Govt must step in to save Homi Bhabha's last asset

Govt must step in to save Homi Bhabha's last asset

We are a nation with a short memory and shorter respect for our nation builders. Dr Homi Bhabha was a legendary figure who laid the foundation for the development of nuclear energy in the country.

 ‘Mehrangir,’ Dr Bhabha’s home for a number of years in the heart of Mumbai (then Bombay), is about to be auctioned by the officials of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), to the highest bidder, in utter disregard of the heritage nature of the place. Some last minute efforts are on to save it, but it remains to be seen whether they will succeed.

Dr Jamshad Bhabha, Dr Homi Bhabha’s younger brother, bequeathed the house along with many priceless articles such as clocks, textiles, rare rugs and carpets, silverware, glass and pottery and antique furniture and paintings to NCPA. NCPA sold most of the movable assets.

 “Our various sources of income are definitely not enough to help us manage our daily operations or scale them up. The proceeds from Dr Bhabha’s estate auction will enable us to achieve our mission of promoting and preserving the performing arts,” Khushroo Suntook, chairman, NCPA told reporters recently.

“... He was born at Kenilworth at Peddar Road, a building which the Atomic Bhabha Centre razed and developed again.” Suntook told a newspaper. Dr Homi Bhabha himself ensured that the government purchased this prime property and erected its staff quarters there.

 Contractors completed the construction of Kenilworth in 1962-63. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) allotted the flats on April 1, 1964, nearly two years before Bhabha’s death. 

A critic, sympathetic to NCPA, wrongly argued that Homi Bhabha spent only a few years in Mehrangir. He asserted that Bhabha was overseas when his parents bought the house and later he spent a lot of time in Delhi. But as a matter of fact, Bhabha never lived in Delhi.

He prevailed on Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru to ensure that the DAE is headquartered in Bombay. Bhabha’s family moved in to Mehrangir on March 16, 1939.

 Homi lived with his parents and Jamshad when he came back from Cambridge in 1939. During1945-1966, Dr Homi Bhabha lived in Mehrangir.

This writer has copies of letters from Homi’s mother Mrs Meherbai Bhabha, T T Krishnamachari, Sri Prakasa, Miss Lucille Kach, Capt K K Lalkaka and 15 other post marked envelopes addressed to Homi in the Mehrangir address.

Bhabha demonstrated to the world, how a country which had only soaps and electric transformers as industrial products in 1947 could achieve self sufficiency in nuclear technology. Only a handful of countries have achieved such all round developments in that area.

On March 19, 2014 the Atomic Energy Workers’ and Staff Union, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, unanimously resolved to approach the appropriate authority to initiate action for halting the process of auction. The Union wanted DAE to initiate the process for acquisition of the residence. Appeal for a museum

On April 2, 2014, the National Federation of Atomic Energy Employees appealed to the Government of India to initiate steps to stop the auction immediately and start the process to convert it as an International Museum for Science Education.
The federation stated that the staff or pensioners shall contribute one day’s or more days’ salary or pension to the cause. This writer believes that the museum can very well be in memory of both Homi and Jamshad who complimented each other remarkably. “Having a museum and a monument is only useful for historians,” a supporter of NCPA’s scheme argued.

The inspiration and feeling of pride the compatriots receive while visiting a museum and a monument dedicated to someone who influenced the whole generation of scientists and young people cannot be counted in terms of their cash value.

 “The colonial stereotype that was prevalent about Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries was that we were a people without history.

I have often wondered if we have imbibed this stereotype and made it so much our own that we do not hesitate to destroy the past. The bid to sell Bhabha's house is one more instance of seeing ourselves as people without history.” Dr Indira Chowdhury of the Centre for Public History and co-author of “A Masterful Spirit: Homi J Bhabha 1909-1966,” asserted in an email message.

“In any other country, the government or a philanthropic organisation would have stepped in to purchase and preserve Bhabha’s house so that indifferent persons do not reduce this part of our heritage to rubble.
 I hope I am wrong about the way we have embraced this colonial stereotype and something will be done to outbid the claims of real estate developers so this priceless piece of our past can be saved,” she criticised the NCPA’s move.

To the real estate developers Mehrangir is just a plot of area 17,150 sq.ft with an FSI of 1.33. The building does not exist! For the profit-seekers, the current market value of the estate is about Rs 600 crore if not more.

Two independent petitioners have filed a PIL before the Bombay high court requesting the court’s direction to the NCPA to stop the auction. The petition was mentioned before the bench of Chief Justice Mohit Shah and Justice M S Sonak on Tuesday and the court posted the hearing for June 23, refused to stay the auction scheduled for June 18.

 The court said that even if the auction takes place before the next hearing, it can be revoked, if required.

Every blade of grass and grain of sand in Mehrangir have a story to tell: The story of how one of the greatest sons of India lived here, received dignitaries such as Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prince Philip among others, planned and executed from here a technological and scientific enterprise which became the envy of the world. The government must save Mehrangir for future generations. 

(The writer is former Raja Ramanna fellow, Department of Atomic Energy)