A Tale of Apathies

I was on a tourist visit to the state of Gujarat last month. My tour started with a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and ended there a week later. In the sprawling premises of the Ashram, the main attraction was the house of Gandhiji. A simple house without a single sign of any luxury. It was evident that locally available material was used to build the house. The house has two entry points through one of which is closed all the time. The closed entry seems to the main entrance when the house was constructed. The wooden gate of the house is covered with bougainvillea creepers blooming all the time with colorful flowers. However, the entry in the back which faces the Sabarmati River is now abuzz with visitors. As you climb two small steps (shoes must be taken off), you are in a large verandah. The entire flooring is in square slate tiles. The roof, covered with baked clay tiles, is supported by solid wood frame. On the left of the verandah, there lies the room used by Gandhiji to receive visitors and to spin the ‘charkha’. The room is closed for visitors and one can just peep into the room through the small opening in the door to see the mattress used by Gandhiji to sit upon, his ‘charkha’ and a wooden desk used for writing. The room has four windows, two in the front wall and two in the back wall and two doors. There are just about 4 rooms in the house, all ten by ten feet size except the room used by Gandhiji which is a bit large. There is a single and simple door for entry in each room through the inner verandah and two simple iron grill windows. For Ba and Gandhiji and their skeleton support staff, it seems to be adequate. The house, its plan, the verandah (both outside and inside) and simply grilled windows attracted most of the visitors for its simplicity which was very much vivid in every corner. I found the house to demand very low maintenance. The plastered walls required whitewashing once in a year. The flooring required no maintenance except for the daily cleaning. The solid wood frame supporting the roof tiles would stay so for hundreds of years. The roof tiles are made of baking locally available clay. A befitting example of the simple lifestyle that Gandhiji professed and practiced.

The ambiance of the Ashram as a whole was very solemn and every tourist, I am sure, is touched by the simplicity of the whole atmosphere and the beautiful setting on the banks of the river Sabarmati which, thanks to the efforts of the local administration, is maintained immaculately clean.

Now come to Delhi. There is a replica of Gandhiji’s home at Sabarmati Ashram at the Gandhi Museum opposite to Rajghat in Delhi. I chanced upon the house when I entered the museum from the back gate. In fact, there was no back gate. A narrow pathway, cut across the boundary wall of the two adjacent buildings, leads from the office of the Gandhi Peach Foundation building to the museum and as directed by the guard I took the pathway to enter the museum premises. As I entered and followed the paved trail to the front of the museum, on my left, I noticed the house. For a moment, I stood still. The house is just a replica of what I saw in Sabarmati! Same size, same proportions, same height and same material, at least from the look of it. But deserted. There was not a single visitor. Dried leaves are strewn all around. The doors are closed. The gate is closed. There is no sign of life in the house. A stark contrast to what I had seen in Sabarmati. Gandhiji has long ceased living in that house. But his presence is felt in every corner of the house. There the verandah was abuzz with tourists, who especially looking with rapt attention to the spinning ‘charkha’ by one of the Ashram workers. Some are learning how to use the machine from the lady who seemed to be so adept at spinning the machine that she was simultaneously guiding and spinning threads from the cotton ball held at her left-hand fingers. The verandah of the house at Delhi was just desolate, empty and seemed to be abandoned by everybody. It hurt me. The situation at the museum was no better. When I went in (the entry is free), I found just about four visitors.

The apathy in maintaining two modern-day memorials was stark. At Sabarmati, the original place of the Ashram was agog with activities. Even if you do not follow his philosophy, the surroundings at Sabarmati compels you to think for a while about the philosophy of the great man. At the Gandhi Museum in Delhi, the atmosphere is just missing. The Rajghat, where he was cremated, is just opposite, just across the road. But it fails to evoke any such sentiment associated with the man and his Ashram at Sabarmati.



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