Tribute to the Sardar

HERITAGE

Tribute to the Sardar

It’s easy to miss the palatial building. And most do miss, rushing on their way to the airport in Ahmedabad. Inside the building lay memorabilia of the man to whom modern India owes its very shape, its political geography. It is the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Memorial.

I crossed the garden path, carefully evading the two peacocks engrossed in pecking from the grass, and walked up the wide flight of stairs to the porch. I was late and the Memorial was already closed for the day. Disappointed, I looked around and found a slit in a door to a side-room. I sneaked in. It was an office room, and a young man was busy locking everything up for the day. He froze at my sudden intrusion. I beamed an ear-to-ear smile and played an emotional card, “Coming all the way from Bangalore.”
Nimeshbhai, that was his name, took a couple of seconds to gather his thoughts, smiled back, picked up a thick bunch of keys and said, “Aaiyee mere saath.”

He opened a door of the main building and I entered a hall, translucent in the fading evening light, which filtered through the window panes beyond the hall. Tak-tak-tak-tak and the lights came out at Nimeshbhai’s tapping at the switchboard. And a large dark bust of Sardar Patel suddenly came to light, and to life, just a few feet away, looking straight at me. For a moment, I froze. And in that immobilised state had the epiphany — why the Sardar was called the ‘Iron Man.’

Standing yonder, Nimeshbhai was still smiling, but this time I caught in it a faint mischief. Did he catch me startled? To avoid his eyes, I looked up and the high ceiling with its diamond-shaped designs gazed down at me from its exalted height.

While I beheld the ceiling, Nimeshbhai said, “This is the durbar hall of Shahibaugh Palace. And this palace has an interesting history.” “Tell me,” I said.

Before Shahibaugh Palace became the National Memorial of Sardar Patel in 1980, it had a few stellar associations. Moghul prince Khurram, who was yet to become the famed Shah Jahan, was the Suba, the governor of the region. Faced with severe drought in 1618, he ordered the construction of the palace to provide employment. The red sandstone building came up with two imposing bastions flanking the first storey amid a seven acre garden. But a quirk of fate intervened. On the appointed day, the entrance gate proved too low for the royal elephant with its royal sawari to pass through. The Moghul prince could never step into the palace he built.

“This is truly interesting,” I said, as we both laughed at the royal fate. “There’s more,” he replied. “I’m listening,” I said.

A good 250 years later, a dreamy-eyed teenager of 17 came to visit his elder brother, the magistrate of Ahmedabad, of whom this was the official residence. Young Rabindranath Tagore penned his romantic novel Khudito Pashan (Hungry Stones) while staying here. In Tagore’s own words, “…It was while spending the nights on the terrace that I wrote the first song set to music by me.”

The hall and adjoining rooms form the Patel Memorial with statues, portraits, artefacts and letters. I marvelled at the cartoons of Sardar Patel, several of them. I had never associated Sardar Patel with cartoons, and they threw a new light on the persona of the Iron Man. Photographs of different stages of his life filled the walls. Some are iconic, with Gandhi and Nehru and Subhas, at critical junctures of Indian history. The clothes and chappals have their pride of place on a shelf. “What are those?” I asked, pointing at two aluminium pitchers, which looked out of place. Nimeshbhai laughed aloud. “Those are lotas that Sardar used while in jail. He demanded them from the jailor on his release. They obliged.”

When I finally came out of the hall, it was dark outside. Nimeshbhai chaperoned me to an adjoining room, a library on Sardar Patel, and handed me several booklets.
“How much do I pay for these?” I asked. Nimeshbhai smiled and said, “Service to the Nation. That’s the only price Sardar Patel demands.”

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