Two men loom over Rajya Sabha MP and Gandhian Nirmala Deshpande’s psyche. For the ‘love’ of both, Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, she never married. Nirmala’s grandfather, Annasahib Deshpande, publicly stated that she was a
descendant of Mirabai, who despite a spell of matrimony, remained singularly focused on her love for Lord Krishna.
Today, looking back at the 78 years of her life, Deshpande confesses that she drew an iron curtain around herself. “No one dared talk about my marriage,” she says. Had it not been for Gandhian non-violence, she would have “beaten up those who proposed any marriage”. Even in her grandfather’s haveli, she was among the ‘privileged’ and would never be in purdah.
Deshpande attributes her ‘single status’ to her past life. At the cost of being scoffed at, she believes that she was a Chinese nun in a previous life. It is precisely for this reason that she gets goose pimples at the mention of China. She was branded a traitor when, during the Chinese aggression in the 1960s, she was the only Indian to dub China a “friend”. Even while not knowing the language, Nirmala claims that she dreams China and in Chinese. “I speak in Chinese in my dreams,” she says. She also claims a link to Buddha. With her mother being an agnostic, Deshpande has no faith in God. But mention Buddha and she automatically pays obeisance.
When she first visited China, she demanded to be taken to Shanghai. “In India they dismiss me as a lunatic, but the Chinese have respect for my past connection,” says Deshpande adding that the Chinese consider her as being “one of them”.
Despite the rigmarole, Deshpande claims that her life is a “straight line without curves” dedicated to China, the Chinese, Buddha and, of course, the two men in her life, Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. She first set her eyes on the Mahatma when she was six. Awe-struck, she stared at him for well over an hour and silently promised, “He is the man I will dedicate my life to.” While Gandhi was assassinated before that could happen, she tread Vinoba’s path. Not only did she organise his public meetings but she also accompanied him on a padyatra in the 1950s.
Legendary for being late, Nirmala was exempted from attending her school’s morning assembly because she always reached after it was over. Nothing has changed since. When she was to take her oath as an MP, colleagues trooped to her house and pulled her out, in case she failed to make it in time. If God granted one wish, Deshpande says, she would ask for a “48-hour day”.