mr And Mrs Jinnah
It’s hard to imagine that a shrewd man of the world like Motilal, a father who had the foresight to warn his young son not to get involved with any of the English girls he met while he was studying abroad, had so carelessly overlooked the consequences of throwing together a smart, sensitive, very dapper young man with the radiantly beautiful teenaged ‘Nan’, his older daughter...
By the time Motilal discovered what was going on under his own roof—or more likely, was informed by the lovers—they had already got secretly married, but ‘in an informal way’, as Syud later confessed to his good friend and only sympathizer, Sarojini Naidu.
Motilal prided himself, and justifiably so, on his judgement of character; and in this hour of crisis, he revealed an admirable tact and presence of mind. Within days, Syud was out of Allahabad, and within weeks, out of the country, having been sent abroad as a member of a Congress deputation to Europe. With the minimum of fuss and drama, the lovers were persuaded to give up their attachment. As his daughter later explained: ‘In an era that proclaimed Hindu–Muslim unity, and belonging to a family that had close Muslim friends, I must have thought it would be perfectly natural to marry outside my religion. But in matters such as marriage the times were deeply traditional, and I was persuaded that this would be wrong.’
Part of the ‘persuasion’ included packing the two now-separated lovers off to Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad. Getting Syud there was the easy part. Although Gandhi was not yet the supreme leader of the Congress that he was soon to become, Syud’s admiration for the Mahatma bordered on reverence; but winning over Nan was another matter altogether. It took the combined efforts of Gandhi— who happened to pay a visit to Anand Bhavan around that time and was naturally told of the domestic disaster that had recently erupted—and her parents, for her to take up temporary residence in the ashram.
It was probably the first time that her parents were agreed on a scheme they thought was beneficial for their daughter, and they were right. No one could have done a more thorough job of teaching their daughter on what was expected of her than Gandhi. For the girl reared by an English governess since she was five, the first lesson was the ashram itself: ‘My heart sank when I first saw the place. Everything was so utterly drab and so unpleasing to the eye. I wondered how long I could survive there.’ Life in the ashram was not what she was accustomed to: ‘Rising at 4 am for prayers, we went to the chores of the day, which consisted of sweeping and cleaning our living quarters, washing our clothes in the river . . . There was work to be done in the dairy, and daily spinning.’ The food was unlike any she’d eaten in her life—no tea or coffee, and two meals a day which consisted of: ‘Several vegetables grown in the garden were thrown together into a steam cooker without salt, spice or butter and eaten with home ground chapattis or unpolished rice’ whose sole purpose seemed to be ‘to kill one’s desire for food’. The only concession given to the girl accustomed to every luxury was not to clean the latrines which, being of the primitive kind, was ‘a task impossible to describe’. After another round of prayers at 6 p.m., with readings from the Gita and the Quran, it was early to bed because ‘there were only hurricane lanterns in the ashram, and it was not easy to read by their flickering wicks’. Her ‘bed’ was a bedding roll placed next to Gandhi’s outside his hut, where he talked to her about Hindu culture and tried to fill the gaps in her formal religious training by making her read the Gita and the Ramayana.
There were other alarming aspects to ashram life. A very pretty young woman in the ashram fell in love with a young ashramite, and when Gandhi heard they slept together, he sent for the couple and cut off the girl’s long, silky hair, ‘which was her great beauty’. He also went on fast for several days to atone for the ‘sin’ that had been committed, thrusting the whole ashram into a state of fear and strain.But Nan’s spirit was unbroken; instead of making her repent, the incident only appeared ‘bizarre and primeval’ to her.
Part of Nan’s cultural reorientation included the one-to-one chats Gandhi had with her: ‘He told me when I was at the ashram that this event had shaken his belief in all Mussalmans!’ Nan later wrote to Padmaja. ‘How could you,’ he said to me, ‘regard Syud in any other light but that of a brother—what right had you to allow yourself, even for a minute, to look with love at a Mussalman.’ Then later; ‘Out of nearly twenty crores of Hindus couldn’t you find a single one who came up to your ideals—but you must needs pass them all over and throw yourself into the arms of a Mohammedan!!!’ The tirade from the Mahatma left her unimpressed: ‘Poor man! To him it is inconceivable for a Hindu and a Mussalman to marry and live happily.’
The lectures did not quite have the salutary effect that her parents were expecting. In the same letter to Padmaja, Nan writes: ‘Gandhiji was telling me one day how he would have behaved had he been me. Of course it didn’t carry much weight because being Gandhiji it is absolutely impossible for him ever to enter into my thoughts or feelings. However, imagine me squatting on a little mat about six inches square opposite the great Mahatmaji, receiving the following lecture. ‘“Sarup (Nan’s given name before her marriage), had I been in your place I would never have allowed myself to have any feelings but those of friendliness towards Syud Hossain. Then, supposing Syud had ever attempted to show admiration for me or had professed love for me, I would have told him gently but very firmly—Syud, what you are saying is not right. You are a Mussalman and I am a Hindu. It is not right that there should be anything between us. You shall be my brother but as a husband I cannot ever look at you.”’