A HOUSE FOR MR NEHRU

India Today - - CONTENTS - —Alok Rai

ISWUNG BY ANAND BHAWAN LAST Mon­day, pre­par­ing my­self to write about Gi­tan­jali Suren­dran’s “in­ti­mate his­tory” thereof. Since it was both a Mon­day and a pub­lic hol­i­day—Eid-ulZuha—the gates were se­curely locked, so I had no op­tion but to stare at the un­abashedly stylish, stately abode of the Nehrus from a dis­tance. It is a tricky busi­ness, writ­ing an in­ti­mate his­tory of a mon­u­ment—find­ing the right bal­ance be­tween in­ti­macy and mon­u­men­tal­ity, do­ing close-up and long-shot, si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Suren­dran solves (or maybe evades) the prob­lem by writ­ing mainly about the fas­ci­nat­ing lives that were lived here. Of course, this cre­ates prob­lems of its own—the in­ter­sec­tions of do­mes­tic and pub­lic his­tory. But there is no get­ting away from those if one has un­der­taken to write about peo­ple who were—love ’em or hate ’em—larger than life. Through the in­ter­weav­ing lives of the Fam­ily and their dis­tin­guished Friends, Suren­dran paints a pic­ture of a heroic age fad­ing faster than one could have imag­ined. The black-and-white pho­tographs as­sem­bled from the jeal­ously guarded col­lec­tion of the Nehru Me­mo­rial Trust are a fit­ting com­ple­ment to this his­tory. I am some­what baf­fled by the air of in­no­cence that the mere ab­sence of colour con­fers on these fig­ures who were, af­ter all, en­meshed in—and so soiled by—his­tory. But I can’t help notic­ing that this rel­a­tive “mod­esty” is a wel­come coun­ter­point to the rau­cous, tech­ni­colour present.

Suren­dran’s text does not broach the ques­tion of the be­lea­guered Nehru­vian le­gacy and it is, per­haps, just as well. The ‘in­ti­macy’ of her project makes it pos­si­ble to hold to a mainly ‘do­mes­tic’ per­spec­tive, de­spite the scale of the fig­ures who in­habit this his­tory, and the epic events hap­pen­ing barely off-stage—Gandhi’s call for Non-co­op­er­a­tion, the Salt Satya

graha, Quit In­dia. The do­mes­tic de­tails—the high teas and the horses—can barely man­age to hold in check the pub­lic and his­tor­i­cal mat­ters that are prac­ti­cally woven into the fab­ric of these lives.

Suren­dran ac­knowl­edges that Anand Bhawan is more than a house—it rep­re­sents an “idea and not just a place”. And this sen­ti­ment is echoed on a tablet on the rough, un­dressed rock that stands at the head of the drive lead­ing to the great house—more than a struc­ture, it af­firms, Anand Bhawan is a sym­bol of the strug­gle for free­dom. Any con­sid­er­a­tion of the af­ter­life of that ‘idea’—the fate of the Nehru­vian vi­sion, of free­dom and, even, democ­racy—in an in­creas­ingly Sanghi In­dia in which Nehru is the all-pur­pose vil­lain of choice, would have crip­pled the ‘in­ti­mate his­tory’.

A mere re­view can hardly hope to do more, but some­thing hap­pened on my way to the mon­u­ment. Al­most di­rectly op­po­site the Anand Bhawan gate, there is a new­ly­in­au­gu­rated mon­u­ment—a mas­sive statue of the sage Bharadwaj—in the style that might be iden­ti­fied as Gu­ru­gram Grotesque. It is part of the ‘beau­ti­fi­ca­tion’ that was in­flicted on the city of Al­la­habad—per­haps as part of its be­ing re­named Prayagraj. Le­gend has it that Bharadwaj had an ashram on the site and that Rama and his party stopped here on their way from Ay­o­d­hya—and in a coun­try in which ‘faith’ can count as ev­i­dence, who can deny any of it?

Now, the 50-foot Bharadwaj stares at a slab of un­dressed rock and while the lat­ter im­plies a recog­ni­tion of the sym­bolic func­tion, al­low­ing a rock to tell of that for which mere words, mere im­ages, are in­suf­fi­cient, the for­mer is a good ex­am­ple of the in­fan­tile lit­er­al­ism that char­ac­terises ‘New In­dia’—size is the only way of con­vey­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Mine’s big­ger than yours. Af­ter all, since Pa­tel is 200 me­tres tall, we have been promised a Rama who will be even taller. Mer­ci­fully, Bharadwaj is only sit­ting, not stand­ing tall and de­mand­ing what the na­tion needs to know, but there is enough there to sug­gest the ques­tions that Suren­dran, dis­creetly, de­clines. ■

Pho­tographs by ZEUTSCHEL OMNISCAN

ANAND BHAWAN: An In­ti­mate His­tory by Gi­tan­jali Suren­dran Jawa­har­lal Nehru Me­mo­rial Fund `299; 96 pages

A LOST ERA (clock­wise from far left) Moti­lal Nehru in his car, one of the first in Al­la­habad; Jawa­har­lal on of the horses from the Nehru sta­ble; a Nehru fam­ily por­trait taken in Lon­don; and Jawa­har­lal and Gandhi at a po­lit­i­cal meet­ing in Al­la­habad

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