CHENNAI: Gandhi statue on the Marina Beach, Gandhi Mandapam at Adyar and Ambujammal Street on Alwarpet. These are a few historical markers in the city that celebrate the Father of our Nation, but have they faded to be mere landmarks for traffic navigation? CE talks to historians.
“Mostly, the people who talk fondly about Gandhi are above 50 years old. The current generation must have heard the name and probably knows a few details, but there is no emotional connect. For example, Ambujammal Street in Alwarpet houses Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam where Gandhi’s ashes were buried. But, you ask a passerby and they know nothing about it. The place is almost desolate now. Ambujammal was a staunch disciple of Gandhi who used to live in the street, which was later named after her,” said writer and historian Nivedita Louis.
Truly so, when CE visited Ambujammal Street and asked a passerby about the significance of this spot, he said, “Nobody knows what happens inside, neither do I. I don’t see anyone going inside. Going by the name, I think they teach Gandhian principles.”
Nivedita pointed out that this is the mistake of the education system which has only carried Gandhi’s message as a text. “His principles have to touch people on a psychological or intellectual plane. It is sad to note that we have carried forward Gandhi’s history, but not messages from his life to the next generation. Probably, after two to three generations, nobody will even remember him,” she said.
It is not the mistake of the current generation, but the earlier generation which did not make an effort to keep Gandhi relevant enough or keep information about him in every place, emphasised historian V Sriram.
“Today, we talk about Swachh Bharat. When Gandhi came to Madras in the 1930s, he classified our city as the dirtiest city as he found men standing and defecating at every compound wall. Gandhi felt he should take a broom and begin cleaning the walls of Chennai. It was an early exhortation to become Swachh Bharat. Most of his principles are relevant today,” he insisted.
An erstwhile landmark called Gandhi Peak on Pycrofts Road is nowhere to be seen now. Another marker, the Gandhi Kanda Kanavu, where it is said Gandhi thought of the Satyagraha movement, stands outside Welcom Hotel. Here too, passersby said they did not know anything about the historical importance or his thoughts and principles.
“Gandhi tried to solve the labour crisis in Binny Mills at Pulianthope. It was one of the early interventions of a national leader in local problems. Gandhi had a lot of connections and we have all forgotten it. We should have created a sense of thanksgiving for what Gandhi has done and that is lacking,” said Sriram.
But a few historians see a ray of hope — a slow movement towards awareness about Gandhi and others who fought for India’s independence. “I accept there is a long way to go. But, with the younger generation in Tamil Nadu more actively involved in politics in recent times, they are striving to know the history to find the roots of the current situation. That is also why Gandhi’s name has invited flak in recent times. However, be it positive or negative, things will change in times to come. More are striving to understand our political and cultural history,” said a historian at Triplicane on condition of anonymity.