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School-life Memories

Of Gandhi I Never Met & Godse I Saw & Shunned

The pavement bookseller near Hamilton House in Connaught Place is known to me for many years. Jain saab, as I address him, keeps an impressive stock of books and offers attractive discounts. The other day, he volunteered to sell me a book at the cheaper price. “This book has good demand,” he claimed.

He handed me a copy of the book. “Why I Assassinated Gandhi?” By Nathuram Godse. As I held the book in my hand, memories came flooding my mind. I was born 13 years after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet in Delhi. Yet, I grew up feeling a strong bond with the great man, thanks to my surroundings.

I had spent my formative years in an area in the National Capital which bears footprints of Mahatma Gandhi. At Mandir Marg (previously Reading Road), near Gole Market, where I was a student of the Raisina Bengali School. there was Gandhi on my right, on my left, and to my front. Why, even at the back of the school. To live without Gandhi was impossible.

As one comes down the huge staircases of my school, barely 500 yards on the left is the Valmiki Mandir where Gandhi stayed from April 1, 1946 to June 10, 1947. The surrounding area used to be the Harijan Colony. Gandhi had deliberately chosen to stay there to send out his message of fighting untouchability.  He would teach the Harijan kids regularly.

So serious a teacher Gandhi was that the number of students in his makeshift school increased day by day. Students from Paharganj and Irwin Road would come down to attend his morning classes. Later in the day, Gandhi would meet Lord Mountbatten, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad,  Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – Frontier Gandhi — and other top leaders at the same place. The Harijan Colony had then seen history being made.

During our school days, we would often walk past the Valmiki Mandir. Sometimes we would walk in casually. We were too young to become conscious students of history. But we knew a great man had left his mark around this rather nondescript temple.

There is other side of the story, too. The Same Mandir Marg had the office of the Hindu Maha Sabha that had opposed Gandhi and the freedom movement. The conspiracy to kill Gandhi was, we learnt later, was hatched there.

I once saw a man walking down. In his late forties, there was hardly anything special about his appearance. But a senior student told me he was Gopal Godse, younger brother of Nathuram. One of the conspirators convicted in Gandhi assassination case, he .spent many years in prison.

He was then perhaps staying at Hindu Maha Sabha, situated 500 yards away to the right of my school. I remember moving to the other side of the road when I knew his identity. I still don’t know why I did it.

Adjacent to Hindu Maha Sabha is the Harcourt Butler School. Then comes the gigantic Laxminarayan Temple, popularly known as Birla Mandir (since the House of Birla has made big donations). It had the unmistakable touch of Gandhi. He had agreed to inaugurate the temple in 1939 on the condition that people of all castes would be allowed to enter the temple and pray.

The temple was part of our school lives. We would visit it often, not to offer prayers, but play in the big garden. The artificial caves that were part of the architecture were ideal for a game of hide-and-seek.

Mandir Marg is like a consortium of schools and temples. Schools catered to English, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil medium students. Temples included those of Goddess Kali, a Buddhist Vihara, the Valmiki and Laxminarayan. It was truly pan-India culture we grew up in.

Behind these all buildings lies the Central Ridge Reserve Forest. People feared going there earlier. But in the 1960s and 1970s, entering the Ridge was never an issue. We would often walk through the Ridge to go to the markets in Karol Bagh area.

A teacher once told us the Italian Beretta M1934 semi-automatic pistol that was used to assassinate Father of the Nation was tested in uninhabited Ridge Forest behind our school.
With that began execution of the conspiracy hatched at many places, over a long period.

The would-be assassins needed a place to stay. And that, too, was not far from our school.

The road in front of our school leads straight to Connaught place, a distance of less than two kilometer. As the road ends, almost bang opposite is the iconic Marina Hotel, now renamed Radisson Blu Marina Hotel.

Here on January 20, 1948, Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte chalked out minute details of the sinister plot that they executed 10 days later.

According to Vivek Shukla, the writer of the fascinating book, “Gandhi’s Delhi” (Anuugya Books), Bapu never visited Connaught Place. When he launched Quit India movement, several British-owned shops were torched by agitators.

Shukla’s book is a must read for those who live in Delhi. And still believe in history. Not in the frequently-forwarded hate-filled social media messages.

I was deep in thought when the bookseller asked me whether I would buy the book authored by Narthuram Godse. Without a word, I returned the Godse book. Instead I bought a suspense novel. by Mary Higgins Clark, one of my favourites among American thriller writers.

Satisfied with the bargain I made, I walked back to my office on Parliament Street. On the way I thought over my action. I felt that I did not need to know why Godse assassinated the Mahatma. I found the very thought repulsive.

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Jaydeep Basu is a veteran journalist who wrote on sports and games for The Hindustan Times and The Telegraph

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