Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter Tara Bhattacharya recalls his having stayed for extended periods at three different places in Delhi—at Birla House, where he was shot by Nathuram Godse; before that, at the Valmiki Ashram on Mandir Marg in central Delhi, next to St Thomas School that Bhattacharya attended; and, much before that, at the Harijan Ashram at Kingsway Camp in north Delhi, where Bhattacharya lived as a little girl for a couple of years.
Some 70 years later, all three places—the buildings and the rooms he stayed in—are still intact.
Late on a Saturday afternoon, there are a handful of international and Indian visitors at Gandhi Smriti (Birla House) on Tees January Marg. It used to be the residence of G.D. Birla, the eminent industrialist and a close associate of Gandhi. At the far end on the ground floor, past the bookstore and the museum galleries, are the two rooms where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life, Ashok Kumar, a museum official, tells me.
The rooms are big and spartan, preserved just as they were when Bapu lived there. There are his meagre personal effects—charkha, watch, spectacles, the three monkeys etc.—in the first room. An enormous bolster rests on the mattress. The adjoining bedroom has the feel of a gazebo because of the tall, elegant bay windows that look out on to the lawn. Time seems to have paused here. Three guides—young women dressed in white khadi kurta-pyjama and dark vests—are at hand to assist and inform. The short hemlines of their kurtas and the tapering Aligarhi pyjamas are the only concessions to changing tastes. The guides tell me that except for a couple of articles, everything else in the rooms is original. Later, however, Kumar clarifies that every article here is a replica—the originals are at the Gandhi museum at Rajghat.
Distinctly less stately than Birla House is the 20ft by10ft hall on the premises of the modest temple on Mandir Marg dedicated to sage Valmiki. The hall is part of the simple residential complex to one side of the temple, pleasantly green and inhabited by a gent in a lungi and kurta, sporting a spotless white turban and a matching flowing beard. He is Sant Krishna Vidyarthi, the spiritual head of the local Valmiki community who were considered “untouchables”—the reason Gandhi chose to stay here in their basti for 214 days between 1 April 1946 and 1 June 1947.
The hall, which served as a dharamshala, or a guest house, was built when the temple was made pukka in 1933. It has bare concrete shelves and wooden almirahs built into the walls and now looks like a shrine to Gandhi—there is the charkha, Bapu’s writing desk, adorned with fresh marigolds, and a wooden pen holder with two small hollow discs for ink. The time Gandhi spent here was one of political ferment and activity, and Sant Vidyarthi points to the black and white photos on the walls—Gandhi and a bald Pandit Nehru in this very room, along with with many women, all spinning the charkha; Gandhi with Sir Stafford Cripps; Lady Mountbatten and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur at the evening prayers held on the premises.
Valmiki Ashram’s air of quietude is shared by the Harijan Ashram, which forms the premises of the Harijan Sewak Sangh (HSS). There is plenty of greenery in the vast compound—a little too much actually. The severely run-down single- and double-storey buildings with dull yellow walls rise amid wild grass. Sahdevji, who escorted me around the compound, came here in 1940 as a 14-year-old student and stayed on. He tells me that Gandhi laid the foundation stone for the institution, and spent a total of 105 days here, between 1934 and 1938, often staying with his son, Devdas (and granddaughter Tara).
He recalls and cherishes his own interaction with Gandhi. Bapu, he tells me, encouraged students to write letters to him and always replied, writing on the back of used envelopes. Once, some boys wrote to complain that they weren’t allowed to have chilli with their food. Gandhi wrote back, assuring them he would tell the ashram authorities to let them have chillies, but only of the green variety.
As we walk to the house where Gandhi stayed, Sahdevji informs me that the rooms in many of the buildings have been let out to university students, mostly women, for a nominal rent. He then leads me to a squat two-storey brick house which, like the others, belongs to another era. A plaque on the wall reads “Ba Kutir” because, Sahdevji explains, Kasturba lived on the ground floor and Gandhi on the first.
“Shall we go in and take a look?,” I ask him.
“Because there are students living there.”
“In rooms once occupied by Gandhiji!”
“Yes. This way, at least, they are cleaned regularly and taken care of. Otherwise, they’ll just decay.”
I can’t help but look inside a locked room through the thick wire mesh covering its window. It is a typical student’s hostel room. “Aum Sweet Aum,” declares a poster on the wall. A girl sitting inside a small room is hunched over her textbooks. These were rooms, Sahdevji had told me, where, in 1937, Gandhi conferred with Congress Working Committee members including Pandit Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
There is a stone bathtub in the unkempt front yard, half buried in the ground. “This bathtub was used by Gandhiji,” says Sahdevji. “We have sunk it so that it doesn’t break.”
Outside the ashram gates, the chaos and noise is unexpectedly jarring. I feel I have just stepped out of a time warp.