Shortly before Gujarat was proudly playing host to thousands of visitors from around the globe and singing MOUs by the thousand at a newly built Mahatma Mandir, a visit to his erstwhile home in Ahmedabad, the Hriday Kunj at the Sabarmati Ashram brought tears of shame to my eyes.
The shame was at this shabby defiling of the memory of the man on whom we, as a nation, had conferred the title of Father of the Nation. Having done so, are we not honor bound to give due honor to his memories and preserve them properly?
Memorials across the world, to the greatest sons of soil, show off the best of that personality in all its varied hues. At the Sabarmati Ashram, we have done the opposite. Hriday Kunj where Gandhiji lived with his wife, Kasturba is steeped not in history but in something worse than genteel poverty.
The sole placard is in Gujarati. Its English version is a bald word-by-word translation making for the poorest reading, guaranteed to teach visiting students wrong English.
The walls are bare and so are the floors. Even in those days, there used to be streams of visitors. If not khadi woven rugs, at least chattais on the floor would have been de rigueur, if not mattresses with bolsters? Only one was seen in the Mahatma’s room with his little desk. No replicas of his other possessions, the books he always kept with him, a calendar, copies of the newspapers he brought out or contributed to, pictures of him in his myriad moods or those of his wife and closest associates, anything that would make the man come alive to visitors to his memorial.
Ditto Kasturba’s bare walled and bare floored room. Did she sleep on the bare stone floor? Did she not keep the Gita with her or some pictures on her walls, if not her family, at least the deity to whom she prayed? A calendar to keep track of the passing of time? Little half curtains, khadi or muslin on the windows, which were de rigueur for privacy, some greenery outside? A tulsi in the aangan? A cupboard in which to keep her meager belongings? Why has none of their associates or relatives been consulted to recreate their erstwhile home, as it was then?
In the kitchen, instead of the recreation of the typical center of the home of those days, everyday kitchen tools are locked behind dirty glass and the rest of the room is bare. How would any tourist, a young person of today’s India or any foreigner get any insight into what life was for India’s first couple as they struggled to win freedom for the country?
The rooms of Hriday Kunj today have bare Kota stone slabs, the passage floors mosaic. Were they so in those times? Never mind. Why can they not be preserved or restored, instead of random ugly slobs of cement blotching up wherever some piece is broken?
Documentaries of their times show a host of national leaders conferring with Mahatma Gandhi during his Sabarmati Ashram days. I seem to remember some greenery around with a little fence and gate? Why is there only dust everywhere around now, with a filthy stinking public toilet next door?
There are so many animals being reared in the other institutions around Hriday Kunj. Why can a couple of goats or kids not be brought with some fresh feed into an enclosure, to resurrect the life and the times of the man we have chosen to raise a temple to?
The room occupied by Vinobha Bhave and Meerabehn, a little distance away is another bare white washed cubicle with two little windows, a door and a little gate in front. Is that how they lived there one after the other? No curtains to protect their privacy from other eyes’ may be even white khadi or muslin? No floor covering, jute, string, chattai, no mattress for them to sleep on? May be even a khattiya? No pictures on the walls, not even a calendar?
A few meters away the huge retaining walls of the Sabarmati River front development are coming up. Shortly they may overshadow the Hriday Kunj which should become a small island of serenity in the frenetic new development.
In Austria, the government has preserved age old chalets and their occupants in their customary settings for tourists to come and gape and relish. Ditto in Bali with its unique blend of Hinduisms and Indonesian tourist appeal. Why can we not at least preserve the home of the Mahatma as it was in his heyday, when we insist on taking every visiting dignitary to see the mockery that that home has been reduced to?
One can only pray that perhaps some one of their descendants will take the lead to resurrect the home to reflect their spirits.