New Delhi, India
September 25, 2011
I’ve been living in Delhi for over 25 years now – we arrived here in October 1985, almost exactly a year after Mrs Gandhi’s death. And it was only recently that I decided to finally visit the Indira Gandhi memorial at 1, Safdarjang Road. This large white house, with its tree-shaded grounds in the heart of New Delhi, was Indira Gandhi’s home for many years. She first came to live here in 1964 after the death of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. In 1965, Mrs Gandhi was appointed the minister for Information & Broadcasting; and the year after that, she became Prime Minister – a post she held till 1977. Throughout this period, she lived at 1 Safdarjang Road. When she again became PM in 1980, she shifted back, and lived on here until that day in 1984, when, walking across to the neighbouring house (1, Akbar Road, where she was scheduled to give an interview to the BBC), she was assassinated by her own body guards.
Indira Gandhi’s house has been converted into a museum and memorial now. We visited on a Saturday and got in line behind a throng of tourists, many of them from rural and small-town India (at any given time during the day, you will almost certainly see at least 2 or 3 tourist buses parked outside – the memorial is one of Delhi’s top sights). The line moved fast, thankfully, past the security barrier at the gate. But, once inside the house, things became stifling. With dozens of people milling around, pushing and shoving and jostling to get a better view at the exhibits, this turned out to be an unpleasant experience.
Not that the museum itself is bad. In fact, it is good. What I particularly liked was the fact that they’ve concentrated on using visuals to ‘talk’ about Indira Gandhi, rather than the more common Indian concept of huge panels of text that you need to read through. There are bits of text, of course – reproductions, mainly, of newspapers headlines from across India and the world pertaining to Mrs Gandhi: her coming to power; the important decisions she took; her assassination; and so on. But the bulk of the display consists of things. Photographs are predominant. There’s the little girl with Mahatma Gandhi (no relative of hers, by the way: it just so happened that a grown-up Indira Nehru married a man named Feroze Gandhi). There’s Indira as an attractive young woman, her short hair blowing in the breeze. Or an even younger woman, posing in a studio. Or with her relatives: her parents, Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru; her young sons, Rajiv and Sanjay; and an especially sweet one of her as the doting grandmother playing with a pint-sized Priyanka Gandhi, their hands linked together as they whirl around on a lawn.
There are, of course, dozens of photos of Mrs Gandhi, the politician and stateswoman: on tour in India; at press conferences and international summit-level meetings; with presidents and other Prime Ministers; going about her work as the leader of a troubled nation plagued by a million problems.
Also on display are Mrs Gandhi’s possessions – there are, for instance, knitting needles stuck through a ball of crimson wool; a small metal box crowded with colourful papier maché vegetables; a portable scrabble board… there is a wooden box gifted to her by her husband Feroze; he had carved it himself. And, fittingly, there are photos of Indira and Feroze’s wedding in 1942 (he died of a heart attack 18 years later, in 1960). Alongside the wedding photographs are wedding memorabilia: the copper utensils used by the priests at the ceremony, and more interesting, Indira’s wedding sari, which was woven from yarn that had been spun by Jawaharlal Nehru while he was imprisoned for anti-colonial activities.
To me, these were the most interesting sections of the museum; to the bulk of the visitors, the central attraction seems to be a more gruesome sari: the one Mrs Gandhi had been wearing when she was killed. It’s been carefully folded (and possibly washed? – we couldn’t see any obvious bloodstains, though the cloth itself is a dull rust), and has been draped on a platform, along with the shoes she was wearing and the bag she was carrying.
Adjacent to these galleries are a few of the rooms, as they were in Mrs Gandhi’s days: her dining room, her drawing room (where she played host to people like Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Margaret Thatcher et al), her bed room and study, and even her prayer room.
Beyond these rooms, are a couple of rooms dedicated to Mrs Gandhi’s elder son (and successor as PM), Rajiv Gandhi. Besides being a politician, Rajiv Gandhi was also a trained airline pilot, a keen photographer, and an amateur radio operator. The galleries devoted to him are full of personal memorabilia: drawings by the child Rajiv (some very cute ones, here, all haywire, of the Indian national flag); photos of a young and very-much-in-love Rajiv and his Italian-born wife Sonia; photos of Rajiv as PM; and photos by Rajiv. These were among my favourites: this man was a brilliant photographer, and there are some fabulous photos of wildlife (a snarling tiger, for instance), nature (landscapes in Ladakh) and people, on display.
The unsettling part of the display was the set of clothes (washed, but torn to bits) that Rajiv Gandhi had been wearing when he was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991.
Once you’re outside the rooms, you follow a paved path which leads from the house through the lawns – the route Indira Gandhi would take every morning before office to walk to 1 Akbar Road for meetings. This route ends at a section that’s been paved with crystal (it looked more like plastic to me) ‘to symbolise a river’. Near the end, covered with clear glass, is the spot where Mrs Gandhi was killed. It’s constantly guarded, so you can’t, even if you’ve a taste for the gruesome, go have a peek.
Entry to the memorial, museum and grounds are free and there are no restrictions on photography. No eatables or drinks are allowed inside. Weekends, at least, are terribly crowded; I would imagine weekdays (between Tuesday and Friday, since the memorial is closed on Mondays) might be a little less busy.
From journal Delhi: Some Museums, Some Memorials