Birla House: A visit to the Mahatma
Like millions of his countrymen, Sunil Kumar was introduced to MK Gandhi in a school textbook when he was eight years old. Growing up in an orphanage in old Delhi’s Daryaganj, the highlight of Kumar’s day were the hours he spent in classroom and the competitions about the Father of the Nation that he would participate in: cultural programmes; on Gandhi’s favourite bhajans; essays on his legacy.
At 14, he was part of a group of students that toured the country in a recreation of Gandhi’s 1915 Bharat Darshan. “It was then I knew that I wanted to spread Gandhi’s message, and I was good at it,” he said.
Kumar, 32, now works at Gandhi Smriti, housed in the Birla House in New Delhi, where he spends his day explaining Gandhi’s writing and life to foreign guests and delegates — except on Mondays, when the memorial is closed and he plays cricket with his son, named after his favourite cricketer, Virat Kohli.
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Kumar, one of 34 guides in the facility, credits Gandhian principles for keeping him on the straight and narrow after he graduated from high school in 2007. “I had some friends with drinking and gambling habits. But I tore myself away. I thank Gandhi’s principles for that,” he said.
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Many visitors to the museum have a vague idea of what Gandhi stood for, and ask Kumar about the Partition. The young man informs them of Gandhi’s staunch opposition. “I tell them how strongly he was against it,” Kumar said.
“I love that Gandhi committed mistakes and learnt from them without hiding them. In my life, I have seen that transformation is possible,” he said. “I am lucky to work at the same house in which Gandhi stayed.”
Spot of tranquillity
Tucked away in a leafy corner of central Delhi, Gandhi Smriti is a 10 minute-drive from the bustling Connaught Place, but is a tranquil world unto itself. The sprawling campus comprises a gleaming white mansion, where the ground floor houses the National Gandhi Museum replete with photographs, books, accounts of the 144 days the Mahatma spent here between September 9, 1947, and January 30, 1948.
The 12-bedroom house was built by noted industrialist, Ghanshyam Das Birla in 1928 and played host to many freedom fighters. Gandhi first arrived here on March 15, 1939, for meetings with the then governor general, Lord Linlithgow. “The house was close to the political heart of Delhi and was ideal for consultations and discussions with government officials and politicians,” said A Annamalai, director of the museum.
“My main object in staying in Delhi, is to give to the Muslims whatever comfort I can, that object was served better by my staying at Birla House,” Gandhi wrote on December 9, 1947 in the wake of the post-Partition riots.
History is entwined with Birla House, right from the gate atop which Jawaharlal Nehru announced Gandhi’s demise in 1948, immortalised in a picture made by French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson.
A large statue of Gandhi, sculpted by Ram V Sutar, with a boy and girl holding doves welcomes the visitor. A few steps inside, and you reach the spartan room that Gandhi stayed in, preserved as it was on his last day, with his glasses, staff, knife, fork and spoon, white mattress and low, wooden writing desk, untouched. “Whenever you visit Gandhi Smriti, it emotionally affects you because this is where he laid down his life,” added Annamalai.
As the tourist walks through the high-ceilinged rooms, the voice of Kumar Gandharva wafts by, as part of a presentation of Gandhi’s life playing in the central rotunda. A Martyr’s Column stands at the spot where Gandhi was assassinated, and a stone pavement is laid around it for circumambulation.
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The first floor houses the Eternal Gandhi Museum, launched in 2005, a multimedia initiative comprising physical interfaces and digital technology, such as a pillar that lights up when visitors hold hands and surround it, symbolising the end of caste prejudice. “We wanted to bring Gandhi to the younger generation through this one of its kind museum,” said Susmita Bharali, project manager.
Every year on October 2, children pay tribute to Gandhi through bhajans and an interfaith prayer, attended by the prime minister and president. This year on October 2, Gandhi Smriti has organised two special events: one, where children from 19 Indian schools will make solar lights and switch it on together, and the second, in association with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a display of holographic images of Gandhi. Pandit Ajay Chakrabarty will lead the bhajans. “The biggest legacy of Gandhi Smriti is that you can feel Gandhi’s presence,” said Dipankar Shri Gyan, director of the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, an autonomous body under the ministry of culture.
The government took over Birla House in early 1971 and it was thrown open to the public on August 15, 1973. The following year, Vishnu Prasad joined the staff, and over the next five decades, saw the facility blossom in size and reach. A watchman now, he notes that the number of foreign visitors has swelled, that of Indian tourists has thinned, the facility has become disabled friendly and the lighting has improved. “I feel like Birla House is my home,” he said.
The final day
On January 30, 1948, Gandhi rose from sleep at 3.30am. He brushed his teeth with a neem twig, prayed, and continued work on the draft constitution for the Congress. It was still dark outside and cold, so Manu, one of his two attendants, covered his legs with a blanket.
His first appointment was at 7am. After his bath at around 8am, Manu weighed him; he had gained 2.5 pounds since ending his fast, kept to forge communal amity. “His strength is returning,” thought his secretary, Pyarelal.
At 9.30am, he took his morning meal: 12 ounces of goat’s milk and cooked and raw vegetables, oranges, four tomatoes, carrot juice and decoction of ginger, sour lemons and aloe. After a nap at midday, Gandhi saw visitors and told an associate to fetch letters written to him. “I must reply to them today, for tomorrow I may or may not be alive,” he added.
After some more meetings, Gandhi lay down in the afternoon January sun and had his abdominal mud pack. For shade, he wore a bamboo hat from Noakhali. Manu and Abha, his other attendant, pressed his feet.
Interviews began at 2.15pm. In the audience was a representative from Ceylon accompanied by his daughter, who asked for Gandhi’s autograph — his last.
At 4pm, Patel arrived and the two immediately fell into deep conversation. Gandhi Smriti records show that Gandhi was concerned about reports of a rift between Patel and Nehru, and said both were indispensable for India’s future.
At 4.30pm, Abha brought in what was to be his last meal: goat’s milk, cooked and raw vegetables, oranges and a concoction of ginger, sour lemons and butter with juice of aloe. Sitting on the floor, Gandhi ate and talked to Patel.
People had already started gathering in the terrace of Birla House for the evening prayer meeting. That day, Gandhi was late. It was past 5pm when he got up, put on his chappals and instead of his usual route, stepped through a side door into the garden path and made his way across the lawn.
A hush fell over the hundreds-strong crowd as Gandhi approached. At the top of the steps, he brought his palms together in greeting and people parted to make a passage for him. Through the party, Nathuram Godse saw Gandhi coming straight at him. He elbowed his way to the front and approached Gandhi with his palms joined, bowed low and said “Namaste Gandhiji”. Gandhi nodded and joined his palms in acknowledgement.
A moment later, there were three quick bursts of noise. Gandhi slowly crumpled to the ground. His face was pale, his white shawl crimson with blood, his palms joined together. It was 5.17pm. Gandhi was dead.