History has a home on Laburnum Road

It was on a Wednesday in March that a brazen old man decided to take a walk spanning 390 kilometres, that would later become one of the most defining moments in India’s struggle for freedom. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi started his Dandi March against the imperial Salt Tax, he did not anticipate the huge number of followers who would later join him. While the Dandi March finds its way in many a textbook, few in India know of the house where Gandhi launched several other movements — like the satyagrah against the Rowlatt Act, or the cause of swadeshi to support local industry.

Nestled in the narrow, yet tranquil Laburnum Road close to Worli in Mumbai, Mani Bhavan is a compact house so inconspicuous that one would easily miss it if not for Google Maps. It was in this very house that Gandhi held several meetings with some of the most prominent names of the Indian freedom struggle and the Indian National Congress for 17 years, making it his headquarters.

Today, Mani Bhavan is a museum that awaits its public opening, housing many of the Mahatama’s personal belongings and a tour of India’s freedom struggle.

History has a home on Laburnum Road

Climbing up the narrow flight of stairs, preserved as they were back in the day, one comes across pictures of Gandhi, chronicling his journey from a young boy to the frail old man that the British feared so much. Sealed with a large glass window is the room on the second floor where Gandhi used to sleep on his floor-bed. The floor-bed is intact, and forming a perimeter around it are a series of items that the Mahatma used regularly: his walking stick, chappals, and a small table that he used to write on. Lined up against the wall are charkhas of multiple shapes and sizes that Gandhi used to weave his own cloth — it was in this room, that Gandhi learnt how to use a charkha, and it is said that the Mahatma never touched his food unless he had spun his charkha for at least half an hour every day.

It is overwhelming to see a part of history within reach, and I reach out to touch a part of the worldly things, but the transparent glass wall comes in the way. The Congress Working Committee’s decision to send Gandhi to London for the Round Table Conference was also taken here, soon after which he sailed from Bombay. The room is small, but it is not hard to imagine a frail man sitting on the floor-bed, launching the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1931.

The journey

Gandhi spent 17 years — from 1917 to 1934 — in Mani Bhavan, which was given to him by his friend Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri. It is hard to find something that will be as profound as Gandhi’s room in Mani Bhavan, but an entire gallery of figurines depicting Gandhi’s journey in painstaking detail comes close. Made with precision, these figurines — in little boxes that give them the aura of 3D pictures — showcase the Gandhi that the world knows, but also some incidents about which I had only read thus far. The last one, Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi, leaves a lasting impression on visitors, but the one that I found most memorable is that of a teenage Gandhi leaving for Europe after vowing to never touch ‘meat, liquor, or women’ while in Europe, as his mother controls her tears at her departing son.

The ground floor is a library housing old texts on Gandhi. The first floor mandates a visit before exiting, for housed on the entire floor are letters exchanged by Gandhi with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. But the most iconic exhibit among Gandhi’s writings is a piece of framed paper with his signature in more than 10 languages — a clear sign of his desire to learn and be a part of the people of India.

History has a home on Laburnum Road

In 1955, the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi took over the building to preserve it as a memorial to the Mahatma. While Laburnum Road does not have any laburnums adorning the street, the boulevard of tall, green trees makes for a beautiful promenade and a fitting tribute to the house that was once the hub of Gandhi’s activities. The nonchalance with which Mani Bhavan stands even today, would have pleased the ever-unassuming Mahatma, I suspect.

Barack Obama visited Mani Bhavan in 2010 to pay respects to Gandhi, as did Martin Luther King Jr in the 1950s, but it is sad that it finds no mention in any textbooks or tourist guides. Hundreds of foreigners throng the tiny halls of Mani Bhavan every year, but it is hard to find many Indians aware of this home that the Mahatma lived in. It is only a chance encounter with a kaali-peeli taxi driver that led me to Mani Bhavan. “One just cannot leave Bombay without visiting Gandhi’s house, saab,” Shankar, my driver told me as I was leaving Colaba. And thus followed a pitstop at “Gandhi’s house” which I never knew existed in my two years in Mumbai.

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Printable version | May 17, 2021 3:20:50 AM |

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