A contemporary look at the modern Sita

By Devi Rajab


Three Strong Women Sita Gandhi, Sushila Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi

Diwali is a time when the often forgotten story of Rama and Sita gets submerged by the celebration of the event. Fireworks, sweetmeats and prayers distracts from the original message. So who was Sita in a collective sense?  Was she a symbol of strong and virtuous women, weak and vulnerable daughters, abused sisters or, a figment of our imagination of the perfect woman?  A contemporary look at the modern Sita in the South African context is an interesting one. In a tale of three generations.  Uma Mesthrie, born in 1956 tells the story of three women related to Gandhi, all of whom had strength of character in common. Her mother Sita Gandhi (1928-1999), her grandmother Sushila Gandhi (1908-1988) and great grandmother, Kasturba Gandhi  (wife of the Mahatma)  whom few knew was the true head of the Gandhi household.

From left to right Sita, shushila and Ela taken in Phoeneix settlement in 1970
From left to right Sita, shushila and Ela taken in Phoeneix settlement in 1970

The great granddaughter of Bapu is a gentle and unassuming personality who hides her brilliance under a bushel. She does not like the limelight and would rather project the achievements of others around her than that of her own. She says: “We called my grandmother Ba (mother). Her face was dotted with tiny brown pigmentation spots, always ready to crease into a smile, her thinning white hair twirled into a small white bun. Throughout the 32 years that I knew her, she wore white khadi (handspun cotton cloth) which symbolised her commitment to her father-in-law. She was a very good artist, even though only educated up to 4th form in school.”

Uma Mesthrie has published prolifically as an academic and although she wears several hats and juggles many roles she considers herself to be essentially a historian. But her interests and talents extend beyond the restrictive boundaries of academia and in her historiographical writings of her great grandfather and her female relatives, she expresses the dilemma of being caught between being a professional historian and a family member thus: “How to phrase what must be told, how to force the seals, twist back the locks, burgle the cabinet of the soul?”

Uma was born in what is now KwaZulu-Natal in 1956 in the Warwick Avenue Triangle, familiarly known to the local residents as the Casbah. Her mother was Sita Gandhi and her father Sashikant Dhupelia, the son of a wealthy wholesale merchant.

Shushila Gandhi with Alan Paton the writer

A year later her parents moved into a building in Kismet Arcade in Prince Edward Street which is a landmark to members of the Gujarati community. Here they lived and conducted their business in a closely knit environment of family and friends.

“My father was the son of a wealthy wholesale merchant. My parents’ marriage was controversial as he left his first wife and three children to marry my mother. To do this, he was prepared to take the extraordinary step of giving up his fortune in the family firm, Dhupelia & Sons to be with Sita, and had to virtually survive on his own steam away from the security of an established family business.  My mother was the strong personality in the house – it was she who would help with debates and homework, and she had strong views about everything, especially spirituality.”

In the biography of her mother Sita, Uma describes her strong and independent thinking. Sent by her father Manilal to spend time in India with a grandfather she had rarely met and of whose saintliness she had been deeply suspicious, Sita found herself instantly drawn to him and began understanding people’s devotion. Uma writes, “However, despite a deep attachment, my mother never lost her own independence. For example, she remained unconvinced of his policy of not supporting the British war effort despite his efforts to explain his views on the matter.”

Uma Mesthrie


She was also dubious about Gandhi’s education system, which advocated working in service of poor villagers. The manual work was hard and she wasn’t convinced that they were achieving the right effects on the villagers. In her view ‘the villagers were hardly receptive to our counsel; they stored

up their dirt for us to clean, for they felt that was our only good use to them’.”

In letters between Sita and her grandfather, what emerges is a portrait of a kindly and sensitive man striving to develop a meaningful relationship with his teenage granddaughter. He supports her emotionally, worries about her health and encourages her in her education.  As the independence movement progressed  with the spectre of partition rapidly gaining ground and the subcontinent descending into communal violence, Sita would find that there were  many who claimed his time and who were “very possessive” of him. Quite poignantly, although she was in India at the time of his assassination in 1948, she could not get to his funeral – and was simply one of the millions of Indians mourning his loss. The Mahatma, it seemed, belonged to the nation even more so than to his family.

Years later, after Sita had returned to South Africa and had married Sashi, Uma and her siblings found that life in the Indian community was not an easy ride for them, affected as they were by the circumstances of their parents’ marriage and often feeling like outcasts. In those days divorce was unmentionable and for a grandchild of the Mahatma to marry a divorcee was even more problematic. Uma recalls that as children they were shunned by the Lohana section of the Gujarati community to which her father belonged.  “Sita was of the Bania caste and we had more friends amongst these families. Brought up in a Gandhian household, my mother’s attitude to religion was a broad-based one, free of rituals”.

What Uma did enjoy, however, was her childhood in the Grey Street complex. “There was always activity in the streets – music blaring from a record shop, kids playing

soccer in the street neighbours in the flat with washing cascading off clothes lines. We spent hours looking out of the window and it was never boring. We could walk to the public library in Victoria Street and my brother and I devoured every book in that library. Initially we read all the popular stuff – but when I was about 11 or 12, my grandmother Sushila gave me as a birthday present, Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth. For the first time, I drew close to my great grandfather, whom I had never met.  He spoke almost directly to the reader – and to me.”

The other area of her childhood was the Phoenix Settlement, 15 miles away from the city. The farm had been established by Gandhi in 1904 as a communal experimental farm.  Sita writes, “My grandfather’s farm… among the plantations of sugarcane fields… was over 100 acres and it was the most beautiful piece of land, untouched by the then racial laws”. For Sita, the settlement was “a lively, bustling community. Market gardens were established, their dairy supplied milk to all the homesteads on the settlement as well as the neighbourhood.  Everybody on the settlement had to participate in communal activities, such as the daily prayers and singing of hymns which Gandhi himself had instituted.”

Phoenix was a contrast to the busy world of the city that Uma and her siblings knew as children. “Sushila had been widowed quite young and she lived alone at Phoenix. She had the strongest influence on me. I watched her living alone, running a large farm and its labourers, engaging with the Phoenix families, meeting with trustees like Alan Paton, taking on the important business of looking after Gandhi’s heritage. Unconsciously through her, I learnt that women could do anything. I have been blessed to know strong women like my mother and my grandmother.   Both of them could speak their minds and be quite independent.

Long live the Sitas amongst us. Happy Deevali!

Devi RajabDr. Devi Rajab is a respected South African journalist and former Dean of Student
Development at UKZN and the author of several books.