It is six kilometres from the Gateway of India where a phalanx of BJP leaders joined the clamour to mark the 100th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa, but Sir Mangaldas House might as well be on another planet. On January 14, 1915, days after his return, according to a report in the Bombay Chronicle, Gandhi attended a “garden party” on the grounds of Mangaldas House. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, as chairman of the Gurjar Sabha, presided. Gandhi would go on to give his thank you speech in Gujarati, his first public protest on Indian soil as he would later note in his autobiography.
Mangaldas House still stands, a nondescript building just off Lamington Road. The lush gardens are now the Imperial Cinema that specialises in smut. The setting of that garden party around a “coronation arch” built in the late 1890s in honour of King Edward featuring magnificent stone elephants with hollow eyes that could be lit up with lamps at dusk is now a garage, one eight-foot elephant casting a lonely gaze on the mechanics, their implements lying in the hollow of its belly. There is no plaque, nothing to reveal the locality’s contribution to history. “I remember playing on the steps alongside the elephant as a child,” says Nitin Mangaldas, in his sixties now. But Mangaldas House is not the only slice of history lost to Mumbai’s marauding growth.
Hira Baug, a dharmshala , is a short walk from Mangaldas House. Again, though there’s a plaque announcing the name of a police chief who planted a tree inside the compound, there’s nothing to announce that Gandhi gave his first speech upon his return to India in this hall.
Close by, in Khetwadi, are the Vanita Vishram school and Bhagini Samaj. One of Gandhi’s January 1915 speeches was at Bhagini Samaj. A third building in the row of ‘Arab Buildings’ was razed in the mid-1990s. Gandhi would return to these institutions in subsequent years, most likely at their current locations. But there is nothing here to commemorate those events.
The Mahatma’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi points out that other places have been lost to history too, including the Girgaum or Charni Road apartment that was home to Gandhi in 1902 when he was trying to establish himself as a lawyer in the Bombay bar.
“Low-lying, mosquito-infested, polluted Girgaum all but killed his son Manilal,” Stanley Wolpert writes, describing a typhoid bout the child suffered, before the barrister moved to a bungalow in Santacruz. Tushar Gandhi says there is no trace of that Santacruz home either. Efforts to trace Petit House on Peddar Road, the bungalow of JN Petit where Gandhi was given a welcome party, also yielded nothing.
Barely a couple of kilometres from Mani Bhavan in Gamdevi, there is nothing at here to reveal their little role in history. Tushar Gandhi says while many places have been lost with no records offering any hope of them ever being found. “The canonisation of the person is on in full swing, but that person’s history is being obliterated cleverly, and there is an apathy to preserving that history. That’s not true of only Bapu, though,” he says.
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