The forgotten road to Mani Bhavan

Aug 15, 2013, 01:38 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Sixty-six years of freedom, and what have we done with them? How has the Indian society evolved? To walk through Mani Bhavan is to hold a mirror up to us. Perhaps that's the reason why this important landmark sees just a handful of Indian visitors

Uniformed students linger around the gate of the quaint two-storey bungalow and a clerk in the office tells us at least a thousand Indian students must have visited the place that morning, but then this was what he called a “special day” — August 9. “Some (the schools) wanted to visit August Kranti Maidan too but there was some political lafda on the grounds,” he adds with a tired wave.

Circa: 1942
There was a different brand of political lafda at the same Maidan in 1942. Mahatma Gandhi had launched the Quit India Movement here at midnight and colonial authorities reacted by arresting every prominent Indian leader, within a couple of hours of Gandhi's announcement. On August 9, the Maidan and the roads around Mani Bhavan were flooded with crowds, keen to know about their leaders’ future and unsure of the fate of the ambitious movement; unsure, in fact, of their own future and India’s future. The sight of the police force around them offered little comfort — the police answered to the government and at the time the government was not “for the people.” The atmosphere must have been tense but this grey gloom and cold silence was shattered by Aruna Asaf Ali, a woman in her early thirties, who boldly hoisted the Swaraj flag at the Maidan. The brave gesture sparked off chaos. A lathi charge and tear gas strikes ensued. Police officers pulled the flag down and beat volunteers up who went to its rescue.

Walk down memory lane
This account, complete with photographs is available on the Mani Bhavan website, but as you walk through the pristine museum, it’s almost impossible to imagine that all of this transpired right around this spot for the passion that must have pulsated through this landmark is now replaced by a deep deferential silence. Though this property belonged to Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, a Gujarati gentleman and friend of Gandhiji, Mani Bhavan served as the headquarters of the Indian National Congress from 1917 to 1934. In 1932, Gandhiji was arrested on its terrace, the Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act was initiated here and even a simple display plainly marked, “Jail Supplies,” which holds a pewter cup and platter would send a chill down the spine of anyone who’s read a history book, yet neither the records it contains nor the history this building has seen are enough to induce Indians to visit it.

Mani Bhavan has been struggling with visitors, the few being mostly foreigners

School competitions do the trick
“We hold school competitions here regularly,” the clerk shares, “Not just history, but elocution, poetry and spelling competitions too and in English, Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi, so that covers a lot of schools.” Asked about Urdu, he shrugs. In 1950, the Indian Constitution declared that Hindi would be the official language of the Federal Government of India, so it certainly takes away from the authenticity of the experience to keep Urdu out of a museum dedicated to an era in which the language thrived. In any museum in the world, such an oversight would be unforgivable. Unconscious of the significance of this loss, the clerk estimates the current programmes bring in almost 300 Indian students on a regular day, and he says that as many foreigners visit every day as well, “Though April to August is off-season for foreign visitors.” On the day of our visit, only a couple of Indian faces were visible, so it’s impossible to imagine peak season. Few of the visiting foreigners are students, and still fewer are history enthusiasts. Most are tourists, curious about the life of Mahatma Gandhi and excited to have an opportunity to walk through this historic structure. Twenty-three year old Alex Bartlett from London, who learnt of this museum through the concierge at her hotel, enjoyed her Mani Bhavan experience: “I love that you can walk around at your own pace, without anyone trying to rush you through a story…it seems in keeping with Gandhi’s philosophy.” Later, she stopped at the front desk to purchase a book on the Mahatma.

Mani Bhavan’s treasures
At R200, you can buy a set of Mahatma Gandhi stamps issued by countries around the world. There’s a library on the ground floor, securing a lifetime membership of which would cost you Rs 1,000. If you’re hooked on to the Obama-charm, at the front desk, you can view a message scrawled by US first lady, Michelle Obama when she visited the museum back in 2010. During that visit, Barack Obama, the American Premier had also presented the museum with a piece from Martin Luther King’s Memorial, the Stone of Hope, and this little display adorns the arch at the entrance.  Drop by to look at these new additions. How tragic, if that’s all you came to see…

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