From the metro stop renamed Lok Kalyan Marg, we reach the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which is also undergoing a makeover because the current government thinks it has to. At the roundabout right before the gate stand three statues that give Teen Murti Bhavan its name. They represent lance-wielding soldiers from Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore, commemorated for their part in the first world war. Their old name has been erased too. The junction is now Haifa Chowk.
We wander through Teen Murti to meet its inhabitants and take a plunge into its history in case we’re about to lose it soon. Here’s our route:
Set behind vast lawns with peafowl as permanent adornments, this is currently undergoing “renovation.” Zigzagging over a staircase brings us to a lightly stocked bookstore. There’s something to be said for restocking your library with a copy of Discovery of India bought in its author’s home; but it’s a far cry from the former PM’s own bookshelves. (At least five toddlers exclaimed over the sheer number of books in the PM’s study when we were there.)
It’s not hard to see why Teen Murti Bhavan is such a bone of contention: it’s the most splendid house in Lutyens Delhi after Rashtrapati Bhavan. Just as that august palace went from representing empire to republic, TMB was supposed to be a sign of the new reinvigorating the old: it was formerly ‘Flagstaff House,’ home of the British Indian Army’s Commander in Chief. British men continued to head the Indian Army in the first couple of years after independence, so it became especially important to underline the change - the world had to know that democratically elected Indians were in charge.
The Young Nehru Exhibit
An introduction to the conundrum that haunts the subcontinent - the connection to a lost homeland. “We were Kashmiris,” declares an extract from Nehru’s autobiography, framed and hung up as the first exhibit. (Their surname, a neologism coined well after the family had come down from the mountains to Delhi, itself came into everyday usage only in Jawaharlal’s time: his father was usually addressed as “Pandit Motilal” in his day-to-day interactions.)
Find in the exhibit a baby Nehru in a fancy stroller; relics of his education in England; an invitation to his wedding to Kamala Kaul in Delhi in 1916; an adorable three year old Swarup Kumari Nehru, whom we know as Vijayalakshmi Pandit, leaning on her teenage big brother, a gangly brooding boy. It’s one of the last pictures in which he has an intact hairline.
Nehru was prime minister for the last seventeen years of his life, and the first seventeen of India’s. He often said in his speeches that they lived “in revolutionary days.” When they voted on making his residence a museum of his life and work it was because they believed that more than any other single person in the republic, it was his story that encapsulated the promise and the struggle of the new nation.
It’s another matter that TMB is big enough to hold a museum and archive as well as serve as the PM’s official residence, which it was supposed to do. Nehru, even though he often grew irritated with the place and once tried to leave it, never dreamed he would be its last occupant. But that history comes after his time.
A pillar-lined verandah drawing in the pleasant October breeze returns us to 2018. Here, tourists take selfies with the summer and winter dress of Chacha Nehru, both with silken roses pinned to them. It leads on to the elegant room where he lived and died between 1948 - he moved there after Gandhi passed away - and 1964. You’ll want to sink into the massive chairs of the study, but good luck: the living quarters are preserved behind glass.
It may all seem forbidding, but Nehru actually loved the idea of the house as a public institution. The very year he moved in, he made a note to a secretary saying that he’d like Delhi’s schoolchildren to come over and use the gardens on any afternoon there wasn’t an official function at the house. “They might send some previous intimation by telephone.”
The Other Exhibits
Between galleries with photos and news-clippings of Nehru’s career before independence and after, a new exhibit pops up. ‘The Pathfinders’ is about former PMs Atal Bihari Vajpayee and PV Narsimha Rao. Three LCD TVs play Vajpayee’s Parliament speeches. As per the curator’s display, it was supposed to wrap up by January 25, 2018. But, like recurring news stories of ministers not vacating their official bungalows after they’ve been voted out, the show’s mysteriously over-stayed by eight months. Many see it as a trial-run for the proposed new museum of Prime Ministers on the Teen Murti premises.
The Locked Door:
After our crash course in the creation of the Indian state, we crash into a bolted door. Behind it is a recreation of Parliament’s Central Hall with life-size statues of the leaders as audio of the ‘tryst with destiny’ speech plays. One staff member says it’s shut “because of renovation”. His colleague says its because of ‘The Pathfinders’ exhibition that is laid against the exit door of this exhibit-room. No one knows when it’ll be opened again.
The stars in its sky are the stuff of school picnics, but as grown-ups, we enjoy eavesdropping on its earthly bodies this time around. This is the sort of place where water-cooler conversations are made up of what planets are visible in the sky presently (Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, these days, we learn). Non-nerds, “you can seek help from the educator who sits here,” said a young staffer, pointing in the northwest direction from the entrance. “Else to our director, Dr N Ratnashree,” pointing in her direction, as she discusses the ongoing renovations with her colleagues.
A small side-room here is dedicated to Nehru’s efforts to get the public interested in science (because he was a huge nerd). Find here photos of talks with school kids, records of his inaugurating academic institutions, and press shots with scientists, including Einstein. Some of the stuff is more personal: doodles of his prison compound with direction labels; an explanation of the solar system to 10-year-old “Indu” in a letter, also written from jail.
We never realised what an unusually engaging experience with science this place was during those kiddie picnics. As we step out, we notice that we owe our thanks to the The Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund that funded this space, which itself has been shown the door out of the Teen Murti premises, recently.
The Mediaeval Relics
The grey rubble outer walls of the Planetarium seem like remnants from another era. The meat of this body is Kushak Mahal, a hunting lodge built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century, which stands adjacent to the P. It’s an outlier here, with a steep staircase that leads to three arched gateways whose heads are stroked by an ancient neem tree. The forests are gone, but three sides are still framed by lovely old. Note: Explorations of the locked underground dungeon on the empty premises may be broken by sharp noises. Our interruptor was a peahen, but who knows what yours will be?
The evening air is cool, and occasion for chai and snacks before the canteen closes at 5:30 pm. From 9am onwards, it serves dosa, chole bhature, rajma chawal, samosa, maggi, parantha, etc. Diners may sometimes have the pleasure of the company of the resident monkey families. Behind the canteen, a creek leads to the back lawns of the museum, where a dreamy staircase offers the perfect place to sit down with a cup of tea.
Nehru would have loved this - although he was picky about food - and also probably been thankful he didn’t have to foot the bills himself; his hospitable habits meant the family ran up big housekeeping bills, many of which were only cleared annually, when royalties from his books came in from abroad. KA Abbas, the filmmaker, once wrote of how Nehru invited him to breakfast, but hesitated a moment when asked to host the entire cast and crew of his film. He had to call his daughter to ask, quietly, “Do we have cereal and eggs for all these people?” before agreeing whole-heartedly.
A popular guy, he couldn’t always feed everyone: another note to a secretary complains about the number of people assigned to his security and related staff - a running complaint in his life - because he once tried to organise sweets for everyone on Holi, and then couldn’t because it meant he would have to feed 300 people.
NMM’s L is an imposing building that never appears crowded. The catch: apart from its auditorium, which hosts an array of lectures, seminars and book launches: membership is open only to “bona fide researchers and journalists and not to general public,” says the senior library information assistant. This is a bummer for those without bonafides: it holds approximately 3 lakh books, 2 lakh pictures of visual archives that date back to Nehru’s own childhood (which was in the late nineteenth century) and a recent collection of 50,000 pictures donated by former PM Manmohan Singh from his personal collection. A manuscript division stocks vital correspondences and even personal archives.
No other place speaks the isolation of academic life better than the L’s microfilm division and its pin-drop silence. We clear our throat; the library assistant instantly appears from behind some distant bookshelf, to explain the science of microfilm preservation. “Microfilm can last up to 500 years if preserved at 20 degrees Celsius.” Here, they have 26,000 microfilm rolls and 56,000 microfiche plates in archives (each plate, the size of a postcard can carry about 80 pages of a book, he tells us).
We are allowed to cradle history in our hands: a microfilm archive of India’s oldest newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, started in 1780. There are more treasures in the deeps: the papers and “letters of Ambedkar, Savarkar, Gandhi, and many others.” The present may speak with one voice, but the past has many, especially in this place.
Getting there: Teen Murti Bhavan, Haifa Chowk, 9am-5pm. Monday closed.
This story was contributed by Akshita Nagpal, a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Supriya Nair contributed additional research.
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