Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Under the flagpole

This building, on a street off TTK Road, is quite unremarkable but for the contrast it provides to its more modern neighbours. But it is also unique in being probably the only house in the neighbourhood that has a flagpole in the front yard. And under that thulasi plant near the flagpole is something that makes this building one of the very few, not just in Chennai but across India, hallowed grounds of independent India.

The building houses the "Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam", that name paying homage to the "two fathers" of Ambujammal, the lady after whom the street is named. Her biological father was S. Srinivasa Iyengar, a highly respected lawyer who in 1920 returned his CIE and resigned his position as Law Member on the Governor's Executive Council in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Though Srinivasa Iyengar left the Congress owing to his differences with Mohandas Gandhi, he did not in any way thwart his daughter, fired by the vision of the Mahatma, following him ardently, or oppose her claim that Gandhiji was her foster father.

Ambujammal established the Srinivasa Gandhi Nilayam in homage to both her fathers. That was the platform for her to throw herself into social work, continuing her contributions from the mid 1920s right into the 1960s, as the Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board from 1961 to 1964. The Nilayam was the place where Gandhiji's followers in Madras would meet and decide ways to further his programmes in the city and the state. Whenever Gandhiji would go on a fast, there would be prayer sessions conducted at the Nilayam. Such a profound connection with the man ended with his assassination in 1948. But wait, the connection continues. You see, a portion of the Mahatma's ashes was brought here and interred under the thulasi plant you see. No wonder then, this is a place of pilgrimage even today for anyone claiming to be a Gandhian!

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