The woman who nicknamed Gandhi Mickey Mouse

All great people need a break; even someone like Mahatma Gandhi — who did he turn to at such a time? It was the poet and political figure — Sarojini Naidu nee Chattopadhaya.

Sarojini Naidu – Her Way With Words is based on the resources available at the National Archives of India, New Delhi. It shares many such tales that open a window, wide enough, into Naidu’s world. It is a frank portrait of her verbal ingenuity, gift of electrifying audiences, and her ability to weave strength into everything she said. She didn’t prepare speeches. To speak “was as easy for her as it is for fish to swim,” the book quotes.

Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi on their way to the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931. Pic Courtesy/Niyogi Books

It was Naidu who nicknamed Gandhi ‘Mickey Mouse’. He enjoyed it and asked all sorts of questions about Mickey Mouse, whom he had never seen on screen. But did Sarojini Naidu follow his diet rules? “Good heavens, all that grass and goat milk. Never, never, never!” the book quotes the poet-patriot, who was born on February 13 in 1897 as saying. My first encounter with Naidu’s writings was the following verse: ‘If you call me, I will come / Swifter than desire / Swifter than lightening’s feet / Shod with plumes of fire / Life’s dark tides may roll between / Or Death’s deep chasms divide / Fearless of what betide.’ I turned to this verse many times over the years; when my heart broke for the first time, when I wanted to overcome my exam fears, and when I was getting ready to go to work on 26/11. It is a verse I have often recalled to my mind, when I needed assurance.

We may not be at war, or in the midst of Partition, but we can connect to Naidu at all times. The last verse of her poem, titled Humayun to Zobeida, is out and out romantic: “What war is this of Thee and Me? Give over the wanton strife / You are the heart within my heart, the life within my life.”

The poetess who touches a cord with die-hard romantics, also ponders over life. In our fast-paced lives, would the following verse not act like a soothing balm? My heart is weary and sad and alone / For its dreams like the fluttering leaves have gone / And why should I stay behind?

The last portion of the book is dedicated to letters she wrote between 1896 and 1911. In a 1896 letter, she tells Teresa Gosse of a song that came into her head, ‘quite suddenly as if it dropped from the wind’. Her letters are heart warming and sensitive.

My favourite phrase is from a letter to her ‘Godfather of my lyrical childhood: “When I was seventeen and life went gaily for me “like a laugh from the lips of a dream” and “like a tear from the eyes of a bride combined”. As I turned the last page of the book, it was as if I was shutting the window that lead into the Nightingale’s life. But just for a little while, before I will be tempted to open it again.  

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