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A house for Mr Nehru

Soutik Biswas | 11:23 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Anand BhavanIndians have a strange relationship with their past. On the one hand, there is a wilful neglect of it and all it has to offer - witness the decaying and defiled monuments and their illiterate, myth-making guides, the grimy temples infested with extortionist priests, the derelict libraries and their rotting archives. On the other hand, there are Stalinist-like celebrations of the past through insufferably dull and routine remembrances of say, birth and death anniversaries of leaders and events.

The thought returns to me as I walk up to Anand Bhavan, the ancestral home of the Nehru-Gandhi family and Allahabad's most famous landmark. The walls of India's most historic residence are plastered with ugly posters advertising private tutorials of every kind - another pointer to how a shady private sector is highjacking education in the country after politicians allowed the public education system to crumble by choking it of funds. Vendors sell juice and ice cream outside the gates ("One ounce gives extra bounce," promises the Jolly ice cream cart). Even a part of the gate has not been spared the posters.

Thankfully, the neglect does not extend beyond the walls. The mansion where both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were born looks elegant. Small gardens wrap around the house in an embrace and visitors walk in an orderly manner.

Walking up the cool, oil painted stairway and coming out into the long, mosaic-floored corridors of Anand Bhavan is just the beginning of a history lesson on India. The museum points to an engaged first family of India's independence struggle. And the belongings of Jawaharlal Nehru point to a man of letters and taste, almost an unlikely candidate to dirty his hands fighting colonial rule.

There's his foot warmer made of China clay, spare buttons, a cyclo-style machine "which was used by Nehru to print and publish anti-British literature", and regulation Nehru jackets. There's also a glass flask, a samovar, a London motor car licence, an electric shaver, a blotting roller, vinyl records and even a tennis racket. His wife, Kamla's vermillon lies in a small bottle.

The stately study and bedrooms are stacked with books in handsome looking shelves. They point to a man who read voraciously and went on to write beautifully. There's HG Wells' The New World and books on the "wild tribes of Afghan frontier".Jawaharlal Nehru's picture in Anand Bhavan

Two pieces of memorabilia stand out in this museum. One is a copy of Nehru's wedding card. It announces the nuptials on 7 February 1916 with the words "An answer will oblige" in the right hand bottom corner. It hints at simpler, more civil times.

The other is a conviction handed out to the leader and "11 other volunteers" - the judge sentenced them to six months "simple imprisonment" for "manufacture of contraband salt". (Indians were prohibited from making salt by their British rulers so that imported salt could be sold.) The date of conviction is 14 April 1931. The clinching evidence: one packet containing salt.

I bump into a girl from Gujarat in the museum. Her name is Kumud. She is Telugu, hailing from southern Andhra Pradesh state, but has lived most of her life in Gujarat where her father worked as a geophysicist examining the quality of groundwater. Kumud is studying to be a homeopathic doctor. This is her first visit to the museum.

I ask her what struck her most about the place.

"Oh, it's the sophistication of the way of life they led here. From the grand building to the book-lined rooms, it is all very sophisticated. This is a place where thinking people lived," she said.

What did she think of Jawaharlal Nehru, I continue.

"Nehru worked for the country. Not like today's politicians who work only for themselves. We got freedom because of politicians like Nehru. You can't even compare today's leaders with anybody like Nehru." On the way out I pass crowds waiting to get into the house. Even if Nehru's legacy fades in Allahabad, he lives on in the hearts of ordinary Indians. The crowds at Anand Bhavan say it all.

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