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Gandhi Ashram redevelopment project: ‘Have lot of memories at Ashram but don’t regret moving out’

Mahendra Vyas, an ayurveda doctor working at a hospital run by a private trust in Shahibaug area of Ahmedabad, was one of the oldest living on the ashram set up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917.

Mahendra Vyas says the younger generation at the Ashram is least interested in living the Gandhian way of life. (Express Photo)

Mahendra Vyas, 74, born a year after India attained independence in 1947, clearly remembers Parikshitlal Majumdar, president of the Gujarat Harijan Sevak Sangh, among other ashramites living in the then Harijan Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river.

He remembers the ashram without electricity or sewage, having one toilet for all and one tap at the gate near Hriday Kunj from where they would fill drinking water.

“Because of his work with Dalits under the influence of Gandhi, Majmudar’s Brahmin family ousted him for years. A man with a towering personality, he would always be seen in a khadi loin cloth, a khadi shirt and a Gandhi cap, carrying a blue khadi bag with him. He would begin his day by visiting the homes of Dalits in the Ashram,” recalls Vyas, who was among the residents of the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati who moved out taking a compensation of Rs 60 lakh to make way for the Rs 1,200-crore Gandhi Ashram Redevelopment Project.

Vyas, an ayurveda doctor working at a hospital run by a private trust in Shahibaug area of Ahmedabad, was one of the oldest living on the ashram set up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917.

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His father Natvarlal was brought to the Ashram from Shahpur area by senior Gandhian Laxmidas Ashar in 1928 to attend to the medical requirements of ashram residents. Natvarlal was operating a clinic in Shahpur area under the guidance of a doctor for a long time. Vyas and his family were living in the colony opposite the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust (SAPMT) where Gandhi and Kasturba lived till March 1930.

Till Class 5, Vyas studied at the boys school in the Ashram campus where spinning and weaving was compulsory. The school is now run by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).

Vyas rues the fact that the younger generation living in the Ashram is least interested in living the Gandhian way of life, incorporating spinning of the wheel or practice of community cleaning.

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“We used to sit on the floor on a mat with a ‘dhaliyu’ (a small wooden writing desk) for writing. There would be a lesson on Gandhiji on his birth anniversary and the first thing we were told was that he was son of a Diwan and got us independence,” says Vyas.

Later, he studied at Gujarat Vidyapith and subsequently got his degree in Ayurveda from Akhandanand Ayurvedic College, Ahmedabad. His wedding in the Ashram also was a unique affair. All of 18, he married Indiraben from Fatehnagar (the area now near Paldi in Ahmedabad city) at the Ashram in 1966.

Vyas says, “It was the month of December. Our wedding took place at night. Many of Ashram-wasis — Muslims, Dalits, Patels etc. — were part of the baraat. While I went in a car that my father got from one of his friends, the baraatis went by a public bus. A day before the wedding, we hosted all the Ashramwasis over a meal in the ashram.”

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The family has now moved to a flat in Gota area of the city, some eight kilometres away.

“During those days, a lot of importance was given to Gandhian values of cleanliness, spinning and weaving, eradication of untouchability, communal harmony, non-violence, girl education, etc. We used to clean the toilets and Ashram streets ourselves. And the prayers in the morning (5.30 am) and evening (6.45 pm) were very important. Due to laziness, I used to skip the morning prayer on many occasions but would attend the evening prayer regularly,” said Vyas.

Vyas specifically recollects the celebration of 12 days during Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary as Gandhi Parva (festival) as per the Hindu calendar. There would be cultural programmes where plays related to Gandhian values would be shown.

“I remember going to various villages along with a projector to show the film, Sujata, to the villagers around Ahmedabad. The film had a message on untouchability. During those 12 days, people from the Ashram would team up and ensure that at least one spinning wheel is spun 24×7,” says Vyas who has seen noted Gandhians such as Vinoba Bhave, Laxmidas Ashar, Parikshitlal Majmudar and Dahyabhai Nayak working at the Ashram.

“I remember Parikshitbhai called me ‘bako’ my pet name, and asked about my studies emphasising how without education there was no future,” says Vyas.

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All the action and celebrations were centred around Hriday Kunj, the quarters of Gandhi and Kasturba. But over the past 10-15 years, fewer ashramwasis are participating in events, says Vyas. “Students from primary school and PTC college and other people come to the Ashram during Independence Day or Republic Day, but not the Ashramwasis,” he adds.

With changing times and uprgraded technology, the Ashram life has also undergone a lot of changes, like the task of cleaning toilets stopped with the coming of flushes.

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Vyas regularly spuns the charkha, his only son Ritesh, 49, can spin, too, but Rutvik (his grandson), 24, does not know spinning or weaving. “This is the situation everywhere in the Ashram; Somehow those values have not been inculcated in them. The values have been preserved, but its following has gone down a lot,” says Vyas.

There have, however been some positive changes: “In the past, Ashramwasis had to make efforts to make people enrol their children, specially girls, in (primary) school and college in the Ashram. But now awareness about education has increased so much and people enrol their children in school and college on their own. The PTC college of girls at the Ashram is considered one of the best in the state and people are eager to get admission there. That is one very bright change that we have seen over the years at the Ashram,” he says.

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Vyas, who left the Ashram premises last year, does not regret moving out of the esteemed address. “There are loads of memories of living in the ashram. When I was leaving my home one last time, all those memories played in front of my eyes like a film.”

First published on: 15-08-2022 at 12:51:23 am
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