By Preeti Sharma
“May I come to your ashram to study spinning and weaving? With the aid of many kind Indian friends, I perplex my head over long Hindustani exercises I read. What a revelation is that reading! The more I enter into Indian thought, the more I feel as if I were reaching at last, a long lost home,” wrote Madeleine Slade named Miraben by Mahatma Gandhi, asking permission to serve her master and his country the rest of her life.
Miraben was born as Madeleine Slade on November 22, 1892 in England in a traditional aristocratic family to an admiral, Sir Edmond Slade. As a young girl, she had spent a couple of years in India when Admiral Slade was posted in Mumbai as Commander-in Chief of the East Indian Squadron. She loved Nature and simple living since her childhood. She was deeply interested in music and was devoted to Beethoven´s symphonies.
After the First World War, Madeleine got the chance to read Romain Rolland´s, the French philosopher, book Jean Christopher, based on the life of Beethoven. She was so impressed by it that she went to learn French in Paris. From there she went to Switzerland to meet Romain Rolland, who gave her the biography of Mahatma Gandhi to read. This book introduced her with her one and only master, whom she wanted to serve throughout her life. She felt a strong urge to join Gandhiji. Without second thoughts, she gave up her affluent life and wrote to Gandhiji on May 29, 1925 seeking permission to join him in his ashram. He welcomed her with a stern warning; “life at ashram is not at all rosy.”
In her autobiography, The Spirit of Pilgrimage, she has thus described her first meeting with the Mahatma: “As I entered, a slight brown figure rose up and came forward towards me. I was conscious of nothing but a sense of light. I fell on my knees. Hands gently raised me up and a voice said: ´you shall be my daughter´?I saw a face smiling at me with eyes full of love, blended with a gentle twinkle of amusement. Yes, this was Mahatma Gandhi and I had arrived.”
Gandhi renamed her as Miraben in view of her devotion to him and her dedication to the service of India. She was sent to the Kanya Gurukul, Deh-radun, where she taught English, spinning and carding, and studied Hindi and the scriptures.
Writing to Romain Rolland, after Miraben had arrived in India, Gandhiji said: “What a treasure you have sent me. I shall try to be worthy of the great trust. I shall do everything to help Miss Slade to become a bridge between the East and West. I am too imperfect to have disciples. She will be my companion in my search (for Truth).”
She accompanied Gandhiji to the Second Round Table Conference in 1932 and acted as his interpreter.
Gandhiji was put behind bars in 1932. During this time, she took up the task of collecting information about the British government´s tyranny in the country and sending reports to foreign countries, since in India the press had been put under strict censorship. Soon, the intelligence department got aware of her activities; she was imprisoned for three months. Miraben joined the satyagraha movement and was arrested along wth Bapu on August 9, 1942.
In 1947, she established a small ashram and cattle development centre in the Rishikesh forest area, which is now known as Pashulok.
After thirty years of service to her master and his land, she left India due to ill health on 18 January, 1959 and decided to settle down in Austria. She had a direct influence on the Chipko ecological movement at that time.
She was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in January, 1982 but she was too weak to travel to India to receive the award. She passed away on July 29, 1982.