The Birla House, or Gandhi Smriti, stands inconspicuously among other sprawling bungalows in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi without any trappings of an important building even though it is far more important than any of its neighbours; it is not only the house where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life, but also the place where he breathed his last after being shot in his own prayer meeting.
I reach Gandhi Smriti expecting it to be full of visitors: can there be a better time to go around Delhi than a winter afternoon? I also expect heavy security at the premises; but I find neither. A group of tourists – American and Japanese – and the working staff of the complex are the only people I see apart from the vendor selling tacky handicrafts and ice cream.
The wooden gates of the premises are wide open and I am neither frisked nor questioned; there is no entry ticket either. In the absence of any guide, or signage, I walk straight in and arrive at the spot where I see the bunch of tourists with a Sikh guide animatedly telling them about the significance of the Ashoka tree. To my left is the main building, to my right is a walkway, and right in front of me is a narrow path with the impression of the Mahatma’s footprints. “For the last time Gandhiji went to the prayer meeting through this path” a board, which is a size too big for its frame declares.
By the time I walk along the pathway, past the lawn and reach at the far end of the compound, a large group of school children have taken over the walkway, their drone tearing through the silence. Standing at the end of the lawn with over a hundred children now scattered on the velvety grass, I realize how huge the complex is – a vast expanse of green dotted with shady trees, a well-manicured garden with fountains and a miniature bridge, an aesthetically laid out courtyard, and beyond all this an equally large house. It seems that Gandhiji spent his last days in the lap of luxury.
I change my opinion soon after though, when I see the room in which he conducted his meetings – and had spent the last one-hour with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. With just a mattress, a bolster, and two small writing desks, the room is bereft even of comfort let alone luxury. His meager possessions – a pair of reading glasses, a watch, his walking stick – displayed in a glass case further emphasizes what Gandhi lived by: Simplicity is the essence of universality.
The galleries of the house display various pictures and speeches of Gandhi, especially the assassination. There is a long description of the evening, and many graphic pictures of the incident. The gallery leads into a long verandah with miniature models representing scenes from his life. Quit India Movement, Swadeshi Movement, Dandi March and parts of his personal life are displayed through handmade dolls and doll houses placed in neat glass boxes. In another gallery a black and white film on his life plays in loop. Another part of the house – which looks like the main porch of a majestic colonial villa – hosts an audio visual show on his life. But since it remains shut on every second Saturday, and today is a second Saturday, I miss it.
What strikes me most about the house however is the grandeur. Although simple, the house smells of class – French windows, high ceiling, tall columns, wide arches – but then it once belonged to none other than Ghanshayam Das Birla, a well-known industrialist and a close confidante of Bapu (I have read somewhere that the family was arm twisted into letting go of the house for the memorial).
It is said that post partition an aggrieved Bapu had found peace in the company of his friend and it was on his insistence that he agreed to stay here. What he – or anyone else, for that matter – did not know was those three and a half months would be turn out to be the last three and a half months of his life.