On the eve of 15 August 1947, as independence dawned and the Union Jack was being lowered to make way for the tricolour, Mahatma Gandhi was in Calcutta, at a residential property known as Hyderi Manzil. At the time it was an empty, somewhat rundown, white-washed bungalow in Beliaghata, a neighbourhood in northern Calcutta with an equal mix of Muslim and Hindu residents.
Gandhiji arrived there on the 13th of August, and stayed for about a month. The owner of the bungalow was Mrs Hoosaina Bengali who inherited the property from her father Shaikh Adam who himself had bought the property in 1923.
The Bengali family are members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, many of whom had settled in Calcutta in the 1800s arriving mainly from Surat and are today settled in different parts of the world. The family was approached by intermediaries with the prospect of Gandhiji’s stay owing to the strategic location of Hyderi Manzil, and they readily agreed to play host to the revered leader.
Arif and Abbas Bengali, brothers, interior designers and two of Hoosaina’s grandchildren say that the bungalow was usually used as a family retreat. In keeping with the custom of the time, it was in the vicinity of a pukur (pond). A pond would ensure that water was readily available for a variety of domestic purposes. Abbas recalls that the family used to affectionately call the property bageecha (garden) because of its verdant atmosphere. Although the house was not used for residential purposes, it was ritually opened every year in Muharram for the taziya and remembrance of the martyrdom of Imam Husain AS, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed SAW and on other private occasions such as family gatherings. ‘The property even had a family graveyard in its precincts,’ says Arif.
Dr Aquil Busrai, a well known HR executive based out of Delhi, is a distant family relative who shared some memorable and intimate details about Gandhiji’s stay shared with him by his mother.
‘He [Gandhiji] used to wake up early in the morning, wash his own clothes and hang them up to dry. Once, it so happened that Gandhiji was seen sweeping the floor of the hall. A shocked family member asked,
‘Bapu, why are you doing this? It is embarrassing for us!’ To which he replied, ‘One should do one’s own work.’
Another point of reminiscence was his conduct with his hosts, whom he used to thank each and every day. This left them astounded, honoured and proud at having had the opportunity to serve such a great yet humble man.
Dr Busrai would ask his mother, somewhat despairingly, why she did not acquire any small article, such as a pencil or a pair of sandals used by Gandhiji as a memento? She would reply that at such times, the mind becomes numb with other preoccupations and tends not to think about such things. She also mentioned Gandhiji’s habit of using things as long and as far as possible, citing the example of his pencil which would be in use even though all that remained of it was a small stub.
Gandhiji stayed in Hyderi Manzil for 25 days and two days after his arrival, on August 15th, he spent the day fasting and praying in response to the ongoing communal violence. In no time, Hyderi Manzil turned into the most visited house in the city with students, politicians and intellectuals pouring in to meet him. But the initial peace that his efforts had brought about was short-lived. Violence erupted again on the 31st of August and Gandhiji went on an indefinite fast the next day, saying the unrest had to stop for good. He did not give in to requests from West Bengal Governor C Rajagopalachari. Finally, on 4th September, some leaders of the warring groups came to him and surrendered their weapons at his feet. After spending 25 days at Hyderi Manzil, Gandhiji left for Delhi on September 7.
Little did anyone know at the time that this would be one of his final services to the nation, for he would be assasinated only a few months later.
Today, Hyderi Manzil has been converted into a museum and renamed Gandhi Bhavan, in honour of the Mahatma. Renovated in the same style, visitors are enveloped by the nation’s history as they visit this historic building. It continues to evoke memories of a man who, through his simple and unassuming methods, inspired the consciousness of a nation. The house, therefore, is truly a national treasure.