In the Shadow of Freedom | Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul

Difficult fathers

Ayi Ganpat Tendulkar and Indumati Gunaji would probably have remained just footnotes in the annals of Indian history had their daughter, Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, not written In the Shadow of Freedom, a riveting account of their lives and marriage. Tendulkar Dhaul’s parents could not have been more different from each other but they still managed to forge a relationship that was not only ahead of its time but also unique in its emotional architecture.

Indumati Gunaji was in her 20s, a simple girl from a sheltered though enlightened Saraswat Brahmin family, when she fell in love with her future husband. A freedom fighter and Mahatma Gandhi’s follower since her youth, Gunaji could not have been more different from her dashing lover, a thoroughly Westernized man known for his sartorial elegance and a taste for the finer things in life, including a red Mercedes, which he drove around the small town of Belgaum (Karnataka), where he first met Gunaji in the late 1930s.

Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

These obvious accomplishments apart, Tendulkar became the talk of the town when he returned to India for having been married thrice before he settled down with Gunaji. Of these previous alliances, the most famous was to Thea von Harbou, novelist, scriptwriter and former wife of film-maker Fritz Lang.

Tendulkar met von Harbou, who was 17 years older, in Berlin in 1933, when she was getting divorced from Lang. “We were married for 11 years," she is believed to have said, “because we found no time in 10 years to get divorced."

An ardent Indophile, von Harbou had written fantastical tales about India in which tall, dark and handsome Oriental princes were bewitched by nubile Caucasian beauties. Having met one of the former in real life, she quickly fell in love, though her passion soon deepened into unconditional affection. A nurturer by temperament, von Harbou became mentor to a number of young Indians she met through Tendulkar. She insisted on being called “Tai" (the word for elder sister in Marathi), and helped out impoverished Indian students with wholesome meals, money and moral support. Years later, Tendulkar’s young Indian wife also spent a few happy months visiting von Harbou in Berlin with her infant son, Gautam.

Ayi Tendulkar. Photo: Courtesy Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul
Ayi Tendulkar. Photo: Courtesy Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul

Repeatedly summoned and interrogated by the Nazis for her sympathy with foreigners, a punishable offence under the Nuremberg laws, von Harbou had to be secretive about her relationship with Tendulkar. Although the two lived in the same house, they were seldom seen together in public, and could never legally declare themselves man and wife.

But she did keep one of the most lavish salons for Indians visiting Berlin, including the 1936 Olympic gold-winning hockey team led by Dhyan Chand. She was reportedly in attendance when Subhas Chandra Bose made his historic “Azad Hind" broadcast on radio from Berlin in 1942. Ironically, she was also accused of being a Nazi collaborator, until given a clean chit in her Denazification Certificate many years later.

In 1938, alarmed by the horrible persecution of Jews in the notorious Kristallnacht, Tendulkar left for India with his younger brother (his other brother stayed behind with his German girlfriend Elizabeth, who later became his wife, in Berlin).

Although profoundly upset by this necessary exodus, von Harbou urged him to get married to an Indian girl and have children, which Tendulkar did—but only after a trial by fire from the father of the nation.

Back home, Tendulkar’s reputation as a Western-educated, chain-smoking, alcohol-drinking, polygamist wasn’t quite conducive to his budding romance with Gunaji. Disturbed by his daughter’s choice of this reckless fellow, Gunaji’s father wrote directly to Gandhi to intervene in the matter, and Bapu promptly took it into his hands.

In the Shadow of Freedom—Three Lives in Hitler’s Berlin And Gandhi’s India: By Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, Zubaan, 308 pages, Rs495
In the Shadow of Freedom—Three Lives in Hitler’s Berlin And Gandhi’s India: By Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul, Zubaan, 308 pages, Rs495

At the end of their separation, which lasted five years, they went back to Sevagram to be married by Gandhi, only to hear that he had stopped officiating at unions between non-Harijans. After many tears and heartache, the ceremony took place on 19 August 1945, but on the condition that the couple would neither have children until the country was independent nor use contraception during the interim period. Mercifully, the British left in a couple of years, and the couple went on to have two children.

Although Gunaji and Tendulkar grew distant from each other in their later years, he did not stop pushing the limits of their relationship, forcing her to attend college in the US and spend a few months with von Harbou in Berlin.

Tendulkar died in 1975 of a heart attack, while Gunaji lived into her 90s, leaving behind copious personal records in Marathi that inspired the making of this incredible book. Having begun life as a novel, it assumed its current shape after Tendulkar Dhaul’s publisher, Urvashi Butalia, pointed out that the only voice missing in the narrative was hers. The result is a remarkable exception in the otherwise sedate tradition of life-writing in India—the greatest in the genre probably being Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments With Truth.

Few children are capable of writing about their parents’ lives with empathy and clinical precision (Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, an account of the lives of his parents, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, is the one book that comes to mind). “I think they suffered a great deal," Tendulkar Dhaul says of her parents. “It was not an easy life for either of them." But it was immeasurably rich, precisely due to the many turbulences.

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