Travelling through the Gandhi country


M G Radhakrishnan


COLUMN

View From My Window


Our Father of the Nation
was born 153 years ago here

It was late night when we reached Porbandar, zooming through the snazzy highway from Rajkot. As my young colleague Aneesh reminded me, Porbandar was the name we had come to know from primary textbooks even before we knew our own villages. The semi-arid coastal town in the former Kathiawad of Gujarat's Saurashtra region is where our Father of the Nation was born 153 years ago. Interestingly, Porbandar is also known as Sudamapuri as it is believed to be the home of the legendary Sudama or Kuchela, the bosom friend of Lord Krishna -and a symbol like the Mahatma- of poverty and abiding faith.

My room at the well anointed Lords Inn had a breathtaking view of the sprawling Arabian sea. The Chowpatty beach along the calm and shallow sea was crowded from early morning with joggers, bathers, and plain revellers. We drove out on the humid and scorching April morning to Kirti Mandir, Mahatma's revered birthplace standing on a narrow and crowded bylane near Manik Chowk. The imposing early 20th century building stands apart from the multitude of tiny shacks squeezed into the ground floors of dilapidated vintage buildings, selling tacky ornaments, plastic toys, cheap garments etc. Interestingly, small jewellery shops abound opposite to Gandhij's house. The tiny street is overflowing with lazily roaming cows, bulls and street dogs elbowing with passing two wheelers and pedestrians. Right in front of the Kirti Mandir, old women beg for alms thinking visitors to the memorial of the most compassionate Indian too would have some kindness to spare. Honouring Gandhi's Sarv Dharm Samabhavana, Kirti Mandir, designed by local architect Purushottambhai Mistry, bears motifs of Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian, Buddhist and Jain religions.

Kirti Mandir was built by local philanthropist businessman, Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta, (our guide proudly informs that he was Bollywood star Juhi Chawla's 'great grandfather-in-law') with Gandhij's consent in 1947 and opened just after his death. The memorial holds the house where Gandhi was born which is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. The large house was purchased by Gandhi's great grandfather, a prosperous grocery merchant. Later Gandhi's grandfather Uttamchand and father Karamchand Gandhi -both were Diwans of the Porbandar native state- lived there with their families. The room and even the spot where Gandhi was born are marked and preserved. Prashant, the person in charge of Kirti Mandir, told no relatives of either Gandhi or Kasturba live in Porbandar now.

Kasturba Gandhi's house

Just about 150 feet behind is Kasturba's house. Gandhi's and Ba's Modh Bania families were closely associated with each other which got further cemented with the wedding between the two who were both 13 at their marriage. Ba's house is smaller and preserved by the state government. Ba's father Gokuldas Kapadia too was a prosperous grains and clothes merchant and also a Mayor of Porbandar. Her house is located in a more spartan ambience with dilapidated and crumbling little houses around and frequented by more cows and dogs. Typically of stupid government rules, cameras are barred from both the houses making these memorials of two greatest Indians, hidden and obscure! But our smart cameramen, Abhilash and Mukundan, quite familiar with such inanities, are clever enough to get their jobs done without appearing to cross any line !

Like the rest of Gujarat, Gandhi's native place too is now a pocket borough of his detractors. BJP won in all the 5 of 7 assembly constituencies here leaving just one each for Congress and NCP. BJP won the last Lok Sabha election too from Porbandar trouncing Congress by more than 2 lakh votes.

The princely state of Porbandar on the Gujarat coast had ancient ports like in Kerala where maritime trade had flourished centuries ago. It had also come under multiple invasions ranging from the Mughals to Marattas to Gaekwads and Peshwas before coming under the British. Remnants of the late Harappan age settlements (15th century BC) too have been found here. Today it's not as thriving as many other Gujarati cities but looks old and decaying. Yet, like Kerala, Porbandar has a vibrant fisheries sector and also a considerable expat population settled in the UK.

What strikes quite unfamiliar to Malayali in Porbandar is the total absence of "spirit". It shows life can go on even under total prohibition which may also be the region's last tenuous link to Gandhism. All the stories we have heard that liquor is freely available -illegitimate, of course- anywhere in Gujarat despite the prohibition were disproved at least in Gandhi's own town.

It was from Gandhi's second home -Rajkot- that we proceeded to Porbandar. Gandhi's father Karamchand Gandhi had moved to Rajkot -now a much larger city- after he had fallen out with the royal house of Porbandar. According to Gandhi, his father who had become a Diwan in Rajkot too, once saluted the Nawab with his left hand. This angered the Nawab who sought an explanation from him. Karamchand told the nawab that he couldn't salute with his right hand which was pledged forever to Porbandar! The house where Karamchand alias Kaba Gandhi and family lived is known as "Kaba Gandhi No Delo" (meaning Kaba Gandhi's big house) is well preserved. The imposing school where he studied -Alfred High School- for seven years has been turned into an impressive museum a few years ago which also has his classroom preserved like a temple.

Our next stop was the historic Somnath temple in Gir Somnath district. Braving the rising mercury, we passed through the coastal hamlet Madhavpur, the village where Krishna supposedly married Rukmini after kidnapping her and also the modest Chorvad in Veravel, the home village of the richest Indian family- the Ambanis.

M G Radhakrishnan in front of Alfred High School,
Rajkot (now a museum) where Gandhi studied.

Somnath temple has for long been a symbol of Hindutva's project to undo the "Muslim atrocities" against Hindus and pay back perceived historical wrongs. The fabled shrine was demolished by Mahmud of Ghazni in 11th century and assaulted repeatedly later by multiple Muslim rulers. After Ayodhya, it is the cause celeb re for the weaponised Hindutva. It was reconstructed at Deputy Prime minister Sardar Patel's initiative immediately after India's independence even as Prime minister Nehru opposed it being done by a secular State's funds. Gandhi found a middle way by allowing it to be reconstructed not with state funds but public donations. The story of this reconstruction encapsulated the deep rooted contention between the two dominant forces that controlled the nascent Indian state. As if to keep reminding of the militarised project, the shrine has as its dwarpalak, Veer Hamirji Gohil, the spear wielding and horse-borne young prince, fabled to have fought and martyred against Mughal invaders in the 15th century. And right in front the shrine has its political patron too -Sardar Patel built in black marble.

Today with the Indian state firmly under their control, the Hindutva forces are out to fulfill their unfinished agenda. As a pointer to its strategic significance, LK Advani's Ram Rath Yatra that launched the Ayodhya movement culminating in Babri Masjid demolition that led to the present Hindutva hegemony was flagged off from Somnath temple on 25 September 1990. Three decades later the project found its fruition with the creation of the Ram mandir on the debris of Babri.

If the then Prime Minister of India had opposed the reconstruction 75 years ago, today's Prime minister Modi heads the Somnath temple trust which has announced a multi-crore project here under his ambitious "Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spiritual Augmentation Drive" (PRASAD) . What more can symbolise the way India has transformed during these 75 years of independence?

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