We got off an auto-rickshaw when the sun was going down. The auto driver cheated us quite ruthlessly. As we approached the main entrance, we found a symbolic policeman with a short-barrelled gun looking wistfully at the light Sunday-evening traffic in the dusky light. There were no metal detectors; no one frisked us as we entered the campus. The peaceful ambience was apt because we were at Sabarmati Ashram where, “rooted in the soil and the sun and people of India, Gandhi grew to full stature as the leader of his nation.”
Gandhi – not Mahatma yet – founded the ashram on 17 June 1917 “at Sabarmati, across the Sabarmati River from the city of Ahmedabad”, wrote Louis Fischer in The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Presently, it is within the inner circle of the bustling city. The ashram consists of rudimentary white-washed cottages with tiled roofs, the only exception being the Gandhi Museum, a later addition. Even this modern structure has just one floor and sloping roofs, and blends beautifully with the rest of the campus.
After his final return from South Africa in 1915, Gandhiji set up an ashram elsewhere. He shifted it to Sabarmati because “he wanted to do some experiments in living, e.g., farming, animal husbandry, cow breeding, Khadi and related constructive activities, for which he was in search of this kind of barren land.” At the Ashram, “Gandhi formed a school that focused on manual labour, agriculture, and literacy to advance his efforts for self-sufficiency.” [Source: The Ashram website].
Lous Fischer wrote: “The population of the settlement fluctuated from 2o at the start to a maximum of 230. they tended the fruit trees, planted grain, spun, wove, studied and taught in surrounding villages. … The ashram, in fact, became the navel of India.”
Except for the time spent in prison, Gandhiji lived here in a small room in a cottage, Hridaya Kunj, for fourteen years from 1917 to 1930. A door form the room leads to an open verandah where he worked in the day and “slept even in the coldest nights.” The cottage is near the edge of the river. From there, the bank slopes down steeply into the riverbed. (In late November, the riverbed was almost dry. But it was free from garbage, unlike riverbanks in many Indian cities.) Gandhi used to hold prayer meetings on the open ground between the cottage and the river. As I stood there and looked at the quiet cloudless evening sky, I tried to hear a soft but resolute voice that reached out from here to three hundred million people across India, and tried to see a slender man with a slight stoop who was thought to be an incarnation of Vishnu from the Bihar plains to the hills of Malabar, as noted by Satinath Bhaduri (Dhonrai Charit Manas) and Raja Rao (Kantapura).
Being a regular and avid visitor of temples, Arundhati wanted to contribute something to the ashram. (A cousin too had asked us to, on his behalf.) As we looked round, we found a rusty offertory box on one of the walls of Hridaya Kunj. But a functionary of the Ashram, Kishore Bhai said it was rarely opened. If we wanted to contribute, we could hand over the cash to him and get a receipt.
We did. Kishore Bhai said, ‘The Ashram gets no grant from the state or central government, although the central government has given us funds from time to time for special purposes. And we don’t appeal to anyone for funds. We are happy to accept whatever people give us on their own.’
‘Then how do you run this place?’
‘A fund was set up during Gandhiji’s lifetime. The cotton mill owners of Ahmedabad contributed. The mill workers too donated a day’s salary. All our expenses are met from the interest earned on that fund.’
‘What kind of activities do you have here?’
‘Nothing, except running the Ashram.’
Intrigued by the apparent absence of any activity in the Ashram, I visited the Sabarmati Ashram website later. The Ashram is involved in preserving the history of Gandhi and the freedom struggle and educating people in his teachings. It does not directly participate in any social work, but manages several trusts that run a school, a hostel for Harijan women, and a Primary Teachers’ Training Institute. They promote village industries and run a training institute in spinning-weaving, solar energy, and bio-gas etc. They also run an Environmental Sanitation Institute that conducts research and training in rural health and sanitation; Another trust under Sabarmati Ashram manages cow pens in Bidaj and Lali villages. Besides, they have an organization dedicated to removal of untouchability.
It is heartening that Sabarmati Ashram continues work on the Gandhian path without depending on Government grants. (In Bengal, we have seen what government control can do to a centre of learning, in the case of Visva-Bharati, the school set up by Tagore.) However, it is sad that these activities have neither spread nor reached any depth that would stand out as an example for the rest of the country. A comparison with the Milk Cooperative movement of Gujarat comes to mind.
Also, there is perhaps some symbolism in the fact that none of these activities happen at the Ashram, like it used to, in the time of Gandhi. It seems Sabarmati ashram has ceased to be a nerve-centre of constructive work and has been turned into another place of pilgrimage, just as Gandhi the doer has been forgotten and turned into a deity.
Whenever the countless crooks of this country count their ill-gotten darker-than-black money, the Mahatma smiles his benign toothless smile at them from the currency notes they are counting. One hopes that that is not how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi will be remembered by Indians.
Kolkata, Sunday, 13 December 2009