Gandhiji’s Amanuensis: V. Kalyanam

When one thinks of Gandhiji’s personal secretary, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Mahadev Desai, also one of Gandhi’s close associates. Not as well-known is V. Kalyanam who worked as Gandhiji’s personal secretary after Mahadev Desai passed away, and remained with him until the end of Gandhi’s life. Kalyanam’s story is worth sharing.  

Like many people from South India in the early 1900s, Venkatram had moved to Delhi in 1914. This was where jobs could be found, working for the British government where the South Indian work ethic and knowledge of English were appreciated. Venkatram married Meenabal, and the young Tamil couple settled in Delhi. On 15 August 1922 a son was born to them; they named him Kalyanam.

In those days the entire apparatus of government used to work in Delhi for part of the year and move to the cooler climes of Shimla during the hot summer months. So also Venkatram’s family, with their son Kalyanam, who spent his school days shuttling between Delhi and Shimla. After school he studied at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. Upon graduation the young man also found a job with the British government.

Kalyanam grew up as a thoroughly anglicized and faithful servant of the British, till then more or less oblivious of the growing nationalist movement in the country. Having started work, he took to reading the newspapers and found that they were full of news about a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He wondered why this man was so adamant to free India from British rule. The Quit India movement had just started, but Kalyanam had no interest nor inclination for what was happening around the country. However on request of some South Indian friends, he agreed to help them to secretly slip some anti-British pamphlets under doors at night. Young Kalyanam had not read the pamphlets himself, but one night he was arrested by the British police and accused of treason. He ended up spending nine months in Lahore jail. After his release he returned home to find that he had lost his government job, but he found work in an insurance company. Little did he know that his life was very soon going to take him on quite another path.

During this time he was introduced to Gandhji’s son Devdas Gandhi who was also C. Rajagopalachari’s son-in-law. Young Kalyanam expressed his frustration at his secretarial job, and his love for all kinds of manual work, Devdas suggested that he go to Sevagram Ashram. Kalyanam knew nothing about the Ashram, nor did he then know about Devdas’ link to Gandhiji. But he was willing to visit what he thought was a spiritual Ashram, and luckily his boss gave him 2 months leave to do this.  Around the same time he accompanied his British Boss’s wife to a Khadi shop in Chandni Chowk. Here bought a handkerchief and towel for three rupees and a kurta pyjama for nineteen rupees. From that day onwards he never wore any western clothes.

In October 1943, Kalyanam arrived in Wardha after a two-day train journey, and presented himself to the manager of Sevagram ashram, still not knowing anything about the place. Gandhiji himself was at the time interned at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. Kalyanam’s introduction to the very frugal and basic living conditions was an eye-opener for the city-bred boy. In addition to the common chores, everyone in the Ashram had the specific duties. As he knew good English, Kalyanam was assigned the work of segregating by language the many letters that arrived for Gandhi every day, from every part of the country and the world. The first lesson he was taught was how to open the envelopes in such a way that the unused side could be used by Gandhi for writing!

Kalyanam finally met Gandhi in Bombay when he was released from jail for medical treatment. He was introduced as “the Madrasi boy sent by Devdas.” Gandhiji was weak and ill, but he asked Kalyanam many questions. The last one was whether he could type. Kalyanam was surprised because he assumed that he was at the Ashram to do menial work that he enjoyed, and to avoid the secretarial work that he hated. But he admitted that yes, he could type, and that he was fluent in English and Hindi, as well as versed in Tamil.

Once more, Kalyanam’s life was about to take an unplanned turn. Gandhiji’s long-time and faithful personal secretary Mahadev Desai had passed away in prison in 1942; and Gandhiji saw in this young man a possible replacement. Kalyanam returned to Sevagram, and awaited Gandhi’s return on 1 October 1944. From that day on Kalyanam’s life changed. Till then he had been working in the garden and fields most of the time, but now he was assigned a new job as the Mahatma’s stenographer.  

With that he also became a part of Gandhiji’s daily routine which started at four o’clock every morning. Kalyanam’s job was to segregate the hundreds of letters by language, give each letter to Gandhi and take dictation for the replies that Gandhi personally gave for each letter. He then had to type the English letters, and give them back to Gandhi to correct. This was done from 5 to 6 every morning, except on Monday when Gandhiji observed the vow of silence. On this day he would write notes for Kalyanam, who found it hard to decipher his handwriting. Kalyanam recalled that he never saw Gandhi read a book. He did not read the daily newspapers either. It was Kalyananm’s duty to read the papers and type the important items on a piece of paper and place it before Gandhiji. His other duties included accompanying Gandhiji wherever he went and noting every word he said, replying to correspondence, scheduling interviews, preparing his English speeches and coordinating with the press. Kalyanam was on-the-job, as it were, from the time Gandhiji woke up till he went to bed at 9 pm. But as he recalled, he never felt tired as everything he did was interesting. Although it certainly did have many moments that challenged the young assistant.

One incident as recalled by him was when he was on the train with Gandhi; being his day of silence, Gandhiji drafted a note and gave it to Kalyanam to type. Kalyanam thought that this could be done when the train reached is destination. But in the evening Gandhi asked him for the letter and Kalyanam confessed that he was not carrying his typewriter. Gandhiji was not pleased. He muttered “When I send for a barber, I expect him to bring his tools.” Kalyanam somehow managed to get it typed on a typewriter belonging to some journalists who were travelling on the train.

Kalyanam remained as Gandhii’s personal secretary from 1944 till the minute  Gandhji breathed his last on 30 January 1948. Every moment of those four years were a unique learning experience for Kalyanam; and the frugal habits, discipline and commitment to a cause that were planted in those days became a way of life for him for the rest of his long life, until he passed away at the age of 99 years on 4 May 2021.

At the age of 93 years, V.Kalyanam had shared many reminiscences of his years with Gandhi with author Shobha Warrier, and these were published as a book titled His Days With Bapu: Mahatma Gandhi’s Personal Secretary Recalls. A fascinating and inspiring read. 


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