“WHEN GANDHIJI started out on the salt march, there were 78 people with him. But when he reached Dandi, there were 3,500. The maulana of the Dawoodi Bohras offered him his residence, Saifee Villa, to stay. It was the only concrete structure on Dandi beach. Gandhiji told him, ‘You might get into trouble’. The maulana (the late Syedna Taher Saifuddin) replied, ‘I am not bothered’.”
The road to Dandi from Navsari town is lined by neem and mango trees along fields of paddy and sugarcane, with shrimp farms in between. It ends at a wooden gate that opens to Saifee Villa, where a plaque at the steps displays a faded photo of Mahatma Gandhi picking salt. Inside, there’s a buzz in the air. Ramanbhai Solanki is guiding a group of 15 tourists from Mumbai through the double-storeyed building from where Gandhi stepped out and picked up a handful of raw salt, a few metres away from where the beach began, to symbolically break the British Salt Act. The sea has receded nearly a kilometre since that day, on April 6, 1930.
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“In school, when we read about Dandi and the salt march, we would exclaim, ‘This is right here’, and feel so proud,” says Solanki. Tuesday marked the 150th birth anniversary year of the Mahatma. At Saifee Villa, apart from the faded photographs of that day 88 years ago, Solanki is the voice of that first major act of civil disobedience in India’s freedom struggle. He is also the face of Swachh Bharat, the cleanliness programme launched four years ago in Gandhi’s memory.
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Solanki is not just the guide at Saifee Villa, that’s unofficial. He is officially a Safai Kamdar, in charge of keeping the premises clean, leading and joining a team of 12 workers hired from a private agency, every day. The Swachhata Shapath (cleanliness pledge) is pasted on the roll call register. “I live by it. When I see litter, I don’t think someone will clear it, I do it myself,” he says. Solanki’s work starts at 6.30 am when he cleans the villa before opening it for visitors by 8.30 am. Then, he takes the roll call of the cleaners hired in June.
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From 8.30 am to 11 am, as workers sweep and clean the premises, Solanki dusts the photographs, about 50 of them, and the 36 windows and 16 doors. He also sweeps and mops the villa and waters the garden. After lunch, he moves to the garden with a large, blue plastic bin, meticulously picking up garbage.
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By sundown, he lights a lamp before a photograph of Gandhi and Kasturba before closing the museum. “I am extremely fortunate that despite being a common man, I get this opportunity to serve Bapu and Ba. Without going to Kashi-Mathura, I have got the blessings of saints,” he says. Home is a one-room kitchen set next door where Solanki lives with wife Jasoben (47), mother Laxmiben (75), and his nephew whom the couple adopted, and his wife and child.
Born in Dandi, Solanki dropped out of school after Class VIII and worked as a welder, a chauffeur, an autorickshaw driver, and a “caretaker” under the Archaeological Survey of India for Rs 3,000 a month until the ASI handed over the villa’s management to the Gujarat government in 2013. The five years since, until this January, were the “toughest” of his life, says Solanki. He had the keys to the villa but no earnings. “My wife and I did odd jobs. But this house ran on what my mother earned from working at the homes of NRIs in Dandi and the dargah run by the Bohra trust nearby,” he says. In January, the Navsari administration hired him as a Safai Kamdar on contract, with money from a monthly cheque of Rs 5,200 going to his Jan Dhan account.
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In many ways, Solanki’s journey mirrors that of Saifee Villa, which is emerging from years of disrepair caused by red tape over management, involving the ASI, the Information Bureau and the Navsari district collectorate. This year, with the ASI taking up renovation work, it is getting a new lease of life. Painters are busy giving final touches to the walls and floors, the noise drowning the cries of peacocks from Dandi village, home to around 1,200 residents, mostly NRIs. About 500 metres away, the Dandi memorial project under the Ministry of Culture is underway.
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JCBs, tractors and water tankers trundle in and out of the site, as children of migrant workers play at the site where Gandhi once rattled the British.
The villa still carries marks of the past. Projector film reels lie outside along with faded and stained photos of the Dandi yatra. In the courtyard, pieces of broken furniture share space with stacks of dusty, mounted black-and-white frames.
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The two toilets, both on the first floor, are broken down; one has been turned into a scrapyard. “When visitors ask for the washroom now, I take them to my home. I also offer them drinking water,” says Solanki. During the uncertain years that followed 2013, he says, tourists would ask him why the villa was closed — and that’s when he became a guide, too. “I cleaned and arranged the photographs and opened the museum daily for the 200-300 visitors. I would show them around… Every time there was an event, I would be asked to seek out those who participated in the freedom movement. I would listen to their accounts, and that’s how I put together my Dandi story,” says Solanki.
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Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Dandi on April 5, 1930, after a 388-km march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, with 22 halts on the way. In Dandi, (the late) Syedna Tahir Saifuddin, the religious leader of Bohra Muslims, offered him his bungalow, Saifee Villa, to spend the night. On the morning of April 6, Gandhi stepped out to pick up a handful of raw salt to symbolically break the British Salt Act. The British law had termed salt reclamation from the sea as illegal and imposed a tax on production. On April 6, 1961, when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Dandi, the Syedna handed over the villa to be designated as a national memorial.
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