Thursday, April 14, 2011

The last days of Kasturba

Controversy is often raised about the fact that Gandhiji disallowed the new drug pencillin to be used on Kasturba when she was in her deathbed. Here is some additional information.

From "Kasturba - Wife of Gandhi" by Sushila Nayyar, 1948.

Some excerpts:

Author's foreword: "Soon after Kasturba's death in detention, Gandhiji aksed me to write down my reminiscences of her.  I started writing in prison, but was unable to finish it till after our abrupt release.  The original was written in Hindi and appeared as second part of Kasturba's biography published in various languages.  This book is a free translation of my portion of that biography."


Two days before her death, Ba had an idea that a dose of castor oil would do her good, but she was so weak, that Dr Gilder and I felt it would not be right to give her a purgative.  Early in the morning she asked me to give her a dose of castor oil.  I tried to explain to her why she could not have it.  She would not listen.   Finally I went away from her room.  Soon after that Gandhiji came in.  She asked him for a dose of castor oil.  He also tried to explain to her that castor oil was not good for her in her present condition.  "A patient should never try to be his or her own doctor," he said.  "I would like you to give up using medicine right now. Forget everything, even me and just lose yourself in Ramnam." He came and told me, "I have succeeded in explaining things to Ba.   She won't ask for castor oil any more."

He was mistaken.  Soon afterwards, Dr Gilder went in to see her and she asked him for a dose of castor oil.  He also refused to give it to her.  Ba was hurt.   When Shri Jaisukh Lal Gandhi came to see her in the afternoon, she complained about me and everybody else.  "These people try to force their own law upon me.   They won't even give me a dose of castor oil," she said.

I had avoided Ba's room for fear that she might again ask me for castor oil.  At two o'clock I went in to give her some medicine.  She looked straight into my eyes and shaking her index finger, she said, "So you have told everyone not to give me a dose of castor oil.  Now, I won't take any of your medicines.  Do you wish to exercise your medical authority on me?"

What to do in face of this childish obstinacy was a problem.  I could not bear to hurt her.   "Ba, I thought you had understood why you should not take castor oil and had given up the idea willingly," I pleaded.  "Oh, no," she said.  "I want to take castor oil."

There was an appealing look on her face and a note of helplessness in her voice.   I knew that the end was drawing near.  Why refuse her anything and give her pain, I said to myself.  "If you insist, I shall be obliged to give it to you much against my judgment, " I said.   "Then bring it," she said.  Someone suggested a way out.  "Add a little castor oil to liquid paraffin and give it to her." This was done.  She took it and lay down peacefully.


On the 19th Ba had continuous oxygen, throughout the night.  She slept fairly well.  But from 5 o'clock on the morning of the 20th she became very restless.   She cried out, "Ram, Hei Ram," every few minutes.  Her restlessness dampened our spirits further.

Gandhiji came and sat on her bed.  She leaned against his shoulders and this soothed her a little.  The morning prayer was recited as he sat with her.   After that, we all sat with her by turns and sang bhajans or Ramdhun.  When we were all tired, we played the gramophone.   Ba was very fond of a song "Shri Ram Bhajo dukh men sukh men" (Call on the name of God in happiness or sorrow).  She forgot her pain as she listened to this song.

At 9:15 a.m. I gave her a dose of chloral and bromide.  After that she slept for about an hour and a half.  When she awoke, she was feeling a little better.   She sat up and washed her teeth and gargled.  She did it so energetically that we wondered from where here strength came.  After that she had some tea and went off to sleep again.   Medicines she refused to take.

Gandhiji sat on her bed almost throughout the day.  His proximity gave her a strange pace of mind.  He sent for Dr Gilder and me.  "Please stop all medicines now.   Ramnam is the sovereign remedy.  I am inclined to say stop all food also except for honey and water.   If she asks for food, we shall see what to do.   I do not believe in medicines.   I refused to give them to my children during their most serious illnesses, but I have not forced this rule on Ba.  Today she herself is disinclined to take medicines.   She has no peace without Ramnam.  I have heard nothing but Ramnam come from her lips since this morning.   It is a most touching scene, but I love it.   I would certainly stop all medicines while she is in this frame of mind.   If God will it, He will pull her through, else I would let her go, but I won't drug her any longer."

Pencillin had been sent by airplane from Calcutta.  Colonel Shah and Colonel Bhandar brought the news that it had come.   Gandhiji had made us stop all  medicines.  Ba herself was disinclined to take them.  What was our duty under the circumstances?

Devdasbhai was keen that penicillin should be given a trial.   He talked to Dr Gilder and me about it and was about to consult a military doctor.  Dr Mehta was to go with him.

Just then Colonel Bhandar came in.  Devdasbhai had asked for permission to take her photograph.  Colonel Bhandar had come to enquire what Gandhiji's wishes in the matter were.  "I am absolutely indifferent to these things," said Gandhiji.  "But if her children and friends and relatives want it, the Government ought to give them permission."

For days Gandhiji had lived on liquid diet.   Ba's illness was putting such a strain on his mind that he could not have maintained his health without cutting down on his food drastically.  Moreover, he could not afford to spend half to three quarters of an hour on taking his meal in those days.  He finished his liquid meal in ten minutes after his bath and then went and sat with Ba.   Once he came to sit with her, he did not feel like leaving her.   So he liked to finish his meal and other necessary routine before coming to her.

When I returned from my walk, Gandhiji was sitting on Ba's bed.   Suddenly Ba lay down flat in the bed.  For months she had not been able to sleep in that fashion because of her breathlessness.  We were alarmed and sent for Devdasbhai.  He was putting up at Lady Thackersay's place and was just getting ready to have some sleep after a sleepless night.  He came immediately, accompanied by Manu.   Dr Mehta had also come back by that time.   Bapu asked Ba if she would like to hear a bhajan or Ramdhun.  She said not.   He asked us to recite Gitaji in the adjoining room in a soft tone so that Ba could hear it, lying in her bed in the next room.  Kanu, Devdasbhai, Pyarelalji, and others in turn began the recitation.

On the 20th night, I went to bed at 2 a.m. leaving Dr Dinsha in charge of the patient.   In the morning I learned that at 4 a.m her pulse had become very weak and Dr Gilder had been called.  As I went in I saw Dr Gilder sitting in the chair by her side.  Bas was asking for a dose of castor oil- as in the incident which has been mentioned earlier as an instance of Ba's obstinacy.  Dr Gilder was trying to dissuade her.  "The purgative will increase your weakness, Ba.  You must not have it."

"What does it matter?" replied Ba.  "I am nearing the end in any case."

"Why do you talk in that fashion, Ba?" Dr Gilder said coaxingly.  "Your sons are coming to see you. Devdas will be here today.  Ramdas will come tomorrow.  You must live."

Ba smiled at the mention of her sons.  Then she became serious.  "Why have you sent for them?" she said.  "You are all my children, aren't you?  If I die, you will cremate me.  As for Ramdas, he should be told not to come. Travelling is expensive and the trains are overcrowded these days." Ramdasbhai being the most delicate of her four sons, she had always a soft corner for him.

Ba was asking for Harilalbhai every day.  Everyone was searching for him, but he could not be found.   At last, on the 20th, Swami Anand succeeded in tracing him.   Harilalbhai told the Superintendent on the telephone that he would have come during the day but for the fact that he had overslept in the afternoon.  We all knew what oversleep in the afternoon meant.  Ba was angry.  Gandhiji pacified her.  At last, on 21st afternoon,, Harilalbhai came.  Ba was deeply grieved to see his state (she began to beat her forehead).  Harilalbhai had to be removed from her sight.

At about 6:30 pm, on the 21st, Shri Devadas Gandhi, Manu (daughter of Shri Harilal Gandhi) and Santokben arrived at the Aga Khan palace.   Ba was deeply moved to see them.   She began to weep.  She had not yet gotten over the grief of seeing Harilalbhai drunk.   She addressed Devdasbhai. "The burden of having to look after the family will have to be borne by you.  Bapuji is a saint.  He has to think of the whole world.  And you know all about Harilal.  So the care of the family must be your lot."

On the 22nd morning, Devdasbhai, Pyarelalji and I sat talking at the breakfast table.   Devdasbhai told us how a Government official had explained to him why the Government did not release Ba.   "Supposing we release her," he had said, "and her condition became serious after release? There will be a demand for the release of your father.  And if we do not release him, we will be called heartless brutes."

Ba had had difficulty swallowing since the previous night.  She did not like to drink even water.  Devdasbhai had brought Gangajal (Ganges water) with him.  Bits of Tulsi leaves had been added to the Gangajal.  "Devadas has brought Gangajal for you," Bapu told her.  She opened her mouth and Bapu poured in a spoonful saying, "Take more afterwards."  She closed her eyes and lay back.  Along with "Ram, Hei Ram", Ba also used to call out to Gangaji.  A drink of Gangajal gave her great peace of mind.

In order to give a chance to the newcomers to sit near her, Gandhiji got up from Ba's bed and went and sat down on his mat on the floor nearby.   After a little while, Santokben, Keshubhai and Ramiben (Harilalbhai's eldest daughter) arrived.  She sat up and began to talk to them.   To Santokben she said, "Devdas has put up with a lot of inconvenience for my sake. He has served me greatly."  To Devdasbhai she said, "You have served me greatly, now do your duty toward the family."

"What have I done for you, Ba", replied Devdasbhai.  "I have come last night only.  It is your companions here who have been serving you. " But she had derived great satisfaction from his presence near her.

"Ramdasbhai is coming, Ba," said Devdasbhai.  "Why should he?" she added.  She could not bear the idea of Ramdas suffering any inconvenience.

Looking at Bapuji, she said, "Do not sorrow after my death.  It should be an occasion for rejoicing." Then she closed her eyes and folded her hands and began to pray, "O Lord! I have filled my belly like an animal.  Forgive me.  I pray for your grace.  I want to be your devotee and love you with all my heart.  I want nothing else."

At 5:30 in the evening Colonel Shah and Colonel Bhandari came to ask Gandhiji what his decision was with regard to penicillin.  "Let her have it," he replied, "if Sushila and Dr Gilder wish to give it to her."

Dr Gilder know Gandhiji's wishes in the matter.   He was not enthusiastic about giving it.  We had a talk with Devdasbhai.  There were two aspects to the question.   Bapu's opinion was to let her rely on God and die in peace.   Why bother her with medicines on her deathbed?  There was something in that.  On the other hand one felt why give up hope while there was life; why not continue efforts to save her?   This was the line of reasoning of a detached scientist.  Devdasbhai belonged to this group and I was also inclined to think along that line.

Dr Gilder told him that we were prepared to give her penicillin if he wished it after considering the question from every aspect.   Under his instructions, I went to boil my syringe and needles.

Gandhiji called to me, "What have you people decided?" he asked.

"We will give her penicillin, " I replied.

"Do you both believe it should be given?" he continued his queries. "Are you sure it will do her good?"

I could not say "Yes."  It was just a trial.  The patient was almost in a moribund condition.  How could I say for certain that penicillin, or, for that matter, anything would help her. "Please talk to Dr Gilder about it," I replied and went away.

Dr Gilder was called by Gandhiji; he came to me after.   "Gandhiji did not know penicillin had to be given by injections," he said.   "Having learnt that giving penicillin means injections every three hours, he does not want us to give it to her."  I took the syringe from the boiler and packed it with a mixed feeling of disappointment and relief.

Gandhiji was pleading with Devdasbhai.  "Why don't you trust God?  Why do you wish to drug your mother even on her deathbed?"  The discussion delayed him from going for a walk.  Every day he went down into the garden at 6:30 PM sharp. Today, because of all these talks, it was 7:15 and he was still upstairs.   At last he went into the bathroom to get ready for the walk.  Jut then Ba called out, "Bapuji".  Prabhavati had been sitting with her.  He came and sat down by her on the bed, telling Kanu that he was not to take any photographs.

Ba was very restless.  Twice she sat up and again lay down.  Bapu asked her, "What is the matter?  What do you feel?"  Like an innocent child standing on the brink of the unknown, she replied in a lisping way, "I do not know".  Kanu and I stepped into the verandah in front of Ba's room and grumbled at the fact that GAndhiji would not let Kanu take a photograph of him with Ba.  "he does not object to people taking his photograph unawares ordinarily.   Why does he do so today?" we wondered.   "What a fine photo it would have been."  We did not realize that a photo would have marred the sanctity of those last moments of Bapu and Ba together.

Just then Ba's brother, Shri Madhavdas came up.  Ba recognized him.   Tears rushed into her eyes, but she could not speak.   I came in from the verandah.  Ba tried to sit up for the last time. But Gandhiji dissuaded her. "Why not keep lying down?" he said.   She put her head on his lap and lay back.  The eyes began to lose their lustre.   There were a few hiccups and gurgling sounds from the throat.  She opened her mouth, three or four gasps, and all was still.  She was at last freed from all bondage.