Mani Bhavan Is The House That History Built

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THE HOUSE THAT HISTORY BUILT

WORDS BY MRIGANK WARRIER AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Mani Bhavan is a slice of history painstakingly preserved to tell Mahatma Gandhi's stories the way few books can.

If you ever notice a young chap obsessively climbing up and down the stairs of your ancient South Mumbai building, don’t worry – it’s probably just me. I cannot resist the allure of a well-maintained wooden staircase; Mani Bhavan, a charming two-storey Gamdevi bungalow, possesses one of the finest. It has the added distinction of being – between 1917 and 1934 – the Bombay base of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

His autobiography is replete with references to this city. “Time hung heavily on [his] hands” here before he first set sail for Britain, an act for which he was excommunicated by the local Modh Bania clan. He found it difficult to settle in Bombay, “there being no income to square off the ever increasing expenditure”. He lived for a while in Girgaum, walked daily to work and “learnt to think that it was fashionable to doze in the High Court”. He “took chambers in Fort”, and delivered his first major public address in the Cowasji Jehangir Hall at Kala Ghoda (now the National Gallery of Modern Art). From the time he launched his first hartal – against the Rowlatt Act in 1919 (“on seeing me, the people went mad with joy”) – to his arrest from its terrace in 1932 for leading the Civil Disobedience movement, Mani Bhavan was the unofficial Bombay headquarters of the Indian freedom struggle.

I first came here as a 16 year old for an elocution competition. We were asked to take off our footwear before entering the room, and I remember wishing I had a more generous time limit – the soles of my feet could not get enough of the burnished wood floor. Most of this house is wooden: polished doors opening inwards, rafters supporting high ceilings, hand-worn bannisters, six-paned windows, slatted shutters, heavy-lidded writing desks and the padukas (slippers) he wore, placed near his bed in the second-floor room he always occupied, preserved as it was in his time, complete with a yellowing copy of Harijan, a newspaper he founded.

The entire house tells a story. If there’s a better way to learn history, I’d like to know what it is.

Originally owned by his friend Revashankar Jhaveri, Mani Bhavan is a Gandhi museum today. The Ajanta wall clock and the metal detector are horribly out of place in the restful heritage residence that appears to have been taken over by Mohandas Gandhi’s Facebook profile. From photographs, prints, portraits, busts, miniatures and engravings, he gazes upon you from everywhere. I try – and fail – to feel guilty about the chicken roll I’ve had for breakfast. He doesn’t look disappointed either: chortling with Nehru, deep in conclave with Patel, taking an usie with Tagore, toothlessly fanboying with Charlie Chaplin. The captions are brief and informative.

The well-curated library has a few shelves read by the man himself. He devoured everything from Shakespeare to Shaw, Tolstoy to Lenin, Thoreau to Ruskin. I am happy to report that we have both enjoyed Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Les Miserables. The librarian is asleep. No one is wearing khadi.

One tatting covered wall is mounted with progressively evolved models of the charkha. Many important moments of his life are immortalised in a series of dioramas, and I am astounded by the attention to detail – tiny petals falling of Tilak’s bier, the expression on Kasturba Gandhi’s face as she passes away in her husband’s lap. The last tableau depicts his own death: falling forwards, forehead creased in consternation. My grandmother has seen Nathuram Godse; she grew up in front of his Shivaji Park home.

The entire house tells a story. If there’s a better way to learn history, I’d like to know what it is.

On a Saturday afternoon, I am the only South Asian here. An exhausted city guide grumbles in Hindi about the enthusiasm of her European clients while trying to explain to a persistent child whose first language is not English the difference between murder and assassination. I glance out the window and spot an aged lady being helped to walk in the neighbouring building. She looks well over 90. I wonder what Mani Bhavan stories she has to tell.

My speech nine years ago reflected my adolescent idealism with phrases such as “nation-makers” and “utopian motherland”. Much has changed in me since then, but Mani Bhavan has stayed the same – an unobtrusive reminder of a principled man who, right or wrong, stayed true to himself until the end.

Mani Bhavan, 19, Laburnum Road, Gamdevi, Mumbai 400 007. Phone: 022 2380 5864

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