The Woman Who Knew Gandhi

The Woman Who Knew Gandhi

by Keith Heller


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Based on an aside in Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, in which he mentions a brief but seductive youthful flirtation with an Englishwoman, The Woman Who Knew Gandhi boldly imagines a long correspondence between a spiritual leader from the East and an ordinary woman from the West. In 1948, just after Gandhi's assassination, Martha Houghton receives a letter from Gandhi's son, who himself lies dying of tuberculosis in Bombay. Having found a stash of her letters to his father, he asks to meet her. The request sends Martha into a tailspin, for her husband knows nothing of her lifelong friendship with Gandhi.
Martha and her husband are forced to reevaluate their long marriage, and she must find a way to reconcile the disparate halves of her life. Moreover, their small community becomes a magnet for the press, and Martha finds her words twisted and used against her. Ultimately, she must decide whether to meet her old son's friend on his deathbed, or to remain in England and mend the rift in her marriage. Charmingly and elegantly written, The Woman Who Knew Gandhi explores the many definitions of love and friendship and the surprises of marriage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618335459
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/16/2010
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Keith Heller, born in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1949, has written four previous novels. He has taught English in the United States, Japan, Madrid, and Argentina. His fiction has been published in numerous literary journals. Heller has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize anthology and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction.

Read an Excerpt

1 As events turned out, it was a stroke of good fortune for Martha that her husband had never shown the slightest interest in the morning’s post. Samuel wasn’t much of a letter-reading, letter-writing man anyway. Bills, adverts, and flyers, the odd inquiries from friends and former customers wondering where he’d got to — these were the only pieces ever addressed to him. Most of the Houghton family was gone by now, except for a mad half brother still brooding about the perimeter of Imber after the army’s forced evacuation of the village five years ago. As for writing, corresponding with the children and the grandchildren was Martha’s work, not so much because of any preference in her or disinclination in her husband, but because of their handwriting. Samuel’s was spidery and crabbed, even before the arthritis took hold, and helping with their two daughters’ schoolwork at the kitchen table had always embarrassed him. Only with their son’s Meccano Erector set in the shed out back had he felt at all secure. Martha, though, wrote like a medieval scribe, swirling her capitals into great gestures and trailing her sentences off into spirals that formed dark arabesques across the page. She took such lovely pains even over each week’s grocery list.
Not like the unfamiliar hand on the blue envelope that she now separated from the rest, the only one today made out specifically to her, yet with no return address. She sat alone in a fall of rare February sunlight through the kitchen windows and let her tea grow cold as she studied the writing. In a child’s block printing, as stiff as farmers in suits, the letters of her name and address jostled against one another, sometimes tripping over their neighbors’ feet. The envelope itself seemed cheap and well traveled. Its corners were blunted, and the fabric of its paper was thinned by abrasion. But what had caught her attention from the first were the stamps. There were three different types, pasted haphazardly across the top as if in a feverish attempt to make up enough postage for the long journey. One was of a four- motored aircraft, another was of a waving flag, and the third was of a pillar crowned by carved lions. What they all had in common, in addition to some incomprehensible characters that looked like the hooks and eyes down a lady’s dress, were the printed notices “15th Aug. 1947” and “India Postage.” It was these legends, along with all the shifting colors of blues and grays, that had startled Martha at the letterbox and brought her pattering breathlessly back into the house.
She didn’t open the envelope at once.
In fact, she planned to do so only tomorrow, when Samuel would surely be out of the house, idling around the public green at the end of the street or, if the weather had turned foul, in the Fountain Inn pub in St.
John’s Road. Dr. Little had lately lectured him on the benefits of exercise. “You’re not getting any younger, Samuel, and just because you don’t have your ironmonger’s any longer doesn’t mean you should sit at home like some old woman.” So Samuel had added to his usual mulling over newspapers and catalogs a regular constitutional that kept him out for half an hour or more. He never invited Martha, probably because the first time he asked her she’d told him she had better things to do than traipse about a village that she already knew better than she knew her own rugs. She hadn’t, truth to tell, anything better to do, but it pleased her to fancy that some small part of each day still belonged to her alone.
Now, Martha thought as she glanced at the clock over the sink, to hide the letter before he returned. She sensed that it wouldn’t do to tell Samuel about what she guessed must be a final communication from abroad. Not quite yet, at any rate, if ever.
Besides, how could she ever make him or anyone else in Hedge End understand the mixed feelings that she herself had been struggling with for the past sixty years? The trouble was their home was small, even with the two floors, they had lived in it forever, and he had the craftsman’s habit of reviewing his work whenever he passed it by. He would caress the grain of the bookshelves, lift the mattress to inspect the bedstead, and open and close the wardrobe doors to listen for crickets in the hinges. Always puttering, never satisfied with the tedium of retirement, he roamed the house from morning till night as though he had never left his old shop behind. She could never say where he might start rooting about next. Martha had even found him one morning deep in the ceddar storage chest at the foot of their bed, handling the few silks and linens that the war had spared her as if he were a coal miner, trying to dig up his buried mates.
“What in the world — ?” “I was only looking for the key to the lock on the back gate,” he’d tried to explain. “It’s gone missing.” “And you thought to find it in there?” Samuel unconsciously removed a splinter from the lid of the chest. “I don’t know. I’ve looked everywhere else.” The kitchen was perhaps the room he knew least well, so now Martha looked hurriedly around her. As she did, a surge of brighter sun illuminated the walls and cupboards, picking blinding glints out of every reflective surface. After considering and having second thoughts about the breadbox, tea cozy, and cutting boards, she hid the letter from India where she hoped Samuel would never look, under the covered bucket of rinds and crusts by the back door. Then, winded by her efforts, she stood for a while at the center of the room with her eyes half closed against the light.

Fifty-seven years earlier, the house back in Portsmouth had been Martha’s only refuge. When her father had died of farmer’s lung, her mother had turned to her unmarried sister for financial help. Aunt Feemy kept a boarding house for sailors in a street near Landport Terrace, a wry little structure of red brick walls and white window frames. As respectable as it could be so near a seaport, the house had welcomed Martha and her mother and put them to work at serving and washing and sewing.
The young girl hadn’t felt the move down from Droxford too sorely, though she did miss her blacksmith father and his comforting cindery smell. But in Portsmouth she had found compensations. The salty air blue, the burnished seamen’s faces, and the drumming of boots across the dining room floorboards had all surrounded her with a noisy liveliness that reminded her of her father’s workshop. If some of the other female lodgers were less honestly occupied than she and her mother were, and if some of the visiting men stayed for only an hour or so, Martha hardly noticed. She’d spent most of her time at an up- stairs window, watching faceless passersby flicker like lighthouse beacons through the sea fog.
After Martha’s mother died only a few months later, it seemed only natural for the girl to stay on at Aunt Feemy’s. Her brother being away in the navy and her sister having already settled with her own family up at Avebury, Martha had nowhere else to go.
Aunt Feemy was well read and curious, and she had insisted that the girl resume her schooling, at least informally, in the downstairs library.
This was only a small room off the kitchen with three deal boards for a bookcase and a stool, with neither back nor arms, for a reading chair. The library consisted of fewer than twenty volumes: a history, two grammars, a geography, some unbound sheets of inspirational poetry, and the better novels of the local celebrity Dickens and the more distant Trollope. In this room, alone, Martha slowly grew into adulthood. Years of overheard conviviality, of artificial passions, in pages and in adjoining rooms, that were repeated often enough to become almost genuine, hadn’t soured her at all.
Rather, she counted herself lucky to experience at second hand what most women and men had to suffer at first. Knowing which of love’s errors to avoid, she reasoned at the time, must be an invaluable lesson. It left her perfectly content to wait as long as she had to for the best and the wisest among men to show himself.
Until, that is, when she was sixteen years old, and the young man from India appeared. Having come to Portsmouth at the start of a cool and gleaming May for a meeting of the Vegetarian Federal Union in the Upper Albert Hall, he’d been brought to Aunt Feemy’s by a fellow countryman. The newcomer to England was twenty-one, small for a man and dark, yet quieter and more intense than most of the other Indians who passed through the harbor. His ears were jugged boyishly out from the sides of his head beneath a smattering of oiled hair, and his eyes were more feminine and his lips fuller than any other man’s that Martha had ever seen. Dressed as properly as a British gentleman in a dark morning coat, a starched Gladstonian collar, a white tie, and spats, he roamed wordlessly about the house, noting and seeming to judge everything, but commenting aloud upon nothing. His and Martha’s paths crossed more than once that first day, on the stairway after the late breakfast or when they’d found themselves alone in the dining room. But then the girl was too slow to speak and the stranger too overwhelmed by the new world around him even to notice her.
It was not until that evening at the house’s customary rubber of bridge when the young law student finally let down his guard. Aunt Feemy was in high spirits, even for her, leading the table in the kind of colorful banter that smoking and drinking and late nights so often gave rise to in her company. In a short time, Martha could see from her vantage point in the doorway that the two Indians were joining in with a fervor they seemed unaccustomed to, boys on bicycles they couldn’t control. Spluttering and hiccuping with laughter, flushing burgundy above his striped silk shirt, the newest arrival had casually rested the back of his wrist against the arm of the hostess beside him. Aunt Feemy allowed the contact to linger and followed it with a meaningful stare, one that the flustered young man tried his best to return.
Toward the end of the evening, after he inexcusably fumbled a hand, he apologized at such length that Aunt Feemy finally became concerned.
“No, no, Mr. Gandhi, you play admirably enough, as if you’ve done so more than once,” she reassured him.
“Perhaps you’re not the total innocent you would have us all believe.” “Still waters, Mrs. Keeve, still waters.” The frightened face took on the approximation of a leer. “Even innocence, you know, sometimes requires testing.” He might have said or done more, but the other Indian — perhaps sorry that he hadn’t intervened sooner — jumped in, “Whence this devil in you, my boy? Be off, quick!” And he pushed the student toward where Martha was standing and directed her to see the young fool up to his room. She did as she was told, eagerly preceding him up the dark staircase that had been the cause of more than one false step.
After turning on the gas sconce in his room, Martha made as if to scurry off to safety when the Indian begged her not to go.
“I feel such a fool,” he’d whimpered, slumping down onto his bed. “Do you think your aunt will ever forgive me?” “Aunt Feemy is the most understanding creature alive. You’ve no cause to worry.” “It’s just that, you see,” Gandhi continued, “my head’s been all in a spin ever since I landed here.
Everything is so different — so large, so loud, nothing like the soft, yellow dust floating in the air back home. And in order to complete my legal studies, I’m probably going to have to stay here in England for years!” The young man had looked so forlorn that Martha sat down on the bed beside him, though with plenty of distance between them.
“I know exactly what you mean,” she’d assured him. “I felt the same when I first moved down here from my hometown. And then when my mother died and left me here alone except for Auntie — well, I thought I’d never be able to go on. But I did, as you shall, too, I’m sure. It’s always difficult, you know, starting something different, no matter what the personal circumstances might be. There are strange people and strange scenes, unfamiliar habits to get used to, and even daily changes in the weather that affect us more than we know. You just have to accept the fact that a new life is just that — new and whole. For a little while, you’re going to be as helpless and as dizzy as a babe in a rocking cradle, but that will pass with time. It’s not easy becoming someone other than who you were.” Gandhi smiled at her, and said, “You sound as if you know something about us Hindus.” “Not a jot.” Martha smiled in return.
“But I do know a little about being an orphan. And isn’t that what you are now, Mr. Gandhi, though in your case by your own choice? Haven’t you orphaned yourself from your home and your family? I can’t imagine why you would, but —” “To distinguish myself,” he interrupted her. “Not as a famous man, but only as a man who might someday be distinguished from the endless crush of humanity. I should like to be a light, leading others onward toward goodness.” “Whereas I,” she confessed, “can’t think of anything more wonderful than a life lived among loved ones in peace and privacy. We shall have to keep in touch, Mr. Gandhi, and see which of us achieves his goal in the future.” Such a bold proposal silenced them both for a while, until the Indian added, “Tell me about your mother and your father and the rest of your family, could you? I’ll tell you about mine.” And he did. Yet it was not until a year later, too late perhaps, that Martha had learned in a letter that the young man had a wife and an infant son waiting for him back home in India.

After nearly half a century of marriage, Martha could recognize her husband’s way of opening a door even in a thunderstorm. Now the sound of the handle slipping and catching brought her back to the present, and she reached the front hall just in time to see Samuel fluttering a dust of snow off his coat. “Anything interesting come in the post?” he asked.
She pulled up short. “Today’s? Why?
Were you expecting something?” “No letters or notices?” She promised him that there had been nothing beyond the usual.
“That’s it, then,” he said, disappointed. “I suppose I shall just have to make do with the old motor catalogs.
Still, you’d think that once a man’s put in his request for the new ones . . .” Relieved, Martha came forward to help him unknot his scarf and smelled the pub on his breath. His hands felt as cold as iron, and his face drooped with frustration. She offered to make him some cocoa. He could enjoy it right here on the sofa next to the fireplace. They could even listen to the Third Programme on the wireless together.

When, the following day, Martha finally came to open the letter, now wilted by the seeping of the rubbish, she was immediately taken aback by its signature, so different from the formal printing on the envelope. The writer was not, in fact, the former law student whose assassination at the end of last month had left her sitting motionless in a chair for hours. It was his eldest son, the same three-year-old boy he’d told her of in one of his first letters from India, only now he was sixty and dying slowly of tuberculosis somewhere in Bombay.
“My dear Mrs. Houghton,” the letter read. “You will forgive me for pressing myself upon you like this with no preamble, but my late father always used to mention you as a friend whom I might turn to in any manner of distress. I find myself turning to you now at this sad moment, for I am woefully and fatally distressed.” Nonsense, thought Martha, fluffing out the sheet over her cup of smoking tea. From what she’d learned over the years, her old friend and his first son had never got along all that well. There had been repeated betrayals on both sides, bitterness, regrets. It was unthinkable that the father should have confided in him anything about a relationship that, though never really shameful, had always been kept quiet by both of the principals involved.
“Lying here alone,” the man continued, “I think I have come at last to a truer appreciation of my father and what he meant to the world at large. His passing is an incalculable loss to us all, but especially to me, estranged as we unfortunately were toward the end.
Had I only known that murder would soon rob me of his wisdom and his compassion, I should have striven much harder to mend the breach between us before it was too late. Time, though, will have its way with us, will it not?
And now, with my mother gone and the rest of my family scattered and busy with their own destinies, you, Mrs. Houghton, may be the last recourse available to me in my hour of trial. I only pray these words will reach you,” a separate paragraph began. “I have no way of knowing how old is the address that I found among my father’s papers. But what a strange sensation, to be speaking to someone who may never hear my voice! Much the same, I imagine, as when I commune every night with my father, in whatever exalted form he may now reside.” At the kitchen table, the daylight hiding phantoms in the muslin curtains that their daughter Alice had sent them last Christmas, Martha tried to picture the writer on the other side of the globe, just as she’d usually tried to picture Gandhi when he was away. But the distance was always too great for her to imagine anything clearly, even with the help of her friend’s descriptions of his homeland and whatever newspaper and magazine photographs she could get her hands on.
Now, as before, Martha felt foreign and separate, isolated by time and space and condemned never to understand fully either the father or the son. Ever since the envelope arrived, she had been hoping that it might contain a last greeting for her, relayed through a third party perhaps, from the friend she hadn’t heard from since the start of the year, a few final words that would have been blissfully unconscious of their own finality. But all she had were these before her.
Perhaps, she conceded, it was the son’s illness that accounted for the letter’s wandering tone, as well as for the drunken handwriting and the occasional familiarities. Martha had watched Aunt Feemy fade away from the same disease, the once rosy woman growing more and more transparent by the hour. And she shuddered to think of the same thing happening to her old friend’s son, alone and afraid, writing from a deathbed to a woman he couldn’t even know was still alive.
After some inconsequentials about Indian politics and the defeat of Hitler three years ago, the letter came abruptly to the point. “If you could only see your way clear,” it pleaded with her, “to coming over for a short visit, here to Bombay, then perhaps I could return to you some of the memorabilia that I’ve collected since my father’s death, and we two could reminisce about the man we both cared for so much. Ocean travel, I’m told, has resumed after the war, and you English must have plenty of money and leisure for such a voyage, more at any rate than have I.
But, if you absolutely cannot come, could you tell me if your husband is still living and still with you at this same address? He would thank me, no doubt, for the opportunity to purchase the photographs now in my possession of you as a younger woman. They are quite fetching.” Martha turned the single page over, but found nothing more after the signed name, “Harilal Gandhi.” She shook her head as she stuffed the page back into the envelope. A common extortionist was all he was, hardly worth the sympathy she’d been feeling only a minute or two before. She pitied him his situation, as anyone would, condemned to a terrible death in a country that was now splintering dangerously apart under the weight of its newfound freedoms. But that certainly didn’t give him the right to intrude upon her peaceful old age with all this nonsense about effects and photographs. Who did he think he was?
Still, on her way to finding a more secure niche for the letter upstairs, she decided that she might just write back to the dying man in Bombay. Only a note, distant and calm, enough to let him know that she had no intention of rushing around the world at his call. She would have to send it from nearby Botley, the Hedge End postmistress being notorious for her spying, but then Martha was used to taking such measures. At least Samuel needn’t be put out by this unfortunate turn of events, and they could both return to their quiet, everyday lives.
He’d been feeling so unwell of late in his lungs, and Dr. Little had privately cautioned Martha against upsetting him. The old man, he said, needed his rest.

Copyright © 2003 by Keith Heller.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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