The untold story of Harilal Gandhi

On 18th June, 1948, an alcoholic was hospitalized in Bombay’s municipal hospital. His disheveled state made him appear more like a beggar. There was no clue about his whereabouts. The alcoholic man died unsung on the day of his hospitalization. The hospital staff was unable to find about his identity. It was revealed later that the alcoholic patient was none other than Harilal Gandhi, the elder son of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of nation. What events and circumstances led this son of a great man to be reduced to such state? Who was responsible for it? Was Mahatma Gandhi responsible for destroying his own son’s life?

Harilal Gandhi never got due as successor of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy

The 2007 movie – Gandhi, my father was a biopic based on life of Harilal Gandhi and his strained relationship with his father Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While reading R.K.Narayan’s book – Waiting for the Mahatma, it suddenly struck me that Gandhi’s family had to sacrifice a lot for nation. Especially, his elder son Harilal Gandhi was instrumental in making Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi a leader on national front. He not only participated in Satyagraha, but also went to jail for his father. Ironically, as a father Gandhi never took notice of his son’s talent and sacrifice. He didn’t allow Harilal to study law in South Africa. Gandhi felt that Harilal shouldn’t opt for studies in Western nation when India was struggling for freedom. Sadly, Harilal had to sacrifice his dreams for his father. Luck was never in favor of Harilal. Harilal’s wife Gulab became victim of influenza pandemic and died in 1918. Gulab was Harilal’s moral support. It was Gulab who encouraged Harilal to become a barrister and support Gandhi in his cause for India’s freedom. Ironically Harilal just became a pawn in hands of his father. Harilal was losing his own identity and goals. After his wife’s death, Harilal distanced himself from his children and succumbed to alcoholism. Unemployment and wife’s death took a toll on Harilal’s health. All his attempts for a steady income and a happy life were reduced to ashes. Gandhi’s vision for independence was so high that he overlooked his own elder son’s happiness. Gandhi had such a great influence that he could have got Harilal a steady job or a business opportunity. Unfortunately, that never happened. Harilal even changed his religion and named himself Abdullah Gandhi. Only Kasturba Gandhi understood the sad plight of her son Harilal. Even she couldn’t save Harilal from his self-destructive behavior. The name ‘Gandhi’ became a curse for Harilal.

A rare pic of Gandhi during his early days

Despite the differences between the father and son, Harilal held great respect for his father. Harilal was devastated when he heard the news of Gandhi’s assassination. He even attended his father’s funeral. His appearance was so disheveled that no one recognized him as Gandhi’s son. Though Mahatma Gandhi was successful as a global leader, he was unable to be a good father.

Gandhi my father was based on life of harilal Gandhi

His story was subject of a biographical novel – Mahatma Vs Gandhi written by author Dinkar Joshi. Even a Marathi play titled – Gandhi Virudh Gandhi was based on Harilal’s strained relationship with his father. Actor Akshaye Khanna’s portrayal as Harilal Gandhi in movie – Gandhi My Father was an award-winning performance. Behind the making of Mahatma, Mohandas’ family paid a heavy price. Especially his son Harilal was forgotten and ignored by our own nation. There is a saying that ‘a baker’s son always goes hungry’. Harilal paid a great price for being Gandhi’s son.

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