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I visited New Delhi in January 2007 and wanted, in some way, to mark India’s 60th year of independence. My husband, Ken, and I decided to visit the Eternal Gandhi museum. The museum is a high tech tribute to Mahatma Gandhi: the world’s first multimedia, interactive, historical museum created through the collaborative efforts of NRIs and IIT-Delhi. The Eternal Gandhi museum is different from the one at the Gandhi Ghat, where Gandhiji was cremated. It is situated in Birla House, where Gandhiji was shot on January 30, 1948 on his way to evening prayers.
I entered the museum gates and walked into a beautiful garden with seasonal and perennial flora. The neem, mango, ashoka, peepul, and tamarind trees in the museum grounds were large and shady. To the left, was a small Khadi Gramodyog shop that sold cottage industry products and clothes made from hand-made and hand-spun khadi cloth. Gandhiji spun cotton on his charkha, the spinning wheel, every day. During the Swadeshi non cooperative freedom struggle in the 1920s, he encouraged all Indians to wear khadi and boycott the English mill cloth for which we Indians had to pay unjust taxes. All four of my grandparents were avid freedom fighters and Gandhians; each of them wore only khadi until their death, long after independence was won. Before independence, bridal trousseaus in our extended family consisted of only khadi clothes.
Upon entering the museum, I saw white khadi sheets covering a wooden cot and a big oval pillow. There were red rose petals strewn over the cot to mark the place where Gandhiji took his last breath. Beside it lay his chappals and the charkha on which he had spun cotton on the last day of his life.
The room held various pictures of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the final months of his life. He had come to Delhi after ending his fast in Calcutta, a fast through which he had stopped Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Bengal. After the partition, when the Radcliffe line was announced, a smoldering Punjab had erupted into virulent flames of ethnic brutality. Hindus were fleeing Muslim violence in Pakistan; Muslims were fleeing Hindu violence in India. People were slaughtered, women raped and dismembered in a frenzy of ethnic odium. It was an unimaginable depravity that broke Gandhiji’s heart.
He had been planning to go to Punjab to quell the rampant violence. Concerned for his safety, other leaders persuaded Gandhi to stop in Delhi and not proceed to Punjab. They also pleaded with him to stay in Birla House rather than the sweeper colony as he usually did.
As I read the dates of Gandhiji’s stay in Birla House—early September 1947 until his death in 1948—I was transported in time. I, too, had lived in Delhi during partition. I was only four years old, but the memories came back to me as if it were yesterday.
My family and I had arrived in Delhi from Lahore at the end of July 1947, just before Indian independence was declared on August 15 and India divided into two countries. The creation of India and Pakistan severed the heart of India along Hindu-Muslim lines, making a mockery of Gandhi’s favorite hymn: “Allah is your name and Ishwar is your name, give us wisdom oh God to live in peace!”
Religious skirmishes had taken on a viciously destructive turn. In fact, my family was on one of the last trains on which anyone escaped alive from what would soon be Pakistan. All the stability of home life that we had known no longer existed. We had left behind our dearly loved Muslim friends, never to see them again. We “refugees” were initially housed in tents before we were able to find a house near Connaught Place, in the center of Delhi, where we were surrounded by the terrifying sounds of soul suffering agony.
A curfew was declared. All adults stayed behind closed doors. I, as a child, loved playing outdoors and somehow managed to escape the adult prison. My innate curiosity sent me outside to investigate the unusual sounds and smells. As I stood in front of our house, I could see, from the safety of its low fenced yard, fires blazing all around. On the road, some men stopped a tanga. They killed the driver right in front of my eyes. The victim’s Muslim cap waved in the air as his head was disconnected from his torso; the mob set the tanga on fire and stabbed the horse to death.
I ran to the side of the house and stood, sickened but frozen in fear, as I saw many decapitated bodies strewn down the alley alongside my house. It was there that our servant found me and took me inside. Later, when my parents went out and I heard the sirens of fire engines, I was filled with terror that they may not return home, that something similar would befall them, and my brother and I would be orphaned. It was a traumatizing time for the young and the old alike.
People had gone mad all around us.
The day Gandhiji was shot, there was a big memorial gathering in Connaught Place. I went to the memorial on that fateful day in 1948, along with my tearful parents. I remember seeing the gunshot wound on his chest as I filed past the dead body of the Mahatma. Indeed, that single bullet halted the madness of the national bloodshed. Shared grief stirred people all over India as they realized their collective insanity in pursuing acts of aggression. They laid down their arms and wept instead.
Gandhiji had been deeply saddened that independence had come at such a high cost of human misery. In his quest to control his anguish he fasted, the only weapon he used as a true satyagrahi. In his prayer meetings, Gandhiji had ordered that the Koran be read alongside the Ramayana and Geeta. The peace that eluded him in the last days of his life was only achieved when the bullet entered his heart.
I was jostled out of my reverie by a tap on my arms, as I heard my husband’s voice: “Shall we move on? With your love for technology, wouldn’t you like to see the technical part of the museum?”
I followed Ken up the stairs, where we found gizmos of all kinds possible with a technical whiz-bang. I blew in a tube and the story of Sabarmati ashram commenced. I put my hands on the pillar of castelessness, and it lit up to symbolize the destruction of caste. I touched the keys on the e-harmonium projected on the wall, and it played the favorite devotional, inspirational hymns of Gandhiji that I so loved.
As I picked crystals in a vat, different scenes from the Salt March were shown: Gandhiji making salt from the ocean; children making salt and giving to Gandhiji as he marched across the country; police brutally hitting and arresting people who were giving away salt because they were defying British law. I entered the e-train and took a virtual discovery tour of India, showing places that Gandhiji had traveled during his quest for independence. The museum represented a spectrum of interdisciplinary artistic collaborations between computer scientists, historians, artists, engineers, craftsmen, musicians, and dancers of all races and religions. It was music to my creative, tech-loving ears.
After our museum visit, I sat down on a bench outside as a rain of tears poured from my eyes. My heart sang “Jana Gana Mana Adhinayak Jai Hai”—the national anthem I had first heard in August 1947 during the independence celebration and then again at the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi.
Every form of freedom has been paid for by the common people who lived to bring it about. Indeed, victory for all often lies in the hands of a few: those like the Mahatma, whose sacrifices took place in the quest for eternal love and freedom.
Manjula Waldron, Ph.D., lives in Palo Alto, Calif. She teaches healthy living classes for Stanford and is a holistic health practitioner.
For details about the Eternal Gandhi museum, visit their website athttp://www.eternalgandhi.org