Ashwin Desai, coauthor of The South African Gandhi, writes to his late father about his mother who seems on her way to the place we all go to. And the conversation moves to research topics he supervises at his university (Love and Lesbian Lust in Boer Concentration Camps; Masturbation: A Comparative Study of Church-going Pentecostal and Catholic males) and this inevitably leads him to Mohandas Gandhi’s quaint celibacy rituals, vaseline and suchlike.
(You always told me that in Gujarati, Gulab means Rose.)
It’s been a while since I have written. You must have wondered why in the last letter I never spoke about mum. Your Mary Theresa. I am glad to report she lives on. In the nearly 10 years of your absence, she has barely mentioned you. She simply got on with it. Whatever thoughts she harboured, she buried them deeply. Perhaps it was too painful to remember and she closed off grief like one would seal an envelope. Or was it that she could now get on with her own life after all the years of seeing from behind you?
Her eyesight has gone but not her sense of humour. She lights up and laughs when I ask her what kind of funeral she wants: “Oh Ash, lots of song and dance”. Quite ironic for a woman who lived her life without music; like a steadfast Russian peasant, she now wants us to have a good time come her final goodbye.
Of course I cannot bear to think about her death. You see, I have grown fond of her since you departed. Dependent even. It’s as if all the years of shallow sentiment have built into a tidal wave of emotional bonding.
She too has mellowed. The brisk, hard, unforgiving character has given way to a person who asks what I’ve eaten, how my work is going, even about my health. She ends our telephone calls with words like “I love you, Ash”. I know, I know. You must be shocked. Maybe it was that fall on her head three years ago? Maybe it’s all the medication.
It saddens me to see her confined to a settee. Unable to do all the things she used to: cooking, washing the clothes by hand, tending the garden, shopping at Checkers and Farmers’ Produce. She always reminded me of an electric food mixer. In perpetual motion. Grinding. But after your death, she slowed down a little. Then a bit more. Now it seems as if someone pulled the plug and the whirring blades have come to a standstill.
When I sit next to her, put my arms around her, she rests her head on my chest (I know this sounds incongruous, but the enclosed photograph is proof). I am educated, pulled into a long absent world of touch and feel. I know this sounds complex, deep even. Maybe one of your favourite poets, Rumi, puts it much better:
Don’t turn away
Keep looking at the bandaged place
That’s where the light enters you
I now teach at the University of Johannesburg. It is an amalgamation of different institutions, the most well-known of which was the Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit. Yes, the university built in the shape of a laager. Remember how you tried so hard to enter the laager? Writing the Voorbereide Exam (equivalent to Standard 6) at the age of 40. Wearing a safari suit and driving a Chevrolet. How proud we were when someone mistook you for Chief Inspector Botha. Now I am inside the laager looking out. My students are interested in all kinds of new subjects. Top of the list is sexuality. Here are some of the topics for MA degrees… (Homo)sexuality and Parliamentary Backbenchers; Intimacy and Homoerotic desire in Shaka’s regiments; Love and Lesbian Lust in Boer Concentration Camps; Masturbation: A Comparative Study of Church-going Pentecostal and Catholic males.
For the last topic, one candidate, who by the way, is the first declared transgender student to register for a PhD, calmly suggested participant observation when challenged on his/her research methodology.
I am singularly uneducated in these matters. It’s one issue my generation grew up knowing nothing about. I remember once (when it became clear that I was playing by myself, with myself), you tried to talk to me in some obscure way, about the birds and the bees. You were easily fobbed off when I said I wasn’t taking biology as an option. It was never raised again.
Later at university, I hated it when a girlfriend held my hand or a “lover” cuddled up. How dare she mix sex with intimacy, I thought. I never saw you and mum hold hands. Hug each other. In fact, I never saw any of your contemporaries in the old neighbourhood show affection to their wives. I raised my dilemma with mum. She was unsympathetic. She said the Pope is celibate, never married, but he still pronounces on matters of sexuality and divorce.
Her mention of celibacy allowed me to raise the name of the man who made celibacy sexy, Gandhi. I have just coauthored a book on the Mahatma that has created great furore. I will write to you about that some other time. In order to test his celibacy when he was in his seventies, Gandhi started taking his 16- year-old niece Manu to bed. Both would sleep naked.
There were other women in his “experiments”, as he called them, which led to much jealousy among the women devotees as they waited for the call to take their clothes off. Gandhi writes on page 213, Volume 79 of his Collected Works, of a woman in the ashram who went by the name of Prabhavati: “She often used to sleep with me to keep me warm, even before I was conscious that I was making an experiment.” Clearly, blankets were wearing thin in the ashram.
Now, Ma really became interested in the story. I read her a letter that Gandhi wrote to his South African friend and ally, Herman Kallenbach, in 1909: “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in the bedroom. The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed. Cotton wool and Vaseline are a constant reminder… (it) show(s) to you and me how completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.”
“Didn’t that Schabir fellow also recommend Vaseline when entering politics?” Uncle Cecil piped up from the corner, eyes twinkling. As usual, Ma simply ignored his interventions. She was dead silent.
“Mohandas, hey,” she then said, “I am not surprised, Guajarati men are very naughty.” Blindness and incontinence could not stop her from seeking to settle scores. It was in that moment, more than ever, I knew I was this woman’s son.
Your ever loving son, Ashwin, aka “The Thorn”.
(First published on 2 December 2015, in The Post, Durban)