‘I kept feeling that Bapu would wake up any minute’: Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee
Devadas Mohandas Gandhi (1900-1957) was the fourth and the youngest son of Mohandas Karamchand and Kasturba Gandhi. He was born in South Africa, and returned to India with his parents to join the freedom movement. Devadas Gandhi joined the Hindustan Times in 1937 as managing editor, and held the position till his death in 1957. Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, the eldest of four children of Devadas and Lakshmi Rajagopalachari (the daughter of C Rajagopalachari), spoke about her father’s stint in Hindustan Times, her grandparents, and the changing face of Delhi. Bhattacharjee has dedicated her life to Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, and is also the author of a memoir, Reflections of an Extraordinary Era.
Watch| ‘Thud of falling newspapers was like lullaby’: Tara Gandhi on family’s association with HT
What are your earliest memories of ‘Hindustan Times’?
I was around six years old (1940) when we moved from the ashram in Harijan Colony and shifted to the Hindustan Times Apartments in Connaught Circus, the new, swanky business district in central Delhi. While as children, we were eager to go to the new house, there was also sadness at leaving the familiar surroundings of the colony. At HT apartments, we stayed in a flat on the top floor, the editorial office was on the first floor, and the printing press on the ground floor.
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From the window of the flat, I had a bird’s eye view of the daily life of the paper: I could see the paper rolls in the courtyard, hear the whirring of the press, and witnessed journalists at work. There would be a constant flow of national leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, and, of course, family members such as my maternal granddad, C Rajagopalachari, and paternal grandmother, Kasturba, without Bapu-ji. We were a nuclear family, but we were growing up in a joint family.
You witnessed the changing face of the Capital from that vantage point.
Yes, of course. Standing on the terrace of the apartment, we would see men climb up the poles on the roadside and light the street lamps. In the summers, men with huge skin bags would sprinkle water on the road. There was less chaos, very thin traffic. My father loved food and music. So we would often eat out; and one of his favourite places was Old Delhi Railway Station canteen that had great food.
He also helped set up Rikhi Ram Musical company.
What do recall of your father as a journalist?
He was extremely hardworking and meticulous. He was not just the editor of HT, but also looked after Hindustan [the Hindi edition set up in 1936] and the overseas edition. He would begin his day at 11.30am with the editorial meeting, and then stay at the office till the paper went to press. I remember that idli and coffee (which was not widely available then) would be served in those meetings.
My father did not have any formal education, but his English was good, and he was particular about handwriting and spelling. He would test young journalists on their composition skills and difficult English spellings. Even though he never trained as a journalist, he knew spot news was important. So he put up a wooden, manual news ticker outside the newspaper building in Connaught Circus; every two hours the news would be changed. I think he excelled as an editor because of the Mahatma’s buniyaadi [foundational] education, his hard work, and the unstinted support from the Birla family.
One of the first women journalists he hired was Promila Kalhan, and my father often said she wrote “clean copies”, meaning they could go straight to press. He was very particular about editorials, and wrote letters to his editors. Once I wanted to contribute to a rival paper’s very popular junior section. When I asked for his permission, he said no, because the paper was not just a rival paper, but also not patriotic. He despised yellow journalism. My father was very fond of K Shankar Pillai, the political cartoonist. But once he scrapped a cartoon because my father felt that the expressions would not go down well with HT readers. When the riots broke out in 1947-48, my father would stay late to ensure safety of the Muslim workers in his office.
As a journalist, your father was reporting on the greatest Indian, who also happened to be his father. How did he manage to strike a balance?
My father was independent minded. He saw journalism as a form of social work. My mother told me that he would often get stressed about this challenge you mention, but would keep it to himself.
Even though he took part in the freedom movement, he never wanted to join formal politics. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to send him to Russia as Independent India’s ambassador, but he refused. My mother told me that he refused because he did not want any interference from the government in his daily work.
The Birlas looked at him as someone who stood for Gandhian journalism. He was given a free hand. While my father was very close to GD Birla, he kept a professional distance.
Did your father discuss the paper, or news, with the Mahatma?
Father and son had a strong bond, and had striking similarities. They would never discuss the past, but always the present. I don’t remember them having a conversation on the paper, but they would meet every evening for an hour where they would discuss family issues, the health of the family members, and journalism in general. In Appa’s selfless devotion to his father, there was a certain sense of purity and a strong sense of responsibility.
Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Mahatma Gandhi?
He was always surrounded by people, and I would look for time to meet him alone. While everyone knows about Gandhi the national leader, not many people are aware that he was also a thorough family man. Even though he himself was very busy all the time, he would joke with me that my father was busier than him!
I once asked him whether I should do social work. He said: “Get an education first, your parents have big dreams for you. Roam the world, and then do what you have to do once you are back in India.” In a way, that’s what happened in my life. He had a great sense of humour, too. In the limited time he allotted to us to meet him, he would put aside his spinning wheel, and always ask: “Do you practise letter writing? You must learn Tamil from your mother.” Bapu-ji would often sleep only after I pressed his feet.
During the time I spent with him, Bapu-ji saw through my immaturity, and his efforts to educate me increased. He did not talk about philosophy, meditation, or the freedom struggle. Instead, he spoke about behaviour, etiquette, games, entertainment, language learning, handwriting, and creative education. There would be no fixed time for his sermons. Sometimes, he would instruct with a smile. Sometimes in jest, and at other times, he would be dead serious.
What do you remember of January 30, 1948?
I was about to sit down with my books that day, when the telephone rang. A voice on the other end said: “Mahatma Gandhi has been shot dead.” I put the phone down, thinking it was a hoax call, but it rang again. It was the same news again. God knows how my parents heard the news and reached Birla House. I don’t remember how I went to Birla House. But for the first and only time, I loudly proclaimed that I was MKG’s granddaughter so that I could enter the house. Mother was in shock. And my father said to me: “Taru, pay your respects to Bapu-ji.” But I kept feeling that Bapu-ji would wake up any minute.