Visiting Sabarmati just after Mahatma’s birthday, we come away renewed

“And this is how a thread is made,” said Kishore Bhai, as he deftly pulled at the puff of cotton — spinning at the trak — with his left hand while his right hand controlled the fly-wheel of the charkha, the spinning wheel. I was squatting beside him on the raised veranda of Hridayakunj, the two-roomed cottage that was home to Mahatma and Kasturba in the Satyagraha or Sabarmati Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad.

At Kishore Bhai’s insistence, I tried the charkha for half an hour but failed to spin even an inch of yarn. Each the cotton gave way, either with the hurried yank of my hand or my impatience with the fly-wheel. I began to realise the power of the innocuous charkha — the power to temper my body and mind. I was experiencing, first hand, a glimpse of the genius who chose this harmless spinning wheel as his tool to transform a man, to define a nation, to overthrow an empire.

It was difficult to believe that I was sitting on the same floor, under the same roof, where in the 12 years between 1918 and 1930, an Indian lawyer returned from South Africa metamorphosed himself from Mohandas to Mahatma. Gandhiji’s own room was on one side of the veranda facing the Sabarmati.

Devoid of any furniture except two writing desks, this is the room where he used to sit on a cotton mattress and receive guests and visitors while spinning the charkha. This is where he conferred with Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajaji on the struggle for independence. This is where he discoursed with Tagore and Henry Polak on the future of civilisation and man’s place in the universe.

Behind the veranda is a small courtyard with two rooms on each side, and a wicket gate at the back. Of these rooms, one was for Kasturba and the other was the kitchen. “Everything in this house is as it was when Gandhiji stayed here,” said Kishore Bhai.

I came out of Hridayakunj and walked up to the clearing beside the river, which served as Prarthana Bhoomi, the prayer ground, witness to the many tribulations of his life and his resolve to be on the path of truth despite all odds.

According to mythology, this place beside the Sabarmati is believed to have been the ashram of Rishi Dadhichi, who had donated his bones for a righteous cause. Thus, geographically and figuratively, the land is between a jail and a crematorium. And in a literal sense, it was barren land. Gandhiji chose it for his experiments in farming and inclusive living.

How did a man of such uncompromising attitude and exacting standards attract such a huge following and across a sweeping cross-section of society? For an answer, I sniffed around the museum, added to the Ashram premises in 1963. Rich in photographs, paintings, manuscripts, films, Gandhian literature and artefacts, I found a hand-written note of Gandhiji — a scrap of paper that said “my life is my message”.

Attracted by Gandhi’s life, Vinoba Bhave arrived at the Ashram and stayed for four years. Some years later, a young English woman named Madeleine Slade was so inspired after reading Romain Rolland’s writings on Gandhi that she landed up at the Ashram and became an integral part of it. Gandhiji christened her Meera and she became Meeraben to everyone.

Gandhiji started a girls’ school with a hostel for the untouchable girls. Innovative farming practices were evolved at the Ashram, and a Khadi Technical School came up to promote industries in spinning, hand-made paper, and handloom. Days at the Ashram were hard, yet fulfilling, providing a balance between physical labour, thinking and spirituality. The charkha became the symbol of simplicity, self-reliance and conviction.

However, throwing all austerity to the wind, I indulged in a shopping spree at the Ashram shop, buying key-chains, pens, pictures, books and more. “Great,” I thought, “I got a bit of Gandhi for everybody back home.”

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012