Before joining Gandhi’s ashram, Kalyanam worked in a British office as a budget assistant.
V. Kalyanam, Mahatma Gandhi’s last personal secretary, is a sprightly 95. Staying by himself in Chennai, Kalyanam has strong views on the Mahatma and very indulgent memories. These he narrates with an uncommon affection, and doesn’t spare himself.
His apartment in Chennai is always open to visitors, but on the door a small legend says he meets visitors between 11 pm and 4 am. He smiles and says “I am totally free at that time.” V. Kalyanam, personal secretary to Mahatma Gandhi from 1944, is a treasure trove of stories, Born on August 15, 1922, his sense of humour is still intact. Living alone at 95, he manages his five-bedroom apartment on his own and a broom stands witness to his leaning towards cleanliness.
Used to western wear, Kalyanam’s turnout was the talk of the office then. Since he joined the Sevagram ashram in 1944, he has been wearing white pyjamas and kurtas. “A suit would cost Rs 40. I gave away mine to friends and they are so happy. Each tie would cost 12 annas. I had six pairs of shoes and a pair of boots and I would wear those when I found a hole in my socks,” he says.
What does he think of the recent controversy regarding the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi; About there being a second person, about there being a fourth bullet. “Nobody else was there, only Nathuram Godse fired the gun and there were only three bullets,” says Kalyanam firmly. “Godse came from the left and fired and the bullets hit Gandhi directly. One hit him in the stomach and two passed through. Had it come from a slight change of direction, I would not have been here to tell this tale. I missed the bullet by six inches. There was no time for Gandhi to say anything. He died instantly and did not utter the words ‘Hey Ram’.” “I am the only person living who was there when the incident took place.”
With a similar finality, Kalyanam says that Gandhi need not have experimented with sex. “He experimented when he was in Noakhali. Many resigned from the ashram. Rajaji opposed it, Thankkar Bappa opposed it and even his son Devdas opposed it. Foreign writers questioned it,” he says. There was a lot of anger against Gandhi because he handed power to Nehru, says Kalyanam. He says both Nehru and Patel resigned thrice because they could not see eye to eye, but thanks to Gandhi they continued in top positions. “Gandhi loved Nehru because of his greater love for Motilal Nehru,” says Kalyanam. He says Patel never had the ambition to become PM. In fact Patel is supposed to have said, “I am too old to become PM. Nehru is younger to me by 20 years and he should be the PM.”
That has not reduced his awe or affection for the Mahatma. “You cannot find another man like him in the next 2,000 years,” Kalyanam avers, “because of his way of living, economy of habits, punctuality, no anger or violence and other qualities.” Once when Kalyanam was residing in Bombay, he was asked to distribute pamphlets to local residents asking them to raise their voice against the British. A policeman arrested him for treason and he was sent away after two days to Lahore, since all the jails were more than full. He was released after seven months, and he joined a British insurance company. In the evenings he would carry out Gandhi’s message and work for the Harijans.
This was when he was noticed by Gandhi’s son Devdas, who asked Kalyanam to join the ashram at Sevagram, near Wardha. Kalyanam’s boss at the insurance company was also a Gandhi sympathiser and gave him leave for two months to visit Sevagram. For the man who believed in sartorial excellence, the ashram was a culture shock, but much appreciated. Kalyanam says “I loved cleaning and I do it even now.”
Meanwhile Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s private secretary and confidant. passed away and Kalyanam was to step in his shoes. Kalyanam met Gandhi for the first time in May 1944, when the Mahatma came to Mumbai and he was introduced to him. Gandhi made inquiries about his family and offered him a salary of Rs 60 and asked him a final question: Did Kalyanam know how to type. Kalyanam did not know what fate held for him. Kalayanam accompanied Gandhi to Sevagram and he resigned from his job. Gandhi dictated letters to Kalyanam and asked him to type them. “Gandhi’s handwriting was not easy to decipher and I would sometimes find it a problem, but I managed,” he says.
Before joining Gandhi’s ashram, Kalyanam worked in a British office as a budget assistant. “I had a wonderful life and unfortunately cannot see that kind of life anymore,” he says with a far-away look in his eyes. “It was the best government in the world, law enforcement was the best.” After Gandhi’s assassination, Kalyanam continued to work and he was regional commissioner for SC/ST in 1956. In 1959 Kalyanam met the beautiful Saraswati who was working with the AG’s office, and married her. She died in 1988. He has two daughters who live in Chennai and visit with him often, filling up his fridge whenever possible.
His grandchildren have grown up. “They cannot talk in Tamil. They understand because when I ask them something in Tamil they reply in English,” he says.
“My wife was an intellectual,” he says. “She was a prolific writer on the Puranas and she had a fabulous handwriting. She had the horoscopes of all the Tamil Nadu CMs and maintained a notebook but I see all that only now,” says, the room full of open notebooks. He was probably going through them at some point.
Saraswati came from a poor family of eight children. But all of them were educated. “Her salary then was Rs. 200 and later became Rs 800. She had only three saris with her and she was so beautiful that her father would wait to pick her up,” reminisces Kalyanam.
“I feel the loss of her death even now. I am guilty that I did not lead her properly. I travelled abroad 15 times, but did not take her even once. We did not go anywhere. I would simply spend eight hours in the garden,” he says, when they lived in a home belonging to Sir C.V. Raman. Saraswati never stayed in the apartment. Kalyanam inaugurated the AAP chapter in Chennai and became a member of the party, but feels that Arvind Kejriwal should have confined himself to Delhi.
Kalyanam did not get any money from the government from 1948, but with a sparkling grin he says, “I am not worried because I am very good with the share market and have made much money here. I have given away Rs 9 crore to various hospitals. I know where to invest,” he says. He gets a little help from a young man, a chartered accountant and his financial consultant. “I am still active in the share market,” says Kalyanam. “There is no need to save in FDs because there is no tax on company shares,” he says wisely. “I have friends who come and take me out for a ride or to keep me company,” he says.
Tale of the dirty Toilet:
I would travel with him everywhere and take notes, based on which Gandhi would write articles in The Harijan,” Kalyanam says. The only time Kalyanam did not accompany Gandhi to a meeting was when the Mahatma would meet the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, at the Viceregal Lodge. On that particular day, Gandhi came out and, taking support of Kalyanam’s shoulders, told him in a whisper, “I need to use a washroom urgently.”
They got into a vehicle and Kalyanam told the driver to drive fast. “We were living in Birla House and that was five minutes away. I used to live in a small room just a little away from the main house. It was self-contained with a lawn and such. Gandhi got off the car in a rush and went into the bathroom of my house. He came back after some time, feeling much relieved, and quietly approached me and said ‘Kalyanam, you are always so dapper, clean and well dressed. Why is your toilet so dirty and stinking?’”
“I told him about how visitors first stopped at my place and waited for an hour or so before I could bring them to meet him. In the interim period they used the toilet in my home and some did not pour water and hence the stink. Gandhi immediately said ‘Oh, I am sorry, I accused you.’”
Rs 1-cr for a Rs 50 cheque:
Since Gandhi travelled by train most of the time, arrangements were such that some junctions were selected where people would gather and Gandhi would meet and address some of them. At one such junction, an MP came to Gandhi and talked about some unrest in a nearby village. Gandhi suggested that he should travel there, but the MP said that the village was 40 km away and he did not have the money for the bus journey. Gandhi turned to Kalyanam and asked him if he had that money. “I used to always carry Rs 50 in my pocket,” says Kalyanam and he gave that money to the MP.
Gandhi never touched money directly, but he remembered to sign the cheque to Kalyanam two days before he was shot dead on January 30, 1948. Kalyanam had deposited it but recalled it immediately after Gandhi’s assassination two days later, and has retained it. Vijay Mallya apparently offered `1 crore for the same.
Shape up or ship out:
Wherever Gandhi went and especially at the ashram, the Mahatma believed that the day should start with prayer for he believed that it was “the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.” Abha and Manu Gandhi also lived at the ashram. The normal wake-up call at the ashram was 3 am but that day Abha continued to sleep. “Gandhi did not question her but told Manu to tell Abha that if she did not have the interest in prayers she could leave the ashram. Gandhi never had confrontations,” says Kalyanam.
Ticket on Gandhi special:
Kalyanam joined Gandhi formally on October 1, 1944, when he was in Pune, though he had joined the ashram on September 1. “He was travelling and asked me to join him. Gandhi always travelled 3rd class, though the British, who had a lot of reverence for him, would give him an entire compartment,” says Kalyanam.
Kalyanam obviously thought that since the compartment was theirs there was no need to buy a ticket. He would realise later that Gandhi had already bought his ticket.
“The train had travelled a 100 km and we were to stop at a junction as per the announcement in the newspaper. Gandhi asked me, ‘Have you bought a ticket?’ When I replied in the negative, he asked to me to go to the station master in that melee and bring him to the compartment. The station master was thrilled, of course but I was not when Gandhi said ‘This boy joined me recently and has not bought his ticket. Please do the needful’.”
The station master said with folded hands, “Aap to bade aadmi hain. Ticket lene ki zaroorat kya hai (You are a famous man. Why do you need to buy a ticket)?” To which Gandhi replied, “If you are allowing all VIPs to travel ticketless, I will complain against you and report you to the railways.” Kalyanam quickly bought his ticket and has still kept the receipt.
Do it, then and there:
Gandhi used to observe a vow of silence on Mondays, and on those days he would write Kalyanam a note, which is when he needed a magnifying glass and help to decipher the short forms that Gandhi would use. Kalyanam remembers one of those Mondays. They were travelling and Gandhi drafted a short letter and handed it to Kalyanam for typing, to be delivered to Mridula Sarabhai at Pune station to be posted to the Viceroy Lord Wavell post haste.
Kalyanam thought he could keep the draft till they reached Calcutta and then type it. On Mondays, Gandhi broke his silence at 6 pm and he asked Kalyanam for the typed letter so that he could sign it. Kalyanam told him nervously that he had not carried the typewriter with him. Gandhi retorted, “When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools’. But Gandhi did not remain angry for long. Once Kalyanam typed the letter and brought it to him, he made one correction and signed it.
Never get bored!
Once they were in Calcutta to bring about peace between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi did not give the usual morning dictation to Kalyanam. Later he was with a crowd and Kalyanam got bored and said so to Gandhi. “How do you say there is no work. I have just passed stools. Please clean it up and do not ever say there is no work,” said Gandhi. Kalyanam did the needful and never ever got an opportunity to say he was bored.
Keeping track of the gandhi scribble
Apart from his phenomenal memory, Kalyanam carries a letter which Gandhi wrote on a piece of paper.
“He would never waste paper. He would find empty space and write on it,” says Kalyanam. On this particular piece of paper, Gandhi had written on the sides and the top.
Kalyanam’s job quite often was to decipher this and type it out, which he has done of this letter too. “It is only now I realise the value of what Gandhi wrote. Had I known then, I would not have thrown all those letters in the dustbin,” he says.
Kalyanam has a cheque written to him, issued on January 28, 1948.