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Conversations with Gandhi (Millie Polak), Pennine Productions, presenter and producer: Mark Whitaker

When the young Millie Downs travelled from London to South Africa at the very end of 1905 she thought she was going out simply to marry her fiance, Henry Polak. But he had already become Gandhi’s right-hand man, and Millie was to find that she was also marrying into the great Gandhian experiment – one that began with his domestic arrangements. Millie and Henry lived in the same Johannesburg house with Gandhi, his wife, and their three sons; they started each day together grinding corn for the household’s bread, and they ended each day with a communal vegetarian meal. Within months the whole extended family moved to Gandhi’s first large-scale communal experiment, the Phoenix Settlement outside Durban, which was to be the base for his political campaign and where his paper Indian Opinion was produced.
As Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent resistance developed, he found in Millie Polak a constantly challenging conversational sparring-partner. She questioned him about the treatment of women in Indian culture, about his renunciation of sex, about his ever changing food-fads, and about the nature of his religious beliefs. To her, he was not yet the ‘Mahatma’: he was a difficult, witty and contradictory man; and perhaps nothing reveals more about the young Gandhi than the conversations Millie Polak recorded. She places them in the context of communal life at Phoenix – where the dogs were expected to be vegetarian and there was endless heart-searching over whether green mambas could be killed.
This programme recreates the Gandhi-Polak conversations; and Professor Judith Brown – Britain’s leading expert on Gandhi’s life and thought – assesses the importance of Gandhi’s domestic arrangements in his ‘experimental’ development. There is also a report from the Phoenix Settlement as it is today: destroyed in ethnic violence during the 1980s, it’s being restored as a sym... read more


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