Sabarmati Ashram: Waiting for the Mahatma
Inquiry writ on his face, the driver, turned around. He seemed mildly surprised.
"Yes, the Mahatma's," I said, then clarified the 'Gandhi'. And asked, "How far?"
"Half an hour, forty five max."
We had swathed a U in the restless traffic and headed what felt like northwards. "Downed the metre?" I asked as I always do.
More on Gujarat|
Saurashtra - Part I
Saurashtra - Part II
The device's descent may not mean much in a strange city. But of course, this is the city of the Mahatma! I hastened to set all qualms at rest. The reasoning was specious and it did not stir my captain. He simply nodded.
We lumbered along for the better part of an hour with this and that landmark being shown by the driver. He seemed in awe of his city, as we all need be. I was in the midst of a business trip to Ahmedabad, the total meant to be less than a day. These business trips mean business, as of course they are meant to. And this noontime reprieve was not meant to be. A business lunch suddenly went off the plate, as the honourable host was delayed in flight. I said, Aha! and rushed back to the hotel to pick up Mother and told her that we might just make it. She was accompanying me on the off-chance of a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram: Gandhi's, the Mahatma's.
"Thirty two fifty", said the auto-pilot and whipped out a chart to corroborate. I waved an expansive hand and gave him thirty-five. He asked whether he would wait to take us back. He could, he said. We said we knew not when we would.
Standing before the gates we peered within, into the spacious lawns. I was looking around for a toll booth and there were none. The Mahatma maybe, was not being minted. A path cradled in a canopy of leaves greeted us. We entered the campus, and the silence unsettled.
Gandhi's first ashram in India was established in Kochrab area of Ahmedabad in 1915. The ashram later shifted to the banks of the river Sabarmati in 1917. This came to be known as the Satyagraha Ashram and later, the Harijan Ashram. It is more commonly called the Sabarmati Ashram. This was Gandhi's home till 1930, when he left for the epochal Dandi March. He vowed not to return until India became independent. The rest as they say, is history.
This we gleaned from the pamphlet picked up at the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalay, a museum on one side of the compound. There was a commentary of the Mahatma's life in photographs, punctuated by his personal effects, his trademark glasses, watch and fountain pen. The photos were mostly familiar, though some uncommon, and some with other luminaries of his times. The museum building looked modern, with rooms dark and intense, joined by corridors where light and wind played to their tunes. Serenity reigned supreme; but all attempts at solemnity were shattered by a huge portrait of the Mahatma, iridescent in his toothless smile, every crease of his care-worn face, frozen in felicity.
Emerging from the museum, we took the winding trail of history. Several cottages were strewn around grounds of white, loamy soil, shadowed by trees that had surely seen India, dependent.
Hriday Kunj is the hovel where the Mahatma lived. Looking in through the window, there was the expected charka and else. And what struck most was also expected, the vestal simplicity. A man's triumph over the world can only follow his triumph over himself, over his wants. At least, thus it felt there. There were other huts too, where his associates lived and convened. The houses are long not lived in, but they looked living enough.
The ashram was hemmed by the Sabarmati at one side. It looked famished and forgotten, a waif of stream, a few puddles here and there, trapped and drowned in her own bed. Beyond, Ahmedabad loomed larger than life: bridges; cars and buildings; humanity; the churning wake of modern India, a nation unfettered.
I was reminded not of another place or thing, but of another context. Nearly two thousand miles away, nestles another such ashram, the Abode of Peace, Rabindranath's Shantiniketan. The details between here and there differ, as did the two men; but a deeper concord runs, one of spirits. The aesthetics of Shantiniketan look lilting against the stark austerity of Sabarmati. But Shantiniketan being a living seminary has also been besmirched by changing times. Sabarmati feels as if the Mahatma just left and will soon return; it evokes a sense of timeless waiting.
There was not much to see from a tourist point of view and we were glad that there was not. Mother and I sat for sometime beneath a Banyan tree, listened to the rustle of the leaves and the dance of the dust and spoke little. There was no architecture to admire, no gadgetry to grasp, no opulence to ogle. Yet Sabarmati Ashram seeped in through all the senses. It was perhaps, epiphany.
In the visitor's book we struggled to write something touching and not trite. At last, we scribbled an eternal plight, "yadi tor daak sh'une keu naa a'shey..", and its beatific riposte, "tabe'y ekla chalo re..". The great bard's paean to the great soul. I also flipped back the pages. But the volume got spent around June 2001, a good decade short. I did not get to see what my father had written in June 1991, on his visit to the Sabarmati, in the midst of a business trip. He was one who always referred to him as the Mahatma.
Airborne two hours later, I looked down to catch a glimpse. Sabarmati Ashram was lost in the maze of the metropolis.
Within a week, Gujarat went up in flames. In nomine domini, men cremated men, alive; and women and children too. And justifications they gave, more copious than the corpses. The fire still rages, a smoulder one moment and an apocalypse the next, fanned and fomented by a poisoned polity.
The Mahatma has left. His ashram by the Sabarmati stands. The Mahatma will not return.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.