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Mahadev Desai

Mahadev Desai (left) reading out a letter to Gandhi from the viceroy at Birla House. Bombay, 7 April 1939.

Mahadev Desai (1 January 1892 – 15 August 1942) was an Indian independence activist and writer best remembered as Mahatma Gandhi's personal secretary. He has variously been described as "Gandhi's Boswell, a Plato to Gandhi's Socrates, as well as an Ananda to Gandhi's Buddha".[1][2]


  • Early life 1
  • Gandhi's associate 2
  • Political activism 3
  • Writings 4
  • Death and legacy 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Mahadev Desai was born on New Year's Day in 1892 in the village of Saras in Surat District of Gujarat to Haribhai Desai a school teacher and his wife Jamnabehn. Jamnabehn died when Desai was only seven years of age. In 1905, aged 13, Mahadev was married to Durgabehn. He was educated at the Surat High School and the Elphinstone College, Mumbai. Graduated with a BA Degree, he passed his L.L.B in 1913 and took job as inspector in central co-operative bank in Bombay.

Gandhi's associate

Mahadev Desai first met Gandhi in 1915 when he went to meet him to seek his advice on how best to publish his book (a Gujrati translation of John Morley's English book On Compromise).[2] Desai joined Gandhi's Ashram in 1917 and with Durgabehn accompanied him to Champaran that year. He maintained a diary from 13 November 1917 to 14 August 1942, the day before his death, chronicling his life with Gandhi. In 1919 when the colonial government arrested Gandhi in Punjab, he named Desai his heir. Desai was for the first time arrested and sentenced to a year in prison in 1921. He was Gandhi's personal secretary for 25 years, but as Verrier Elwin wrote of him, "he was much more than that. He was in fact Home and Foreign Secretary combined. He managed everything. He made all the arrangements. He was equally at home in the office, the guest-house and the kitchen. He looked after many guests and must have saved 10 years of Gandhi's life by diverting from him unwanted visitors".[2] Rajmohan Gandhi writes of Mahadev Desai thus: "Waking up before Gandhi in pre-dawn darkness, and going to sleep long after his Master, Desai lived Gandhi's day thrice over — first in an attempt to anticipate it, next in spending it alongside Gandhi, and finally in recording it into his diary".[2]

Political activism

Yerawada Jail

In 1920,

  • The Diary of Mahadev Desai Vol I

External links

  1. ^ "Price of Freedom". Outlook. 15 August 2008. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Guha, Ramachandra (23 October 2005). "Mahadev ..". The Hindu. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c "Associates of Mahatma Gandhi – Mahadev Desai". Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Brown, Judith M (2011). The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 90.  
  5. ^ "Mahadev Desai – Timeline". Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  6. ^ "Who is Mahadev Desai ?". Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  7. ^ Natarajan, Nalini (1996). Handbook of 20th Century Literatures of India. Westport: Greenwood Press. pp. 112, 113.  
  8. ^ "Mahadev Desai". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Datta, Amaresh (1988). Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Devraj to Jyoti. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. p. 1319.  
  10. ^ Douglass, James W (2012). Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment With Truth. New York: Orbis Books. pp. 46, 47.  
  11. ^ Vyas, Bhaskar (2007). Experiments with Truth and Non-Violence: The Dalai Lama in Exile from Tibet. New Delhi: Concepts Publishing. p. 116.  
  12. ^ "Indian Post – Mahadev Desai". Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  13. ^ "Narayan Mahadev Desai to deliver talk on Friday". The Hindu. 12 October 2011. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  14. ^ "Gujarat Vidyapith : Mahadev Desai Samajseva Mahavidyalaya". Retrieved 30 November 2012. 


The Indian Department of Posts published a commemorative stamp in his honour in 1983.[12] His son Narayan Desai was also a noted Gandhian activist and writer who wrote Mahadev Desai's biography The Fire and the Rose.[2][13] The Mahadev Desai Samajseva Mahavidyalaya, Gujarat Vidyapith's faculty of social sciences, arts and humanities was named in Mahadev Desai's honour.[14]

Mahadev Desai died of a heart attack on the morning of 15 August 1942 at the Aga Khan Palace where he was interned with Gandhi. When Desai stopped breathing, Gandhi called out to him in agitation: "Mahadev! Mahadev!" When he was later asked why he had done so, Gandhi answered: "I felt that if Mahadev opened his eyes and looked at me, I would tell him to get up. He had never disobeyed me in his life. I was confident that had he heard those words, he would have defied even death and got up".[2][10] Gandhi himself washed Desai's body and he was cremated on the Palace's grounds, where his samadhi lies today.[11]

Samadhis of Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai at Aga Khan Palace, Pune
Mahadev Desai's obituary in Harijan, Gandhi's newspaper

Death and legacy

Desai was among the founding members of the All India Newspaper Editors' Conference. He also frequently contributed to various nationalist Indian newspapers such as Free Press, Bombay Chronicle, Hindustan Times, The Hindu and Amrita Bazar Patrika.

Mahadev Desai was an outstanding writer, at ease with Gujarati, Bengali and English. He is highly regarded as a translator and writer in Gujarati. He wrote several biographies such as Sant Francis (1934), Vir Vallabhbhai(1928) and Be Khudsi Khidmatgar which was a biography of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his brother. From Bengali, Mahadev Desai translated the short stories of Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya (1923), the novella Virajvahu (1924) and some of Tagore's poems into Gujarati. He also translated into Gujarati from English, Nehru's Autobiography in 1936.[7] The English translation of Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, from its Gujarati original was also done by Desai. He was also a regular contributor to Gandhi's publications Young India, Navjivan, and the Harijanbandhu.[8] Mahadevbhaini Dayari is the 19 volume publication of Mahadev Desai's Diaries. These, edited by Narhari Parikh and Chandubhai Bhagubhai, provide a close look at Gandhi's life and are a valuable chronicle of the major events in Gandhi's life and in India's freedom movement.[9]


Following the collapse of the princely states of Rajkot and Mysore in 1939 and was put in charge of selecting satyagrahis during the Individual Satyagraha of 1940.[5] Desai's final prison term followed the Quit India Declaration of 8 August 1942. He was arrested on the morning of 9 August 1942 and, till his death of a massive heart-attack six days later, was interned with Gandhi at the Aga Khan Palace. Desai was 51 at the time of his death.[3][6]


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