Mahatma Gandhi was a lifelong admirer of Bengal’s nationalists. Rabindranath Tagore and he were mutual admirers; in fact, it was the former who bestowed upon him the moniker of ‘Mahatma’ in a letter to him.
On August 15, 1947, the day when millions all over the country welcomed with open arms the dawn of a new era, Mahatma Gandhi was in Kolkata (then called Calcutta), fasting in an effort quell possible communal riots. Hyderi Manzil, now christened Gandhi Bhavan, in Beliaghata was the place he chose for his stay. The house belonged to HS Suhrawardy, the former prime minister of the province of Bengal.
The period around the partition of India was a time of riotous conflagration in many places; if not in reality, the possibility was always rife. So was the case in Kolkata and some surrounding areas. In 1947, the balance of power in Bengal had shifted from the Muslim to the Indian National Congress, and Suhrawardy feared a massacre of Muslims by Hindus (after all, the Great Calcutta Killings were just a year old). To prevent this, he invited Gandhi to Kolkata.
For the Mahatma, whose lifelong dream had been to see an independent and united India, the very thought of partitioning the country was like a dreadful dream. And yet, the larger political maelstrom of the times forced him to eat the bitter pill of partition.
The gate leading to Hyderi Manzil, now called Gandhi Bhavan (Indrajit Das/bongblogger.com)
Gandhiji at Hyderi Manzil
Gandhi had originally planned to proceed to Noakhali to prevent any riots, as the place had suffered from massive communal violence just the previous October-November. But Suhrawardy requested him to stay back in Kolkata for the time being.
The Mahatma relented on the condition that Suhrawardy would join him under the same roof in this mission till every Hindu and Muslim was safe. He purposely chose to stay in a predominantly Muslim locality. The choice fell on Hyderi Manzil located near a slum called Miabagan in Beliaghata, then a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood.
Gandhiji moved to Hyderi Manzil on August 13, 1947. He faced angry demonstrators with black flags and slogans of “Go back Gandhi” at the house while Suhrawardy was kept back. He was accused by them of being friendly with the Muslims. When August 15 ushered in the new dawn of freedom, the Mahatma was spending the day fasting and praying at this house. The house became a sort of ‘holy pilgrimage’ as many came to see him.
August 31 saw violence flaring up once again and Gandhiji undertook his 73-hour-long life-threatening fast between September 1 and 4. Sanity returned, finally, on September 7, 1947, after which Gandhiji left for Delhi.
The room where Mahatma Gandhi stayed (Indrajit Das/bongblogger.com)
Thus, Mahatma Gandhi spent 25 days in Hyderi Manzil. According to Manu Gandhi, the Mahatma’s niece, the house was a shabby one, open on all sides and easily accessible to outsiders. The doors and windows were all broken and there was only one toilet which was being used by hundreds of people including visitors, volunteers and policemen. Every inch was covered with dust; the rains made the passages muddy while the bleaching powder sprinkled to make the place habitable left behind an acrid smell causing discomfort to everybody. There was only one room where everybody and everything had to be accommodated including Gandhiji, his guests and his luggage.
The Mahatma’s belongings (Indrajit Das/bongblogger.com)
A monument to the Mahatma
Today, Hyderi Manzil is surrounded by a high wall, and the steps are paved with marble. The large central hall has a fresco, painted by students of Visva-Bharati University, on the communal killings in Kolkata during 1946-47. In the next room is a museum where several rare photographs on the same theme and also on Gandhiji’s stay at Hyderi Manzil are displayed.
Among the rare exhibits are arms surrendered at the Mahatma’s feet after his fast-unto-death to quell communal violence, photographs of Gandhiji discussing the communal issues with Suhrawardy, Sarat Bose and other eminent personalities, pictures of Gandhiji’s visit to the riot-affected Noakhali, facsimiles of Gandhiji’s letters, and several photographs and newspaper clippings related to riot-hit Kolkata.
A glass enclosure contains the bed, bedsheet, mattress, slippers, pillow, lantern and charkhas used by Gandhiji during his stay.
For the past many years, the Purba Kalikata Gandhi Smarak Samiti – a group of dedicated Gandhians – has been undertaking the responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of this historical edifice. The organisation also runs a charitable clinic and a school for the underprivileged children in association with Economic Rural Development Society.
The three wise men, as per Gandhiji’s teachings (Indrajit Das/bongblogger.com)
Hyderi Manzil (Gandhi Bhavan)
150B Dr Suresh Chandra Banerjee Road (opposite Alochhaya Cinema)
Open: Monday to Saturday, from 11 am to 5 pm
Entry Fee: Nil
With excerpts from an article published in kolkataonwheels.com
Lead image: Hyderi Manzil (Indrajit Das/bongblogger.com)