(First published on NewsYaps)
To say that the Gandhi’s are not popular on the Internet would be stating the obvious. Rahul Gandhi is probably the most ridiculed person on Twitter and every few days or so, the pappu tag starts trending as Modi supporters up the ante. His mother doesn’t get off too easily either. I see material constantly popping up on my Facebook feed which purports to prove that Sonia Gandhi is not an Indian Citizen (or has became one illegally), that she lied about her Cambridge education (a line of attack that is also used on her son), she had KGB links, she has links to Quattrocchi and even posts which, in typical Indian fashion, make fun of the fact that she once held a job as a waitress—a recent status by stand-up “comic” Rivaldo is: “Rupee crosses 64! Well that's what happens when an Economist takes orders from a Waitress!”
Of course, as the full page ads on Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary show, social media does not elect our rulers. Whether the twitterati like it or not, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is a curiously popular political force in the country.
Keeping all of this in mind, on a recent trip to Allahabad, I decided to pop into the Nehru-Gandhi's ancestral residence, Anand Bhawan, just to see where all of this began.
My adventure, though, started even before I arrived in the city. Air India uses an ancient ATR 42 propeller aircraft to cover the Delhi-Allahabad route. The plane was literally falling apart: a few of the overhead storage boxes didn’t shut and the seat I got didn’t have the pocket in front for storing books or phones or what have you. While I didn’t complain too much, another lady had a proper row over cockroaches on the flight, one of which, rather dramatically, scurried onto her food while she was eating. Shrug.
Allahabad airport is probably the smallest airport there is and just about as big as your average office. It achieves this by doing away with needless luxuries such as, er... conveyer belts. Charmingly, your luggage is brought to you by attendants on carts. An insipid sign in front of the only office proclaims, “Hindi hain hum, watan hain Hindostan Hamara” proudly declaring that the verse is by “Sir Mohammed Iqbal”. Indian transporters, it seems, have a particular fascination for this line—I’ve seen it painted on railway carriages as well.
The journey from the airport to the hotel was just as eventful, conducted as it was in an auto with an extremely odd mix of religion and sappy romance. The vehicle was plastered with golden 786’s, a large painting of the Buraq, the mythological flying horse of Islam as well as the word aashique bookended with a pair of large, pink bulbous hearts.
Allahabad is precisely the sort of place for which Indian English had to coin the word “mofussil”. Dusty, congested roads, crumbling buildings and a refreshing lack of drainage; yep, Allahabad fits the Hindi-heartland-small-town template to the hilt. In all of this dust, heat and general North Indian small town-ness, though, rise the magnificent Indo-Saracenic spires of Allahabad University. I’ve grown up in Calcutta and lived in Bombay, so when I say that this was the most amazing specimen of the architecture I’ve seen, you know it’s a big deal. An extremely tall gothic tower next to a huge Islamicate dome flecked with the remains of blue glazed tiles, the grandeur of (the now decrepit) Allahabad University harks back to a past somewhat rosier past than the present for this city.
It was 1877 and Allahabad was sort of a boomtown. The British had just set up a new province, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (which corresponds to modern UP) and, with it, made Allahabad its capital. To practise in this new capital, and its new high court, arrived Nandlal Nehru, elder brother of Motilal Nehru. Academically brilliant, Motilal also set up a roaring practise as a barrister in due course of time. In 1900, to show off his new found wealth, Motilal bought a veritable mansion in the European quarter of the city and named it Anand Bhavan. Both his son and his granddaughter grew up in this house. In the next half century or so, this house remained the hub of Indian politics given that both Motilal and his son were major Congress politicians. Fittingly, given her role in cementing the role of dynasty in Indian politics, Indira Gandhi turned Anand Bhawan into a museum to the memory of the Nehru-Gandhi’s.
Anand Bhawan is an oasis of peace in an otherwise noisy city. Primly manicured lawns house the large blue and white mansion. The structure is surrounded by a verandah which once, no doubt, had khas curtains to cool the Nehrus in the oppressive North Indian summer. Two storeys high, Anand Bhavan is topped off with a large chhatri on the terrace—a perfect spot for lounging about during the evening, I would think.
The main house has had its rooms frozen in time, and apart from the opulence, there really isn’t much to see. Nehru might or might not have been an extraordinary man, but his bedroom is rather ordinary, populated as it is with a bed (!), books and other such mundanities of daily life. The museum also takes great care to mark out parts of the house where “Gandhiji spent his evenings”, the exact spot where Feroze and Indira got married or the platform on which Nehru’s ashes were kept. It’s a testament to the Indian capacity for hero-worship that this sort of material actually makes up a whole museum. Of course, there was more to come.
The outhouse is more of a conventional museum, mostly populated with photos. A particular gem was a display of “Jawaharlal Nehru in different moods” which shows the man, as promised, in different moods: seriously walking out to bat, laughing at a joke, serenely staring into the distance and so on. There’s also a genealogical chart of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has serious potential to embarrass. Did you, for example know that Rahul has a distant aunt who is called ‘Meenu’? Or an uncle called “Chunmun”? Or that a certain Nehru-Gandhi’s first name is “Lolita”?
The museum, like every other, also has its own souvenir shop where you can buy a range of metal key-chains embossed with the faces of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Because that’s what you need to be cool: an Indira Gandhi keychain.
The only thing that actually caught my attention in the souvenir shop was a reproduction of the wedding card of Indira’s and Feroze’s wedding. It started off with an invitation in both Hindi as well as Urdu and then, interestingly, went on to describe the Hindu wedding ceremonies in great detail. Nehru, it might be noted, was against the marriage of Indira to Feroze, a Parsi born in Bombay. Personally, his objection had nothing to do with Feroze’s religion but was more to do with the fact that Feroze was, not to put too fine a point on it, a loser. He did not have a university degree, was unemployed and had no source of steady income. That said, however, Nehru was aware of the political objections such an inter-religious match could generate, given his role as India’s leading politician. Indeed, when news leaked out of the impending marriage, the backlash was furious. Many years later, Indira recalled how it seemed that “the whole country was against it” at the time. To counter this, Nehru had to issue a public statement, clarifying his stand in favour of the marriage. And to strengthen his protégé’s hand, so did Gandhi, explicitly supporting the marriage. To further lessen the fallout, the ceremony was kept unambiguously Hindu although, at the time, British Indian law did not recognize a marriage between two people of different faiths (even today, it’s extremely difficult). The wedding card it seemed, acted as an advertisement, broadcasting the Hindu-ness of the wedding. As luck would have it, many years later, this would come in handy as Maneka Gandhi challenged her mother-in-law’s status as a Hindu in court in a dispute over Sanjay Gandhi’s property. Since she had married a Parsi, Maneka argued, Indira was not a Hindu anymore. As proof of her being a Hindu, Indira’s explicitly Vedic wedding was presented as clinching evidence.
Photo montages of Nehru which much like Filmfare would carry of your reigning superstar, key chains with faces of Indira and Rajiv and genealogical charts of the whole Family, Anand Bhavan isn’t in the slightest bit apologetic about praising, what is after all only a family, to the skies. In some ways, that’s not surprising; Indians are hardly subtle when it comes to hero-worship. But it did leave me with a vague sense of unease, even foreboding, as the museum reminds us of the rather solid position dynasty has in politics and just how much power it had—and still has—over India.