Book review: Gandhi in Bombay

Updated: Dec 25, 2016, 12:00 IST | Anju Maskeri |

Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj, reveals Gandhi's association with Mumbai and brings to life stories behind streets that you have often ambled through in Kalbadevi, Opera House and Chira Bazaar

(Left) Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta. Pic/BIPIN €ˆKOKATE

Each time former professor Usha Thakkar would bring her students from SNDT College to Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, she would ask them to visualise Mahatma Gandhi walking around the building. So, when we meet Thakkar and researcher Sandhya Mehta, at the two-storey heritage bungalow at the leafy Laburnum Road, they want us to do the same. "Close your eyes and imagine that Gandhi walked through these corridors, that so many events of India's freedom struggle were planned here. He would walk to Chowpatty and other open spaces like Gowalia Tank and hold public meetings," says Thakkar, also the president of the Mani Bhavan Sangrahalaya.

The city, thus, became the nerve centre of Gandhi's political activities and earned an enviable place in India's freedom struggle under his leadership. And now, Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj, a new book by Thakkar and Mehta, chronicles the story of the Mahatma's association with Bombay from the time he first visited the city on his way to London to train as a lawyer, to his last visit in July 1946. The book is interspersed with his letters, speeches, published writings, and 50 rare photographs depicting significant events in Bombay.

Interestingly, Gandhi's disdain for cities is well known. He even called them the 'plague spots'. Why then did Gandhi choose Bombay as a ground for his nationalist activities? "He was a master strategist. Bombay was the financial capital and had a highly developed, public-spirited civic culture not found in Indian cities. He realised we needed to rediscover its soul," says Thakkar.

The book is a result of the duo's five-year-long research. "Although we did not set out to write a book, it's a process that began organically while sifting through material at the library here," says Thakkar. A lot of source material, she adds, was acquired from the Maharashtra State Archives and the Asiatic Society of Bombay. Moreover, her association with late professor and freedom fighter Usha Mehta, who ran an underground online radio in the city during the Nationalist movement, spiked her interest in the subject. "When we began digging deeper into Gandhi's connection with Bombay, the picture that emerged was fascinating. That's when we felt these stories need to be told," she says. The names of places like Kalbadevi, Grant Road station, Parel, Chowpatty, French Bridge, Juhu beach, came alive as they poured over details that talked about the scenes of meetings and processions.

Before Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak arrived on the scene, the movement, we learn, was mainly restricted to the upper classes as meetings were held in halls. They became instrumental in bringing the movement onto the streets. "The impact was such that even during the Dandi March in 1930 when Gandhi was in Gujarat mounting a demonstration against the repressive salt tax, Bombay was not far behind. Salt was made here at Juhu Beach. Prominent leaders like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay even sold small packets of salt at Share Bazaar," says Mehta. She even recalls how Sarojini Naidu sold Gandhi's proscribed books at Opera House.

While exploring Gandhi's relationship with Bombay, the duo also stumbled upon newspaper clippings from Bombay Chronicle, a pro-nationalist publication that extensively covered Gandhi's movement. "We found those at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. They contain details about protest marches and even identified the routes. There are mentions of Thakurdwar, Bhuleshwar and BP Road," says Mehta. A challenge, however, was to locate the then centres of activity that are now defunct. "For instance, finding the area where Morarji Gokuldas Hall once stood was not easy. After a wild goose chase, we learnt it was near Chira Bazaar, thanks to old timers like Pratap Velkar, son of Dr MB Velkar, an associate of Tilak, who helped us locate it," she adds.

Thakkar believes that the women of Bombay played a prominent role in the nationalist struggle. "In 1930-31, women leaders like Hansa Mehta, Sarojini Naidu and Lilavati Munshi organised themselves into a group named Deshsevika Sangh. They would wear orange sarees and protest non-violently at the Asiatic Library, Horniman Circle. They even courted arrest," she says. Thakkar and Mehta also hope to highlight the contribution of several unsung heroes. For instance, when Babu Genu, who has a street named after him in Kalbadevi, refused to budge while protesting against the use of foreign cloth, he was crushed under a truck. "These are tales that need to be told because they are stories of sacrifice and courage of a people."

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