Gandhi by Mayank Chhaya
On Mohandas Gandhi’s 144th birth anniversary today, I offer these excerpts from my long upcoming book on the city of Ahmedabad. After all what could more fitting on this day, then some selfishness? (Bazinga!)
Gandhi & Ahmedabad
An invisible membrane separates the Gandhi Ashram from the rest of Ahmedabad. The city’s hubbub abruptly stops at the gate of the ashram, unable to breach its elemental serenity. Entering the ashram’s precincts gives one the feeling of having discovered a new dimension. It is a new dimension.
The pace here is slower and the mood more reflective. It is the sort of place where people slow down reflexively and speak in hushed tones for no apparent reason because neither is mandatory. It must be the pervasive sense of reverence for the most illustrious resident of the ashram who lived here for over 13 years from June 17, 1917.
Quite fortuitously, I visited the Gandhi Ashram specifically for this book on June 17, 2010, 93 years after Gandhi first set it up with a band of his followers. Although the periphery of the ashram has since been significantly made over with the help of the well-known architect Charles Correa, its heart aptly named Hriday Kunj, remains more or less in the condition that Gandhi would have lived in while perfecting his political philosophy.
The devouring summer heat of June is made somewhat bearable by doves and pigeons cooing in the Neem trees surrounding the cottage with a sloping roof made of brown tiles. The trimmings in the cottage are painted in deep maroon and walls in white. The cottage has certain quaintness that is so common to the early 20th century buildings still surviving in the city. Walking through the rooms it is at once difficult and easy to imagine that this was the pantheon of arguably the world’s most seminal pacifist mass movement.
Moving around the Hriday Kunj one could almost see hazy and somewhat spectral figures of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad engaged in an animated discussion in the Ashram. The feeling here was akin to what one felt at Lothal. It was as if hands of history were tugging at my shoulder trying to tell long forgotten stories. One such story is about Gandhi’s choice of Ahmedabad over any other Indian city as his Satyagraha Central.
There are clear reasons why he chose this city. By the time he had decided to take the plunge into India’s nationalist movement in 1915, he was already a highly respected political leader and thinker because of his widely followed public life in South Africa for 21 years and someone whom any place in India would have been more than pleased to host. There were those who wanted him to work out of Hardwar in the mistaken belief that he wanted a religious/spiritual commune. Then there were those who wanted him in Bengal because that is where the British stronghold was and also because it was regarded as the bastion of reformist social and political thinking. Bombay was another tempting choice because of its centrality to the British Empire as well as its industrial backbone. Above all these, Delhi was the most obvious choice. However, as always Gandhi was driven by very practical and pragmatic considerations. It was like a business decision for him which had to make most business sense.
He knew that for his movement to be successful he would need regular donations. That narrowed down his choice to places which had a strong foundation of local wealth and long tradition of philanthropy. He was also conscious that he could not waste too much time establishing cultural affinities so crucial to his movement. That told him that it had to be somewhere in Gujarat. Equally, he also knew that in order for him to turn textiles/handloom as the mascot of his early resistance, he had to find a place with a rich history of indigenous weaving. Then there was the consideration about accessibility to bigger cities such as Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. Ahmedabad seemed to satisfy all the criteria.
It is not clear whether Gandhi was also thinking of the unique interplay between Ahmedabad’s textile mill owners and workers and the possibilities it might throw up to sink his teeth into some early political action. It is tempting to speculate that it was a factor at the back of his mind. It is equally tempting to speculate whether he had already identified salt and the way the British so unfairly monopolized and taxed it as another potent political weapon which could be wielded more easily out of Ahmedabad because of its proximity to the state’s many salt producing centers along its long coast.