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The Gandhi spectacle

Rs 9.3 crore and much drama later, the Mahatma’s belongings are on their way back from New York to India. Here’s a look at his legacy that never left home. Nivriti Butalia and Kinjal Dagli report. See graphics

india Updated: Mar 08, 2009 01:33 IST

It’s 71 years since he died, but Mahatma Gandhi lives on in a stodgy red stucco structure just off Rajghat in Delhi. This is the National Gandhi Memorial, and the father of the nation is the presiding deity here, ossified through personal effects that have survived time and official care (or haven’t been auctioned abroad). There are his dentures, as also two of his ‘original’ teeth — extracted, so the caption informs, in Nagpur on January 12, 1936 by a certain Dr Barretto. There is also an ivory toothpick (that doubled as an ear-cleaner), a glass bottle of ‘tooth powder’, and a made-in-England brush for cleaning the dental plate — all “used till the end”, the captions emphasise.

Then there’s a badge bestowed on him by the Vegetarian Society of London, clearly a matter of national pride and so up for public viewing. His bowl and mug from Yerawada jail too find pride of place among the exhibits, as do his pocket watches, razors and the chunk of alum he used “till the end”.

Delhi’s Gandhi Museum is, of course, not the only repository of Bapu memorabilia. There’s some lying in the Sabarmati Ashram and Navjivan Trust in Ahmedabad, and at Mani Bhavan in Mumbai, where he lived on his visits to the city between 1917 and 1934.

The latter has a nice collection, neatly dusted and free of frills just like the father of the nation might have wanted. Propped against the wall of his room at Mani Bhavan is a white mattress with two cushions and the rosary he used, five charkhas, a tattered copy of his Young India journal, a book rack (with yellowed copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Quran Sharif) with an antique telephone on top, a walking stick, a glass bottle filled with water, padukas (wooden slippers), bits of cotton spun from the charkha, a hand fan and a wooden desk. Of these, only the charkhas and the telephone are original, says Meghshyam Ajgaonkar, executive secretary of Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sanghralaya for the past 40 years. “The remaining items are replicas,” he says matter-of-factly.

All those who feel the Mahatma has lost his relevance in today’s world should check out the steady trickle of visitors at the Gandhi Museum in Delhi even on a weekday. And they aren’t all school-children herded along on a history tour. Feroze Ahmed, 28, and his friends have come from Anantnag in Kashmir. “It’s our history; we can’t afford to forget,” he says while poring over an album of black-and-white photographs. Pritika, a 20-year old university student, visits at least once every couple of months. “High living and simple living,” she explains, listening to Gandhi’s recorded speeches played back on the telephones arranged on a shelf.

Does it bother them that Gandhi’s spectacles, his chappals and other belongings are now the rightful property of a booze baron? It does, says Ahmed quietly, but then “our heritage should never have been up for sale”.

The managers of Mani Bhavan are, however, unperturbed by the controversy. Usha Thakkar, honorary secretary, says, “For us, the building itself is sacred because he lived here.” Usha Gokani, Bapu’s granddaughter, says with a pacifism in keeping with the spirit of her forefather, “His presence is the greatest memorabilia, and anyone who has been here will feel it.”

Dimitrios Diamandopoulos, half-Greek-half-British tour operator showing a group from Britain around Mani Bhavan, says, “It’s not a new problem. The Greek government has been fighting to get back the Elgin marbles, transported by Lord Elgin’s agents to Britain, since the 1950s.”

A curator at the Gandhi Museum has the last word. "Controversy does not matter; so long as the artifacts are safe, and people the world over can enjoy the legacy of Gandhi."